Befuddled on the Baseline

Most good things don't start in the dentist's chair, but sometimes there are exceptions—like a love of tennis.
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Because I was disoriented and immobilized in a hydraulic chair, it wouldn’t be right to take complete ownership for what happened at the dental office: watching damn near a complete tennis match. This was made a reality thanks to the swivel television and the unimpeachable antique clamp that kept my mouth open for two sets of hands and incapable of forming the words, Animal Planet, please. No matter the medication, I certainly didn’t tell my dentist to leave the TV locked on ESPN, nor did I say I was a fan. But there was the match, punctuated by odd guttural noises both within and without the room, and I gripped the chair while the Tooth Grinder™ revved and the racquets swung.

Somewhere between my attempts to find an effective way to distract myself or simply disassociate completely, I was lulled by the pace of the match. Turns out there’s always a stake at play; points turn into games, which turn into sets, and when enough of those accumulate, they result in a match—and sometimes a handful of fillings containing (don’t worry) only trace levels of mercury. Watching the score go from love to AD and occasionally bouncing from AD to 30 before the game was held or broken was oddly soothing.

Tennis always struck me as orderly, and it is truly exemplary in that sense, as all good firing lines are. How a player calmly walks to the baseline after receiving countless heavy handed aces is beyond me. Surely it’s best not to make too much of a fuss over a steady whoopin’; one wouldn’t want to give the other player added confidence. But there is a point where it becomes a little uncomfortable to watch a player’s weak return get exploited, and it’s around then that I started to feel complicit in the drubbing, even though I was strapped to a chair myself. I’d never noticed this uniquely brutal aspect of tennis, and I struggled to place it in within my sporting framework, which is admittedly, almost entirely built on a basketball foundation. I’ve come to partially understand the psychology of NBA players through pickup games at the park. I’ve known the pain of yelling help help help when getting burned on the perimeter and the healing powers that come from the faith that someone will answer my pleas and crowd the lane instead of leaking out for a fastbreak layup. When Pau Gasol pleads to the referees with his palms raised to the heavens, I can relate to him. It’s consoling to yell at your teammates for their blown coverage, at the coach for terrible sets, or any other lie that gets us through the day.

Tennis provides none of these therapeutic outlets; you can’t side-eye teammates or project your failures on the coach. All a player can do is cultivate a masterful look of resignation. A skilled camera operator never misses this look, and so it is broadcast, full-frame, for the world to see. There’s not an exact replica of this look in basketball, not that I know of at least, but it isn’t altogether dissimilar from the look a city commuter makes moments before they break stride from the crowd and throw their Starbucks coffee on the ground, shadowbox on Main Street and yell to no one in particular. We’ll never know what flashed in this person’s mind any more than we’ll know what goes through Andy Murray’s before he crushes a racquet.

Thanks for the good viewing, cruel tennis.

The point at which my hands reached carpal tunnel levels of gripping the chair-arms—say around the 45-minute mark—my tear-filled eyes couldn’t overlook the obvious unpredictability woven into these players’ private struggle. The moment I fooled myself into believing I had the pulse of the match because I saw how a dominated player paces back and forth—from the baseline to the momentary respite of a shaded area, removing themselves not only from the sun’s rays but also psychically from their opponent’s serve—the sun would change positions and the refuge of the real or imagined sanctuary shifted. This happened quicker than some players would like, and of course drama’s shifting stage took no notice of their desire. I understood, and yet I knew I did not, not fully.

The green and blue hues flashing on the screen stood framed by the sharp white lines, while the sport and players remained as opaque as clay. Though all of the wonder and mystery that underpins a tennis match and how players approach games can be illuminated by some investigative digging, a few YouTube videos, some reading, I think that would be a shame.

Tennis has showed me that the small dose of ignorance that comes from not knowing the Tennis Network channel number protects me from myself and the demystification of tennis. The NBA cake was baked the second I started to fill my head with countless hours of NBA podcasts. Now it takes serious effort to see a crossover for what it is and not a 70 million dollar commitment to Evan Turner made over a summer of changing labor agreements. There’s still time left in my new fandom to avoid the mistake I made to view the sport from the perspective of a General Manager; their job is to be privy to every potentiality and make contingency plans, mine was to have the action of the court move me. So when, for purely hypothetical purposes, we’re left without commentary about Stan Wawrinka’s trainer forgetting to include a SPF20 sunblock in his bag, hence his trips to the shade, the more there is for the imagination to roam and befuddlement accumulate. I don’t need to understand it all.

I've deliberately ignored a lot of things in life, not limited to the wishes of my parents, assignments from professors, and the threats of Burger King drive-thru operators telling me to come back when my skateboard is a car. Since my last dental trip, none of these past decisions have gone as well as ignoring what’s said before the start of the tennis season. More educated fans would probably laugh at the connections my mind makes during games, and I don’t begrudge them; that wouldn’t be fair when I laugh at my own ideas from time to time. This new fandom isn’t quite a farce, but it does share one key aspect in that the ineffable nature of it can be explained into non-existence. Instead, a vacant space remains: to form my own thoughts in lieu of the complicated pre-made, or to shake my head at what I’ll happily never know.

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