No Tennis For Old Men

Holding serve when you’re half a century behind

In a perverse way, I really enjoy it. But it’s much easier to complain. People don’t look at me as strangely that way.

My grandfather, Tibor, is what I like to call a ‘young octogenarian.’ He will own your arse at tennis almost any day of the week. He is the human equivalent of a champion racehorse crossed with a pterodactyl; huge wingspan, ludicrously long legs, cunning and Hungarian.

This is an unbeatable combination. He’s lived through World War II, Communism and Paul Keating, but my Opa can return pretty much anything you serve up at him. As can his cackling convent of friends, some of whom are even older than he is.

But in his typical devil-may-care attitude, the same that allows him to eat large quantities of salted meat despite it being bad for his cholesterol, Opa’s done one base-line dive too many and shattered his index finger. The doctor, who can’t believe how the injury was sustained, let alone how badly my grandfather takes it, tells him he can’t pick up a racquet for six weeks. I’m sitting on my computer doing nothing when I get the call. Don’t let this surprise you; I’m typically doing nothing.

It’s Denis, whose name is phonetically pronounced ‘Den-esh’, which rhymes, incidentally, with ‘tennis’. I have no idea how he got my phone number.

‘Joan-a-tuhn,’ he says, sounding a bit like Leslie Nielsen’s impression of a vampire, ‘Ve need you.’

Because I have grown up around this genetically blessed group of humans, I have never met a Proper Old Person. I have no sympathy for the elderly, as these are the same kinds of people who can return an impossible forehand and back it up with a rapid-fire smash and then laugh about it. So when I hear Denis imploring me down the line, I know that two things are going to happen. First, I am going to have to exercise very early in the morning. Second, rather than being a crutch for a trio who should, by rights, be wheelchair bound, I am going to be the world’s greatest liability.

Some things you should know about octo-Hungarian tennis players: They hate to lose. They can run around for up to two hours without needing a break or water. They crack stupid fucking jokes like ‘The phone’s ringing’ — What? — ‘You didn’t pick it up!’ when a ball sails past you down the line. Whenever they miss an easy shot, they will berate themselves in the third person. I understand that this sort of out-of-body flagellation is common among elite sportsmen. Apparently Tiger Woods does it all the time. But he probably doesn’t say it as loudly or as heavily accented as this:

“Ah [Foreign swear word]! Ivan, Ivan, Ivan, why do you keep missing that ball? Pathetic! It’s like you’re not even looking at it. What’s wrong with you today? [Hungarian swear word I think I know which roughly translates to ‘fuck your mother’], Jesus!” — Ivan.

I am filling in for my injured Tibor with Denis, Ivan and another Tibor, who I call Little Tibor, because he is little. None of these names sound like they look on the page. They all wear white shirts, white knit vests and track pants. I sprout three days’ growth on my face and am wearing an oversized t-shirt of a band I never liked. While I am doing a favour to my Opa, it soon becomes clear that the old men are doing me a favour for not criticising me in the same way they do themselves. Little Tibor has managed to traverse the back of the court four times in the past ten minutes to save our team from complete annihilation. The best I can offer is to stand menacingly at the net, ready to rain down an unholy torrent of searing volleys that will kill a lesser man.

But these men are not afraid of death. They are eighty.

Little Tibor spent an extra few minutes getting onto the court today; he had to strap himself up. As we stood there unzipping our racquet cases, flexing strings and deciding who would play with whom/be saddled with me, he very quietly brought out his bandages, velcro and rubber positioning paraphernalia and began the important task of fastening his brittle bones. He may have a youthful gleam in his watery grey eyes — I truly believe that only wonderful old people can truly have grey eyes — but Tibor’s got a bum knee, a dangerously wonky wrist and various other aggravations that I would be the first to complain about if they happened to me. This is because I have not really lived through Hard Times.

Seeing as he most certainly has, the man is philosophical about it: “When you get to my age, if this is the only thing you have to worry about, you’re doing pretty good,” he smiles. Never one to miss a beat, Ivan chimes in “I’ll trade you those for all the pills I have to take every morning! Vitamin this, vitamin that, blood thinners…” This kind of talk is bound to attract a sympathetic audience. The other two trade war stories about hypertension, osteoporosis, Alzheimers.

Quietly stoic, Tibor keeps wrapping and strapping.

