By Dan Brotzel
Thursday was social tennis night at Sean’s club. After some peremptory bed-farewells and a tough Q&A session with the kids — ‘Why are your glasses on a string, daddy?’ ‘Why do you take five bats?’ ‘Is that headband really appropriate?’— he was out the door by 5 past seven, and throwing his giant Nadal-inspired Babolat bag (actually capable of carrying up to 12 rackets) into the back of his profoundly unsexy but deeply practical Kangoo. (Or Kangaroo, as the kids liked to call it.)
Play started around 7.30pm, but some of the first and second teamers got there earlier to be sure of a more competitive knock. Sean liked to do the same, and by club protocol they were duty-bound to include him. After negotiating a rather large pile of empties and cardboard boxes by the club-house door, Sean knelt down to execute a few approximate pilates-style postures that he was pretty sure were actually making his lower back pain worse. Then he clicked the catch of the chain-link door as subtly as he could and sidled into the empty spot of a four on Court 1, where he tried to look assured as the balls began to fizz past him or bent his racket back at the net.
Sean was a very modestly gifted player, a member of the Men’s Seventh Team in a lively club with seven men’s teams. Though he secretly believed he was nearer Fifth Team level or even, on a good day, Fourth, the team selection process seemed really rather political, and he knew he would have to do his hard yards in the lower divisions until such time as his talents were recognised and he got the call to move up.
The Seventh Team — along with many of the teams it played — was a motley collection of the very young and the rather old, the bandaged and the crocked, the strapped-up and the visually impaired. And at this level, many of them actually rather looked up to Sean.
For one thing, Sean had a forehand return of serve that was virtually unplayable so long as (a) the ball landed exactly where he needed it to, (b) he managed to connect with it properly and not send it pinging bounce-less against the back fence, and (c) his opponent was not familiar with Sean’s need to attempt a down-the-line passing shot on every possible occasion. There were quite a few variables here, but it looked good when it worked, and Toby had seen it once. ‘I say!’ Sean had heard him remark from the clubhouse.
Sean was a deft little imp at the net, a man whose wittily unexpected reverse-angle shots often left weaker opponents wrong-footed, even when they didn’t go over. He hit his overheads with a late tentacular action that made good use of the racket frame and was very effective except when it wasn’t (typical comment: ‘I didn’t think you were even going to try and hit that!’). He was a dogged chaser after net cords and short drops and lost causes, and liked to run up to the net looking to your left but sending the ball to your right — another tactic that only lost its effectiveness once you realised that he did it every single time.
Sean generally hit the ball very hard. He ran round on to his forehand whenever possible, having only sliced ruses and ramshackle swattings where his backhand should have been. A confidence player, he was capable of missing a shot from anywhere on court, while his serving veered wildly from triple double-fault to ace in the course of a single game (as he liked to joke, ‘I never know where it’s going so I don’t see how my opponent can!’). He was an inveterate poacher, a helpless choker, and a notorious hitter of balls smack at the player standing at the net — a lawful if unsportsmanlike tactic which he feared people muttered about.
He was working hard on his shit-to-champagne ratio. When Pauline bought him two lessons with the club’s Belgian coach Jean-Luc, Sean discovered that for 25 years he’d been gripping his racket wrong on both forehand and backhand. This meant that whenever he played a ground stroke now, he had to (a) remember how not to do it, so he could unlearn his bad habit; (b) remember to apply the new correct grip on top; and then (c) look on in despair as all that thinking made him too late for the ball and it ballooned into the top of the net yet again. ‘Stop thinking!’ he would scream at himself. Or: ‘Legs! Where were you?’
Yet secretly – so secretly he barely admitted it to his secret self – Sean continued to believe that he would improve and one day excel at the sport in a way worthy of public accolade. ‘You are a man who wants to get better. You have good ideas. You have… courtcraft. And this I like,’ Jean-Claude had said with great seductive seriousness at the end of their first lesson. (’I bet he does,’ said Paula afterwards. ‘Did he say you need more lessons by any chance?’ ‘I think you’re missing the point,’ replied Sean, who’d had no idea that courtcraft was even a word, let alone that he might himself be blessed with any, and had secretly signed up for another dozen one-to-one sessions already.)
‘Evening Sean!’ called Dominic impassively. ‘Good God!’ he said, eyeballing the rubbish pile. Dominic was a good ten years older than Sean, somewhere in his mid to late fifties. He was a veteran of hundreds of league matches and had a way of playing that enabled him to keep on competing hard in spite of his advancing years. His game was all drop shots, flat, surprising wide-angled serves, and canny spins and disguises, and he always partnered up with a super-fit late adolescent, whom he used like a cricket runner to do all his legwork. The youngster, in turn, learned matchplay and strategy from Dominic, in a relationship that was positively Grecian.
‘Evening Dom! I know!’ said Sean, rolling his eyes in sycophantic agreement at the piles of recycling but remembering too late, shit, that he liked to be called Dominic. Though Sean had been at the club three years, Dominic had not recognised him for the first two. But last week in the bar, Sean had actually had a conversation with him. This was itself something of a compliment, as the better players tended only to socialise among themselves. Dom had flattered Sean with a lengthy explanation of how pleased he was to have switched to a two-handed grip.
