My Year of Yes: On Falling in Love with Competitive Tennis at Age 41
Scarlett Thomas Considers Her Newfound Passion for the Sport
The day after I win the Indoor Tennis Centre Christmas Tournament 2013, my first tennis competition at age 41, I am in London for my new literary agency’s party. One of my best friends, the novelist David Flusfeder, has like me recently defected to this agency. We meet in a pub beforehand and I tell him about my win, and what it means to me. He’s not that sporty, but he gets it. After a couple of glasses of wine, he asks me whether I would rather win the Nobel Prize for Literature or score the winning goal in the FA Cup.
“You first,” I say.
“But there’s no question for me,” he says.
“What, the Nobel?”
“No,” he says, “the goal. I’d much rather score the goal.”
He doesn’t even play football, as far as I know. He’s more likely to be found in a casino in Las Vegas taking part in a poker championship.
“I don’t play football,” I say. “I’m not sure I even like it.”
“What about winning Wimbledon then?” he says.
Oh God. What indeed? What about that? Well, still the Nobel, right?
But when I ask people over the next few days and weeks, everyone—great feminists, choristers, academics, editors—chooses the FA Cup goal. A couple of them, Rod included, have to have it upgraded to the winning goal in the World Cup, but still choose the goal. But everyone in my family chooses the Nobel.
It is 12:45 pm on January 11, 2014. The match begins at 1:00 pm. I am standing on Court Four in the cold, hard, green emptiness of the Indoor Tennis Centre, entirely alone. I am wearing Stella McCartney for Adidas. I have painted my fingernails dark pink to artfully clash with my bright red shoes. I have taped my probably infected toe and put Band-Aids on the worst pressure points on each foot. My black Adidas bag is packed with knee braces, spare sweatbands, electrolyte pills, magnesium spray, arnica gel, more Band-Aids, chocolate, water, and more ibuprofen than you could safely ingest in a week. I have been warming up in the gym for the last half hour, listening to uplifting music, or my idea of uplifting music: mainly The The and clubby, drug-reference-heavy stuff from the early 1990s. I spent yesterday icing various parts of myself while reading a book called Think to Win. I have meditated, stretched, visualized. Sort of. I am ready to play tennis.
12:55. Still no one. I check my phone to see if someone has texted me to say the match has been canceled, but I’m pretty sure it has not. I arrange our two courts carefully. Eight plastic chairs altogether: two on either side of both ends of the net, with spaces left in the middle for where the umpires would go, if there were umpires. Once I finish scraping chairs around, the only sound left in the tennis center is from the kids in the park outside throwing rocks at the fire doors. At 12:59 there are faint sounds from the stairwell. It’s the away team, arrived from somewhere near Rochester.
At least, I assume they are the away team. I have never seen any of them before. But I don’t really know who is playing on our team. They could even be our team, except there are four of them. I mumble things about water and toilets until our captain, Fiona, turns up. She has two tins of Head Championship balls pressed into her chest and a bag full of cakes and baguettes dangling from her wrist. She is also holding a piece of paper.
“I’ve got the match balls,” she says. “But this is the wrong form, apparently, and I don’t know how to fill it in.”
“This is the away team,” I say.
“Oh, hello,” she says. “Long journey?”
One of my favorite tennis books at this moment is Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert. I just got it for Christmas and devoured it on my parents’ sofa between bottles of Vacqueyras wine and hot, frenzied games of table tennis. I read it on the train back, still drunk on my recent success, ready to slurp up anything, anything to do with tennis, my new love, my passion, my life. It was so good that when I got home, I read it again. I made notes. It explains in detail how to approach a competitive tennis match. It tells you what to pack in your bag, how to warm up, and why you should never serve first. It explains how many tennis racquets you should bring to a match and how they should be strung.
It also cautions strongly against chatting with your opponents until after the match, but by the time we begin, everyone has looked at pictures of French Florence’s puppy and the away team have started eating the baguettes that are supposed to be for afternoon tea. I was put in charge of cheese and biscuits, and these are sensibly stashed in the fridge in the café upstairs. One of our team has some pate and cold meats at the bottom of her sports bag. It is impossible to tell how long they have been there.
I also have a book on doubles strategy, which is fascinating, although almost entirely irrelevant when playing with someone you have never met, let alone practiced with. Is it weird of me to think that the normal thing for a team to do in this situation would be to turn up half an hour early, decide who is playing with whom, warm up, get a bit of team spirit going, rock the home advantage? If it were up to me, each doubles pair would not just have played together before but would have trained together, probably going halves on a few coaching sessions involving traffic cones and diagrams.
