The Big Hit
As hard as it is to root against Roger Federer, a player universally considered one of the greatest in tennis history, it happened to me during this year’s French Open. As Federer’s opponent, Rafael Nadal, made quick work of him, hitting an endless series of torrid winners past him, my loyalties shifted. The cornerstone of Nadal’s game is a powerful forehand slathered with topspin that make his opponents look like beleaguered shortstops mishandling bad-hop missiles off A-Rod’s bat. Playing lefty (he [is] naturally right-handed), many of Nadal’s shots are hit to his right-handed opponent’s backhand side, rendering them more lethal. If you then manage to return it, Rafael presses you further, perhaps putting the point away with the two-handed backhand that he can power like the rest of the world’s forehand. Watching his style of play at the French brought me back across many miles and years to the tennis approach of my distant teens: No matter what the circumstance or the opponent you face, you pursue always the Big Hit. In Big Hit tennis you push all-out to take the point. In my case, and often Nadal’s, it was by hitting the hardest possible return. Unlike Nadal, though, I had little ability to control it.
To call the tennis I played a career would be vastly overstating it, but it was marginally elevated by taking place in something of a tennis hamlet. Our small town of Chatham, NJ produced Peter Fleming, the lanky blonde whose own considerable talent was both enhanced and obscured by that of John McEnroe. Fleming and Mac won four doubles crowns at Wimbledon and three at the U.S. Open in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In all, they landed 57 doubles titles. Fleming, during his career, even scored isolated victories against Mac and other tennis greats such as Bjorn Borg and John Newcombe.
Around town there was a distinct Fleming-awareness that drifted down Main Street and diffused across the town’s plentiful tennis courts. In the younger players, Peter instilled a zeal for the put-away winner that bordered on manic. On the same courts that we now labored, Fleming, all 6’5” of him, had smashed his way to the upper tier of tennis’s elite. If he hit a drop shot en route, word of it never made it back home.
Tennis hamlet or not, we were in northern New Jersey and so our town was replete with sweltering humidity, the steady drone of cicadas, woeful traffic, and town courts laid bare by the relentless sun under hazy summer skies. With flat tennis balls, worn-out Stan Smiths, and the occasional Big Hitter’s groan we’d play match after endless match in the stifling heat.
One summer, when Mac and Fleming were mid-doubles reign, my friend Chris and I played daily at a place called simply Minisink, a swim and tennis club that was oddly named after a Native American tribe. I often suspected some ambitious local Boy Scouts, fresh on the heels of an “Indian-Style” jamboree, had somehow snuck the name past the dozing WASP town elders who had seen fit to dub our town’s other modest swim and tennis club, The Chatham Fish & Game Club.
We would belt all day, relentlessly, and the dead balls would wedge into the fence twenty feet behind the baseline with regularity. We would hit overhead smashes that would go the entire summer without catching the baseline and we’d spit in disgust as if we had reason to expect otherwise. We would sweat profusely and pursue the same string of big shots: the blistering serve that we could never master, the snapped, low-to-the-net, cross-court forehand that never cleared or never landed, and the tight passing backhand that instead rocketed sideways in a flared trajectory towards players on the adjacent court. Lobs were not part of our one-track repertoire.
In a weak moment, drained by summer vacations, Minisink named Chris and I second doubles for a match. We were terrible singles players and to my recollection never played a single set of doubles, scattering any other disgusted club patrons to distant courts under a shower of errant shots when they played in our vicinity. (“Sorry” to a nearby player covers three to four mishits; after fifteen or twenty it’s as useful as shouting, “Get my ball!”) A doubles opponent simply could not be had. So to practice doubles we discussed the technique of Fleming and Mac, and we played ping-pong to sharpen the finesse game sometimes required of the skilled doubles player.
Finally, match day came, and we showed up on one side of the net and stared poised across the court. Our opponents never arrived. Forfeit, victory to Flynn-Bohner, now 1-0, a tally to hold unchanged for a lifetime. No matter, the club had fronted us some new tennis ball, and before they could grab them back, I took my spot across the net and the balls flew wildly that afternoon, our first fresh can of the summer. It was August, and the twentieth year for the twenty-year cicadas, and they were a raucous audience, whirring to a roar randomly as we drilled smash after smash.
Between matches in those summers we would adjourn to a nearby house, and if it was the summer Grand Slam season, we’d scan the dial for the doubles matches. In the pre-sports-channel era, doubles matches were parked in the vacant lots of television coverage or skipped all together. If you were going to catch a doubles set, you looked early (for Wimbledon) and often.