‘It gives you so much more flexibility and disguise. But still,’ said Dom suavely, ‘there’s nothing more satisfying than pulling off a pure, classic, one-handed swishy backhand.’
‘Oh absolutely,’ said Sean, who had never managed one in his life.
As they talked, Sean had even got a hello from Toby, the club captain. Toby was effortlessly self-confident both on and off court, with a grand, plummy manner that made him a natural leader, and a sliced backhand approach worth sacrificing children for. He was also a theatre agent and married to an award-winning tapestry artist who was reportedly extremely famous in international tapestry art circles.
‘Ah, Sean,’ said Toby, briefly holding him with his golden gaze. ‘That was some sterling stuff out on court today. I love how you really leave it all out there! Remind me — I must have a word with you some time.’ And before Sean could scream, ‘Why not NOW please, Toby!’ he had shimmered off into the crowd, blessing members with a word here, a pat on the back there, and even sharing a few full sentences with his playing equals.
Sean secretly divided all club members into Players and Wombats, a dubious epithet from the playgrounds of his childhood. Players were all decent, solid, consistent performers at the very least; to be partnering or playing against any of these on a social doubles night was to be guaranteed a learning experience and a decent set’s play. Wombats were everyone else — the women who played endless high loopy shots from one baseline to the other, the old boys with frying-pan serves, the juniors who insisted on smashing everything. These were the people who screamed in terror at an unexpected bounce, who stood and watched balls admiringly that they could have been chasing, and who had so little core of technique to fall back on that they had to re-invent every shot from back-twisting, limb-contorting, tongue-extending scratch.
Natural Seventh Teamers or worse. Not like Sean at all.
That evening, and despite arriving early, Sean had again ended up – by a clandestine process of nods and winks whose workings always eluded him – stranded in a Wombat four. There was Val, a woman who flinched when the ball came near her; Rhys, a lively ten-year-old who’d be a good player once he could see over the net; and Vernon, Rhys’s dad, who had some nice strokes but was about as mobile as a Subbuteo footballer, and looked really quite cross if you hit the ball somewhere he had to move his legs for.
At one point, Rhys chipped one up and Sean ran in and smashed the volley away, very hard, narrowly missing the little lad, and perhaps also uttering a very small warlike grunt as he did so. The ball made that proper gunshot sound that signalled a pure, hard contact, and the youngster flinched and recoiled sharply. Sean looked round to discover that everyone else had witnessed this, across the club’s six courts, because they all seemed to be exchanging knowing chuckles and quips he couldn’t quite follow. He was left with that odd out-of-body feeling you get when (a) everyone else knows exactly why something is funny and you don’t, (b) you are clearly the source of the amusement, and (c) your evident confusion about (a) and (b) is somehow only adding to the joke for everyone else.
The shot had been a fine winner, but somehow he had been ridiculous, he sensed. But he didn’t really care. For a golden hour or so, he had forgotten to think about work. And here was Toby now.
‘Splendid inside-out swing volley just there, old boy,’ said Toby. ‘You’re really leaving it out there on the court today!’
‘I wish!’ said Sean, all a-flutter. ‘Thanks, Toby.’ For god’s sake. Why just you just ask if you can smear yourself with his used swat band and be done with it?
‘I’ve been meaning to ask you actually, Sean…’
‘Yes, Toby?’ Don’t be too keen. Breathe, man. Breathe.
‘I notice you’ve got that van thing there…’
‘The Kangaroo? Well, yes, Toby. It’s not exactly a sexy vehicle but it’s certainly very practical.’ Of course! He’s going to put me up to the Fifth Team and ask if I can drive everyone to the away matches!
‘Yes,’ said Toby. ‘I imagine it’s quite the workhorse.’ He looked around him. ‘We seem to have a lot of drinkers in the club these days.’
‘That’s OK, Toby!’ said. ‘I’m always happy to be the designated driver…’ The players always had a drink or three with the opposing team after a league match.
‘You’ve really got quite a lot of room in there.’ Oh yes, Toby! Plenty of room for all those chunky racket bags… ‘Yes – I think you are just the man.’ Christ. Maybe it’s… the Fourth Team?!?
‘Whatever you need, Toby!’ Just keep breathing…
‘Excellent… Would you mind taking away a couple of sacks of recycling? It’s just the Council want to charge us 40 quid for the privilege.’
‘I’d be… happy to,’ said Sean, breathing out hard as Toby sailed off to exchange a braying witticism with a fellow Player. As the conversation at the bar turned to the upcoming French Open and the wonderfully breathable wicking of the new PlayBrave range, Sean began loading the first of several bags of flattened cardboard and empty J20 bottles into the capacious interior of his deeply unglamorous but wonderfully workmanlike Renault Wombat.
About the Author: Dan Brotzel is the author of a collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack and a novel, The Wolf in the Woods (both from Sandstone Press). He is also co-author of a comic novel, Work in Progress (Unbound). Sign up for news at www.danbrotzel.com