If it were up to me, my partner and I would be playing the Australian formation. We would fist-bump after every point. We would wear matching outfits, perhaps with tiaras. OK, not tiaras, but we might have a theme song. And we would certainly have a mantra. The person at the baseline would call soft but clever instructions to the person at the net…
“Does anyone have a spare tennis racquet?” asks Fiona. “I’ve left mine at home.”
I have a spare tennis racquet. Of course I do. Brad Gilbert says you should always have a good spare (rather than your crappy ex-racquet) in case a string breaks during a match. This means I have two black Wilson 104 Blades, each strung at 55 lbs. (I have no idea what this means, but it looked good on the website.) Am I going to lend one of these racquets, my beautiful prized possessions, to Fiona? No, of course not. I am never going to let anyone touch these racquets apart from me. Venus and Serena use Blades. I bet they don’t lend their racquets to other people. Or maybe they do. Maybe when you go through 41 restrings in two weeks, as Serena did in Wimbledon 2013, or crack open a newly strung racquet whenever there are new balls, as most pro players do, you feel differently about them. Did I ever kid myself at the beginning of all this, when I bought myself a tennis coaching session for my birthday last summer, that I wanted to play “social” tennis? I think so.
When I started playing tennis again, only last July, the idea of playing in any kind of league felt impossibly thrilling.
I think I told myself that tennis would be a good way to meet new people in this strange seaside town in which I have felt cold, exposed, and isolated, sometimes to the point of tears. But I’d forgotten how competitive I am, and how much I want to win. And I know that this is my last chance to do the thing I love, the thing that I was always best at, as well as I can. Do I want to play ladies’ doubles on a cobbled-together team and then sit down with the other players to eat cake and sandwiches afterward? Sort of. I mean, I definitely did when I started.
Only two months ago I drove all the way to Bromley for my first ever league match with a terrified partner—Netball Hannah—who admitted she was only really interested in the afternoon tea. When I started playing tennis again, only last July, the idea of playing in any kind of league felt impossibly thrilling. Like publishing a book (if you haven’t), or becoming a professor. Now what I want to know is which league, and with whom, and will the results affect my rating and my ranking? And I’d much rather it was singles than doubles. And if everyone could please, please just take it a bit more seriously…
Today I’m playing with Schoolteacher Hannah (different from Netball Hannah). We are playing Gemma and Linda from Somewhere-Near-Rochester. They are good but have not warmed up and are not used to this surface. We take the first set quite easily. I am nervous, of course, but also Gemma is so oddly beautiful that I’m having trouble concentrating. She has dark, shiny hair, piercing blue eyes, and a straight nose. Will this sound weird? Here goes anyway: She looks a bit like me. Perhaps 15 years ago when I was younger, thinner, and prettier. She is wearing a proper tennis outfit—matching top and skirt. Everyone else apart from us is just wearing mismatched tracksuit bottoms and any old top, but she looks as if she has dressed up for this. Her arms are nicer than mine. She has a more beautiful forehand, which she plays early and with plenty of topspin.
Oh, and she does that little kick with her right leg as she strikes the ball. She looks quite posh. I am almost falling in love with her—I mean, not really, but you know—when we changeover before the third set tiebreak. They have just come back from 0–4 down in the second set to take it 6–4. I should stop looking at Gemma. I should hit the ball harder and more aggressively. I should stop thinking and let myself play…
This is when Hannah admits, to all of us, to sharing a bottle of wine with her husband last night and I, rather against what I think would be Brad Gilbert’s advice, admit to doing the same with my partner. It seems Linda has similarly indulged. But then Gemma pipes up, in a voice that certainly does not match her outfit, “I done two bottles of wine with my boyfriend last night.”
After this, of course they beat us. It is genius. It is beyond Brad. I am gutted. Then we beat the other pair 6–0, 6–0 and feel a bit better. Then we all sit down to have what’s left of the tea and Hannah tells me all about how she had to go to the back of beyond the week before to play with someone named Lucille who was apparently so good that everyone complained. I want to be so good that everyone—in fact, just one person would be fine—complains. But I am not that good. I was a child prodigy, sort of, but I have not played for years and years. I am trying to pick up where I left off on a remote school tennis court back in 1986, when I had hair like Madonna and an accent not unlike Gemma’s.
More pictures of the puppy are going around.
It is January 11, 2014. This, I have decided, is going to be my year of tennis. I am going to see how far I can get as a 41-year-old woman tennis player, and I’m going to write about it. It’s my new project. My new life.
Excerpted from 41-Love: On Addiction, Tennis, and Refusing to Grow Up. Used with the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint. Copyright © 2022 by Scarlett Thomas.