With enough persistence, the effort would pay off. The lawn at Wimbledon rendered everything on our ailing TV screen a shade of green, including the players. The tennis whites were overlaid with green shadows, and only Mac’s budding Afro, a cloud of smoggy brown pinned to his head by a straining terry-cloth band, could hold its own color. The blonde Fleming, garbed in white, was a hard-hitting extension of the grass.
I remember early one July weekend heading down to a friend’s who lived a convenient 100 yards from the municipal tennis courts. When I got there, he was mid-battle with his father over the need to mow the lawn before playing tennis. I stood with my racquet by the front door, listening to the neighborhood lawnmowers fire up to a crescendo around me and hoping they wouldn’t inspire Mr. Johnson into holding fast. Then, miraculously, onto the living room television screen slowly strode McEnroe and behind him our Fleming. The English roared their approval of the bratty American and his partner.
The argument simply ceased midstream, Dave no longer wishing to play tennis and Mr. Johnson forgetting altogether the encroaching grass or any relationship it had to his son. He stopped talking, crossed his arms, ignored us, and stared at the screen. We stood and watched, and the first hour passed and then a second and then the 1979 Wimbledon crown was won, and part of it belonged to us.
With time, my peers and I drifted ever further into the back of the local tennis pack. The sport moved to the periphery of our lives as Fleming began to fade from the national scene and we left our small town for colleges across the East. For a brief while we were stirred again to interest when Colin Dibley, the talented Aussie who once held the world’s fastest serve, moved next door to a close friend of mine. It was a passing fancy, however, as our collegiate diversion by the time of his arrival had turned to Wiffleball, a game in which hitting towering shots are the primary accomplishment and a distinct lack of aerobic activity the secondary. Our interaction with Dibley was largely limited to extricating without incident from his yard the errant Wiffleballs that nightly littered it. I’m sure Dibley will never write nostalgically of the period.
My last class of college proved to be a one-credit introductory tennis class. In a commonplace error amongst my peers, I miscalculated the credits tally required to graduate, and I needed to take one single-credit class to don the cap and gown. Amongst a myriad of single-credit PE options, I opted of course for tennis. For a condensed month of sessions I awoke early each morning and hit one big forehand after another and rallied at length with a like-minded student from Ohio. They played unskilled Big Hit tennis outside Cincinnati too, apparently. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that with a little tutelage I was a much improved player.
Returning home that summer, my last in Chatham, I found that a small circuit pro tennis team was now setting up shop on the edge of town. The team was an entry in a league headed by Billie Jean King, and our local club featured Tracey Austin, the one-time teen phenom who won the U.S. Open at the precocious age of sixteen. She was in her late twenties now, and like Fleming her tennis star had dimmed considerably.
I drove with a high school friend out to the small outdoor court where the team played under the cartoonishly oversized lights brought in for the team. We sat in the temporary bleachers, sipped our tepid beer from plastic cups, and watched the incessant rapping of the team’s hitters, the pace a considerable amount slower than that of the power players of the day. All the while, hundreds of moths tapped at the lights above, the court bordering a murky seasonal bog known locally as “the freshet,” and now inundated with its summertime residents. They were a quiet, vaguely adult version of our long ago cicadas.
As we watched, an appreciation for Austin’s ability to maneuver around the court––she was nursing a foot injury at the time––set in. She was undoubtedly still a skilled player, and seeing her set up and polish off shots without any true velocity was in its way an awakening to the many subtleties of the game, including courage. It was uniquely timed with my pending departure from town and ultimately, the Big Hit tennis of my youth.
In the intervening years between seeing that match and recently awakening to the innate allure of Nadal’s approach, I’ve played an increasingly infrequent game much more akin to Austin’s. Age has proven a whole-body replication of Tracey’s foot injury, something to be worked around and pushed through, your shots placed to account for its hobbling effects. Occasionally I still go for the Big Hit with the same youthful lack of acumen. But going for the kill and slamming it loudly off the back fence, fun though it may be––and it is––smacks of Wiffleball rather than tennis. Done with salt and pepper hair amongst the 40-something crowd, it also smacks of arrested development.
Watching Nadal has reminded me of the unrestrained thrill of hitting a tennis ball as hard as you can. I may mix more of it back into my game, but more likely I’ll look for it this year at Wimbledon. Should Nadal meet Federer, the master of the blistering forehand on grass, former Big Hitters everywhere will be glued to the set.