Back in the game, you wouldn’t tell that my teammate had anything wrong with him. He’s half my size but he’s all over this thing, single-handedly defending our borders with spinning, slicing returns that they never taught me at tennis camp, primarily because they make no logical sense. While I jump and lurch at impossible passing shots that make Ivan cackle like a rheumatic crow from across the net, Little Tibor dips into the bag of Hungarian mysticism and pulls out another trick.

With an expert flick of that apparently useless wrist, he seems to cover the ball with his racquet rather than actually hitting it, as if wrapping the thing in cosmic energy. It sails to the net, and rotating on its own axis, pauses and drops straight to the ground. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like watching Quidditch in a Harry Potter movie. And yet Ivan isn’t remotely surprised, lumbering over and saving the ball before it’s even reached the ground. The point is theirs.

I roll up the sleeves of the T-shirt to show off the rippling arm muscles I once thought I had. It is my turn to serve and we have lost the last two games thanks to a range of unforced errors which included hitting the girl on the next court in the face with a misplaced backhand and my personal favourite, continuously smashing forehands into the net.

Surveying the scene of my destruction in the bleak haze of a not-yet winter’s morning, it occurs to me that I should have said no. Tennis is the octo-hungarians last stronghold against a rapidly changing world. There is something uniquely calming about a points-system which hasn’t changed in centuries, where nil is called ‘love’ and everything is contained by immovable white lines. In this environment, Little Tibor is no longer shrinking, Ivan can forget about the fact that his grand daughter spends more time on her iPhone than with him and Denis, the hacking cough that comes from the thirty-five odd years before they told him smoking was bad.

I am a niggling disturbance, the clash of the old and the new. I am colour television. I am the guy who sits at the back of the room at the opera and tweets. I am [Hungarian swear word I think I know which roughly translates to ‘fuck your mother’].

Double faults, I should remind you, rank up there with ordering fruity cocktails and wearing anything purple as one of the most emasculating things ever. Despite my best efforts to represent my generation and blaze serves past these geezers, every ball I touch seems to have a mutual attraction to either the net or back fence. Ivan crows every ‘out’ with remarkable precision for a man with bifocals who isn’t even receiving the serve. I pace the line, spinning the last ball off my racquet, a move which I long ago decided would bring me good luck, before I came to the crushing realisation that tennis was about strategy and not about luck. This feels good. It’s going to go in, I know it.

The thing is, my Opa has been preparing me for this moment since I was eight years old, when my red Wilson racquet was bigger than I was and he used to take me to White City to practise. He would spend hours lobbing shots over my head and teaching me tough love in an effort to shape me into the next Agassi, lying about my age when his friends saw how terrible I was, until eventually I started running and returning serves and almost being half-decent, which was at least a decade and ten kilograms of puppy fat later.

Having tripped and blundered through a smorgasboard of sports in highschool, only to realise to my despair that I was an academic, tennis remains the one physical game at which I can remotely hold my own. I know the mechanics; good ball toss, leaning forward, aiming for the corner of the box. Now all I need is about fifty years more theory.

When the serve goes in it takes me a good few seconds to actually believe it and a few more to register that even though it’s brilliant, possibly the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done, Denis is going to return it. In less than two steps he’s perfectly positioned to deflect the thing and place it wherever he wants on a court I’ve wantonly left open. He’s planned way ahead, dropping the ball effortlessly in the doubles lines beyond Little Tibor’s reach and about fifteen yawning chasms away from me, but goddammit, I’m running.

Hang around these guys long enough and that fierce sense of competition will curdle your blood. Despite almost a month of various partners telling me to relax and that not every shot needs to be a winner, I’m hitting harder and more aggressively than ever. Our overpriced suburban complex has never known such an inexplicably angry young man. The ball bounces twice in slow-motion. I need to learn more Hungarian swear words.

It’s not like I can expect any sympathy. “Look at Jonno,” my friends will say later that night, “He’s just exhausted from playing with the retirees.” I bend down to pick up the racquet I just threw to the ground in frustration, aching in places that will not be any less painful if and when I hit eighty. This is ridiculous, I say to myself, because I have not yet mastered the art of public admonishment, my healthcare costs a fifth of what theirs does.

My name is Jonathan Seidler and I play tennis with old people. My name is Jonathan Seidler and I get beaten at tennis by eighty year olds. This is what I do early on Saturday mornings when most of my friends are still coming home, coming down, getting laid or rolling into bed with all of their clothes on.

It’s still the best part of my week.