This game is literally killing me

I’m turning 50 in less than two months. I’ve been playing tennis in competition for the last 35 years. I played as high as college tennis (Div. III) and a short stint on the Satellite Tour, but for the most part I play on town hard or har-tru courts. I was a teaching pro for more than 20 years, and at times when I’ve had my strokes working for me, I’ve played with the top guys in the east, not in competitive tournaments, but in competitive practice sets, and beaten a couple of them. But I never learned strokes at an early age. I was a basketball player who by picking up a racket early in life, practicing against walls, and then good opponents, I learned how to stroke the ball adequately from the baseline. My game has been predicated on chipping balls off both my backhand and forehand wings, charging the net and putting away volleys or overheads or making the other guy beat me. I’ve never had the confidence to slug a return of serve cross-court or hit a passing shot the way I’ve had to hit a jump shot. But now with a balky hip effecting me and my movement, my tried-and-true game is starting to erode. I know I’ve been playing on borrowed time, and that if I wanted to play competitively later in life I’d have to develop more of a back court game, but I still–in the crunch–feel much better moving up to the net on a slice approach and hitting volleys.

Today I played on Har-Tru courts, against an opponent, Carlos, who I’ve played consistently now for around ten years. He is Bolivian, and 61 or 62, a cancer survivor, a good ten pounds overweight, drinks a bottle of wine and a couple of shots a whiskey every night, but he is still a tough opponent. When I first met him, he had called me up as a local pro, and I used to charge him $25 and we would play sets. I never lost to him. We played on hard courts and I must’ve won 50 straight sets, usually close, but I always won. Carlos has a beautiful wife and two young kids, but he lives for tennis, and must play at least three times a week. I’m lucky these days to play twice a week, and my other opponent usually just likes to rally.

Now when we play, Carlos and I have been splitting sets, very dismaying for me. Downright offensive behavior on my part, in my mind. I always take the first set and today, I’m up 40-5 in the first game of the second set, after hitting a smashing bounce overhead from the baseline for a winner, and I proceed to blow it. And the next game, up 5-40 on Carlos’s serve and then I almost lose a 40-love lead in the third game, except my overhead at 40-30 clips the baseline.

Yes, I prefer to think that I am blowing my victory rather than Carlos is beating me. I think, “I’ve got this guy by more than a decade and I’m the one who’s tiring.” I get nervous, the court groomer wearing the San Diego cap is sitting on the bench outside the courts looking at us and for some reason I need his approval. I look up when I hit a good shot to see if he’s impressed. An older couple walks into the courts as I carve a nice forehand for a cross-court drop volley winner and they say, “What a shot!” But it doesn’t appease my increasingly-dark mood.

My back tightens as I chase a drop shot and instead of chipping it back and I take a big topper swing at it and hit it five feet long. I bemoan the fact that my back is tightening up, that I don’t still have my old attitude of loving chasing drop shots or hitting balls down the middle of the court on approach shots and seeing my opponent sweat as I anticipate his passing shot and hit a good volley. Now overheads are a challenge. I get my serve in with decent pace and spin, but I don’t have the energy or drive to charge the net and knock off what should be reasonably-easy volleys. How do the pros make it look so easy? Vince Spadea calls me in the middle of the second set and I pick up my cell, and I tell Spadea, “I’m getting frustrated. How should I play? should I continue to chip and charge?” And he says, “Yeah, chip and charge (that’s actually how he beat Agassi in the Rd. of 16 at the 1999 Australian Open, not chipping but drilling first ball returns and charging the net). But I don’t know your game.”

I don’t know my game anymore either. I used to practice by myself with a ball machine, grooving my baseline strokes. I did sprints on track and on fields. But now I don’t know if I can will myself to do those things anymore. And I don’t know if I can still primarily play a chip and charge game anymore because I am not as quick or fit as I once was. It boggles my mind, it hurts my pride.

We split sets, and I’m somewhat happy. But now the third set of my competitive tennis life is beginning and I don’t know if I’m going to be a winner, a striver, a survivor or a drowner.

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  • Dan Markowitz · May 22, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    I love this game and the people who play it. There is an older gentleman, originally from Atlanta with a nice Southern drawl, who plays at the courts I played Carlos at this morning. And he sent me this email today with a clip of my opponent foot-faulting egregiously. There are still rules and etiquette to tennis. We have not reached the barbaric stages of pick-up football or basketball yet.

    Read on:
    Hi Dan,

    “My opponent pointed out to me that your opponent, name unknown, has a deep seated proclivity for “foot faulting”! And I am not talking about a small infraction, but a gross infringement of the rules. I took two telescopic sequences of his consequential abuse of the his service motion being over the baseline by an entire foot – his foot!!! I am attempting to attach both to this email so you can see for yourself. It appears that only one has attached. I might have to send you two emails if that is the case. If you have a problem with playing this video clip, let me know please.

    It seems to me that he is taking unfair advantage of you. You both have very good games, but a lack of sportsmanship on his part is appalling!”

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 24, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Foot faults are breaking the rules. Tennis is a game of inches and centimeters. I played a notorious foot faulter in a USTA league match years ago and called him on it. It totally nullifed the effectiveness and accuracy of his big serves. Rules are rules.

  • Mark Sanders · May 25, 2010 at 9:26 pm


    The answer you search for is “Doubles”. You have all the shots to be a great doubles player. Let your partner chase the lobs. You can play competitive doubs player a long long time without the wear and tear of hard court singles.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 26, 2010 at 2:30 am

    Mark, Dan is one of the best doubles players you could ever play with. (Tough in singles too.) Tough serve, excellent volleys, court sense, strategy, knows how to pump his partner up, heck, he won the pro am in Portland during Davis Cup finals weekend 07, though he did pick some his partners well (Gullikson). He beat out Christopher “44 Hours” Bowers and Joel Drucker. Tom Gorman, Jon Stark, Brad Gilbert, John Isner, particapted.



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