In the spirit of Wimbledon, which began this week, I present a short story I wrote a decade ago, but have recently updated. Enjoy. And get out there and play tennis this summer.
The harem’s squeals of delight broke Chet’s concentration. The ninety seconds were up and Chet arose from the bench and walked out onto the court twirling the Kramer. His opponent delayed a few extra seconds, blew a kiss to the harem, and then sauntered out to receive Chet’s serve and end the match in five minutes. He did not seem to notice Chet was now playing with a wooden tennis racket although a few spectators did, and the phenomenon produced a few text messages and Instagram posts.
Chet tossed the ball into the air and served. He framed the shot and the ball caromed into the fence. He heard some laughter from the bleachers. Then he did not hear anything. Just let go, Chet thought. Let go of everything. “Let it happen” the book counseled at least a dozen times, every one of them underlined in Chet’s copy. Some forlorn player had been here before, where Chet was now, but that was thirty years ago and tennis with wood was long gone, never to return. Chet bounced the ball three times for his second serve. He was aware of his breathing and the overcast Oregon sky. A great calm descended over him, within him, and he let go. He let everything go, bounced the ball two more times and began his service motion. The serve snaked into his opponent’s backhand and a soft return came back, just past the service line to Chet’s forehand. Chet wound up, opened up his stance, and clearly showed his opponent he was going to hit big up the line, going for a winner. This was a brazen challenge. His opponent started moving to accept it, Chet swung without thinking, the Kramer swished through the breeze, the ball met a sweet spot roughly the size of a silver dollar, and the result was the most beautiful sound Chet had ever heard and a sound not heard around the complex in more than two decades.
Chet’s forehand drive landed at the intersection of the up and back lines and bounded into the fence. His opponent never got his racket on it. He did not even bother swinging. He followed the ball as it blew by him and then turned sharply to look at Chet. Their eyes met.
“Sure it was.”
“It was out.”
“You are now conscious. I am not.”
Love-15. Chet cut the next first serve into his opponent’s backhand again. A deep yet slow return floated to Chet’s backhand, and his opponent charged the net for the first time in the match. Sprinting to his left, Chet uncorked a two-handed backhand lob that arced and spun and then suddenly dropped out of the sky and down over his opponent’s head like a bird shot in flight. Geometry refuted. He never raised his racket for an overhead. Some applause went up from the bleachers and the grassy knoll behind the court. 15-all. More text messages. Instagram was alive. The apricot midriffs were concerned.
Chet blasted a serve up the line and came in behind it. His opponent rocketed a backhand return that dipped over the middle of the net and headed straight for Chet’s feet. Chet watched the ball’s flight, and on a dead run, executed a dancing forehand drop volley that cleared the net by an inch and rolled to a stop at the service line for a winner. 30-15. Louder applause. More social media blasts.
The next point took twelve minutes, a baseline rally of epic French Open proportions. By the time Chet finally won the point on a topspin forehand drilled up the line that his opponent stopped running down halfway through his pursuit, several hundred people had made their way to the court to witness the novelty of someone playing with a wooden racket and hitting shots they had never seen before. 40-15.
Chet won the next point and the game when his opponent hit a forehand six feet long. A game later, he broke his opponent’s serve at love. One of the rallies went fifty-five hits. Love-6, 2-5. Changeover. Chet skipped to the bench, sat down, and took a long drink from the milk jug. His opponent stood directly over him.
“What are you doing with that racket?”
“That you have asked me that question is the answer.”
Love-6, 4-5. Changeover.
Someone shook the fence behind Chet. He turned around and saw a teenage boy he had never seen before filming him with his phone. “Dude, I am shooting this! It is going to be a fucking YouTube classic! “The Return of the Wood” is what I am going to call it. Say something to the camera.”
Chet reached down and picked up The Inner Game of Tennis. He opened it to the last page and read the last two sentences. They were circled in thick red ink. “He plays the rest of the game in the increasing joy of expressing with love his unique humanness, and in accordance with his own given talents and circumstances. He is free.”
Love-6, 6-5. Changeover.
Chet walked over to the fence. The harem had disappeared except for one girl. She was talking on her phone. Chet asked her if he could borrow it and make one quick call. It was important. She agreed and Chet called Tricia.
She answered on the first ring.
“Do you want to meet after the match, at the Dairy Queen? I am going into the third set in a few minutes and then can meet you for dinner.”
“I see you right now. Look up the hill, next to the tree.”
Chet looked and saw Tricia waving to him as she moved toward the court.
“You have a very interesting match going. What about the new racket?”
“I will tell you at the Dairy Queen.”
“I am buying.”
Love-6, 7-5, 1-love. Changeover. Mr. Love was smiling at the fence. Chet went up to him and held up the Kramer and smiled back.
“How long have you been here?”
“I came in at the moment of your resurrection. By the way, you get an “A” on the presentation and forget the paper. Did you ever find out about the last winner of a Grand Slam tournament to use wood?”
“I think it was John McEnroe for men at Wimbledon in 1981 and Chris Evert at the French Open in 1983.”
“A+. And keep lobbing him down the middle with topspin.”
Chet told Mr. Love thanks for coming to the match and then jogged out onto the court. He could not remember if it was his serve or not. It hardly mattered. The Oregon sky appeared as if it might rain. That did not matter either. Five-hundred spectators crowded around the court. Chet took no notice. He was free.