It was an expression my father often used, that he wanted to live a life of the mind. Indeed, he did make his living with his mind rather than his body, he was a writer. The son of a laborer and an ambitious (through her son) mother, he proclaimed the intellect as the way in which we should not only understand the world, but make our mark on it.
There was, however, a mixed message. We weren’t a family that sat around, for the most part, and discussed books. Although my parents read a lot and expected me and my brother to do well in school, my parents and their friends were not people who had mind bending conversations about art and politics around strong coffee and cigarettes into the night. They were actors and writers and singers who liked to laugh and have a good time. My father created THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY for Godsakes. We were a family who lived in Los Angeles, who reveled in the outdoors life, who spent countless hours around and in our pool. My father was, in fact, a very good athlete. He had been raised in England and apparently flirted quite seriously with a soccer career before breaking his leg in three places when he was seventeen from a collision on the field. My mother wasn’t a natural athlete, but she had attended girls Catholic schools and therefore was what they used to call more “sporty” than many of her contemporaries. She took up tennis in her early thirties, and never looked elegant when she played. She did, however, have a great competitive instinct, a quality I did not, unfortunately, inherit. She was the least self conscious person I have ever seen on the court. She, who was so anxious in so many other ways, never got nervous, and she never gave up. She was like the Maria Sharapova of middle aged mixed doubles, without the grunts. She always looked sweaty and happy on the court.
Once we moved to a house with a tennis court when I was fourteen, my parents’ and, to some extent, our entire family’s, social life revolved around tennis. But all of this was just….fun. Just…amusement, not to be taken seriously. At one point in my mid teens some family friends encouraged me to join them when they drove their kids and my brother Chris (who was an EXCELLENT player) to tournaments where I was, basically, trounced. Most of my opponents had three hour coaching sessions after school several days a week while I had the very occasional lesson. I didn’t have enough natural ability to overcome the discrepancy in preparation, (unlike Chris) and I absolutely hated it. I loved hitting the ball, didn’t mind doubles with friends or endless rallying, but I hated competing. I had some physical talent and coordination but no natural competitive instinct. I remember floating the idea of a coach with my parents, but, for whatever reason, they said no and I didn’t push.
I was on the Junior Varsity team at my school (I, like my mother before me, went to an all girls school, and the Varsity was exclusively made up of girls who were ranked in the top twenty in Southern California, the same girls I ran into at those tournaments) and, even though I was one of the better players on the JV, I hated that, too. Hated that ladder, the insecurity of seeing my name at the top or the middle, it didn’t matter, because I knew it could change with the next match. And not just the next match with an opposing team. The ladder was based on matches we, as teammates, had against each other as well as interscholastic matches. I hated that I had to compete with my teammates. Wanting to be more a part of a group, I joined the swim team for half a year, but I was pretty terrible, and swimming laps and laps by myself felt lonely. I was way too short for basketball or volleyball, and didn’t have a natural affinity for softball, but I really envied those girls who got to play real team sports. So, with very mixed feelings, I stuck with tennis and had mostly negative experiences competing. At fifteen I was consumed with feelings of such inadequacy on the tennis court that, when I switched to a coed school, I put my racket down and didn’t pick it up again for a decade. I then went through a few years of playing socially again, but not that often. And then, from age twenty-nine to forty-two, I didn’t touch a racket.
During those years I got caught up in what in the eighties were called aerobic dance classes, and even went through a running phase. Running was so easy emotionally. If you kept doing it, you got faster, it got easier. Simple. I struggled with my weight and used exercise as a way (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) of controlling it. When I moved to Connecticut I took advantage of the snowy winters and went on long snowshoe walks and even did some downhill and cross country skiing. I never stopped exercising, but I ceased to think of myself, if I ever really had, as an athlete.
It was in Connecticut that I did go back to tennis, partly because my husband and I played together and because at that time my two daughters were enjoying learning the sport. I tried playing in a USTA league but that same old anxiety bubbled up. I was more evenly matched in skill level to my opponents than I had been in my teens, and most of my matches were close, but I lost more than I won. If I played slightly beneath my level (I tried this) and trounced somebody I felt terrible. I was, like, embarrassed for her. Can you imagine Serena ever giving a fuck about the person across the net? If it was close or, God forbid, I lost, I felt even worse , here I was losing to people I should beat easily. When I competed at my level and the game got close the anxiety of the whole thing would overwhelm me. I would dread the match for weeks ahead. I would hope I would come down with the flu. I really liked many of my teammates (and didn’t have to play them except for practice) but I missed out on exactly the kind of camaraderie I had signed up for. A lot of our matches were at night and the captains would bring plenty of wine which was open and ready to be consumed as soon as you were done. My teammates were smart and interesting and funny, and they cheered each other (and me) on. I tried to enjoy it, I pretended to enjoy it, but I was too much of a nervous wreck. And I hated the idea that my match could make a difference to us winning or losing as a team. Although doubles was theoretically easier than singles, I didn’t like feeling responsible for my teammate. As I write this I realize I sound like a complete head case. I was. In every other area of my life I was a normal person, I promise you. But tennis is a bitch, and unfortunately she isn’t MY bitch.
Flash forward several years. I am living in Los Angeles. I play weekly doubles clinics which consist of some instruction with a pro and then a doubles game of a set or two. I am not a headcase, but I am not fully engaged, either. I take semi-regular private lessons with a pro where I am so relaxed, with nothing at stake, I hit the hell out of the ball and it feels like tennis fantasy camp. I am a legend in my own mind. But I am not so deluded that I don’t realize that this feeling is, well, a little pathetic.
A tennis friend with a private court invites me to a new kind of clinic called Liveball. This consists of 6-8 people on the court with a pro, a sort of non stop running king of the court game where the pro feeds the ball and you and your partner try to become the king, or, if you already are king, you try and stay there. The idea is to never stop moving, it all moves at five times the pace of regular tennis. I LOVE this because there is less time, actually no time, to think. Because there is no serve a diverse group of people can play together, so there are days when our co-ed group contains teens working on their skills for their high school teams, exhausted but game mothers of young children, very athletic “beginners” in their twenties who improve every time they come on the court, a visiting ringer brought in as friend of Julio (the pro), and, oh, a insanely fit eighty year old. Some days, age wise, there is literally a fifty-five year spread. One young woman works in insurance, another guy is a chiropractor/realtor, there’s a very well known TV actress and a motivational speaker who travels the globe so much he is almost always dealing with jet lag. We socialize outside of the group, some more than others, but we keep up on each other’s lives and if any of us throws a big party it is understood the entire group will be invited. Somehow we all become bonded over this, let’s face it, somewhat childish version of tennis. So, this is what happens—I relax, I totally relax. I don’t play brilliantly every time, but I am never terrible. I consistently, for the first time in my life, spend time on the court playing out points in a state of flow, that perfect sweet spot between being over and undermatched where you are challenged but not overwhelmed. When I am playing Liveball, the rest of my life falls away, and in my relaxed state my tennis and movement even, well into my fifties, improves. Now, I am not the only one who has fallen in love with Liveball, it is played by former touring pros as well as regular folks and is available in parks all over the place. And, yeah, there are Liveball tournaments where they keep score, but that isn’t how it’s usually run. It’s competitive within a point, competitive to get over to the “king” side, but there is no keeping score, there are, at the end of the day, no winners and losers. To be sure, some people don’t “get” Liveball. They need to have a bigger purpose. One of my friends said, “I don’t get the point, beyond the workout.” Ok, there is the (actually amazing) workout, and our mostly beautiful California weather and the satisfaction of constructing a point and the plain old silliness that great, fast doubles brings out. I think at our intermediate club level we may have more laughs than the more experienced players, but on Wednesday evenings our session is followed by a very skilled group where the game moves twice as fast as ours, and they sure are laughing a lot, too.
Our group numbers around fifteen or so, yielding usually six – eight at any one time. Julio gives us instruction but never in a manner that gets in the way of the real purpose of the whole exercise, which is to have fun. We are talking about all going to Wimbledon together this year, and Julio thinks he can get us on for a Liveball session at the Queens Club in London. Liveball on grass!
My brother recently asked me if I was ever going to play “real” tennis again. I asked my Liveball friend Robin, an excellent player, if she ever worried about losing her ability to serve from lack of practice, from not playing “real” tennis. Her response was, basically, why would I go back to boring tennis with only four people on the court when I can have this great cardio and social experience with eight? And I realized I had let other people’s (and my own) definition of athletic success muddle my thinking.
It’s true, we don’t directly compete with other (if there is even such a thing) Liveball “teams”. We aren’t in a league. And yet, even though Liveball demands a person standing outside who feeds the ball who occasionally gives us tips, it doesn’t feel like a clinic. So, what the hell, I am going to call Liveball a sport. Almost tennis, but not quite. And, guess what? After decades of searching, after, of course, I had stopped even looking, I have finally found my team.