Sunday, April 16, 2006

My plastic fantastic love(r)

I first got into tennis when I was 15. My friend Boomer (pronounced BOO-muh) whipped out a couple of rackets one day after baseball and we hit around in the yard a little. Before long, interest developed and I had fashioned a crude net out of a couple of aluminum poles and hay bale ropes tied end-to-end. We had a lot of fun at this until once day my dad decided we were killing the grass and we had to stop. By this point I was so hooked that telling me to stop playing tennis was like telling me to stop breathing. But where else could we go? Oh what a sad day.

Since none of us had drivers' licenses at this point we resorted to bumming rides off our parents to the nearest tennis court, which as a result of its being ten minutes away in London was more often than not unsuccessful. But when we did make it we were in heaven. Stat-keeping, seasons, tournaments, all that ensued. We played in the rain. If it was over 50 degrees we were there.

Tournaments came next. Real tournaments. Against strangers. First was the Nibroc. We all took our obligatory spankings but were undeterred. My breakthrough came at the Gatliff Coal in Williamsburg, which I won. I still have the trophy to prove it.

Then came the next logical step in tennis ascendancy: the South Laurel High School tennis team. A couple of my friends and I went out my sophomore year and found ourselves competing against three or four other guys for one spot. After the footwork drills, running backward, and the like, it was time to play. It came down to a tournament among us, with the winner getting the spot. I lost the final. The coach told me with downcast eyes that he was impressed with my athleticism and that he hoped to see me next year. A couple of days later, I was suprised to be called out of class over the intercom and told to come to the front foyer. When I got there, there was the tennis coach. He told me that he had checked out my grades and that he was impressed. You're probably like me and are wondering what this has to do with tennis. To him, apparently a lot. He told me I was welcome to practice with the team and travel to games but that I couldn't compete. Not for me. All the responsibilities but none of the benefits. I told him thanks but no thanks.

So next year rolled around, and I was automatically on the team, no tryouts required. It didn't take me too long to figure out that this wasn't all it was cracked up to be. We had to practice every single day after school. Not bad if I had lived in town, but I was one of those periphery-dwellers who lived on the edge of the county and as a result had a 10-mile drive. Mom and dad both worked so I was left to riding home with my aunt who worked in London. Our first match was against our arch-nemesis North Laurel. All of the other guys had won or were about to win their matches when mine started. I don't know if the pressure would have been more had I been playing the deciding match. With the coach and half the team looking on, I pulled it out. After the match one of my friends told me that the coach had asked him during my match "is this guy any good?" That didn't really sit well with me, since he was the one who decided I was good enough to be on the team. I knew that I was the one responsible for whether I was "any good" or not, but something about playing under those circumstances made me much less good than I really was. I pushed the ball rather than swinging at it. I hesitated where I would have gone for it. I spent too much time trying to steer the ball and not enough trying to hit it. The tennis team me and the playing with my friends me were two different players. On some days after practice when I was waiting for my aunt to stop by and pick me up, we would hit around just for fun. I would go back to killing the ball. I remember hitting with a German exchange student who was on the team one day, smacking the ball around like ping pong.

The promised land of the tennis team was getting more and more droll. The last straw came one afternoon when we were doing net-play drills. Our coach was of the opinion that all volleys should be done while moving forward at a decent clip. So the drill was set up as follows: we were to stand about a foot inside the service line while somebody on the other side fed us hard low balls. Right about the time the ball was hit, we were expected to start a quick gallop in toward the net to take the volley. To ensure that this was followed to a T, coach stood behind us with a racket. If, the instant the ball was hit, we didn't immediately start running in, a quick jab in the back with the racket and a command of "MOVE!!!" reminded us. As a lifelong baseline-style player, this took some adjusting by me. But as a lifelong do-my-own-thing kind of person, I wasn't having it. After about 10 minutes of constantly being poked and yelled at, I had had enough. This was voluntary, after all. The everyday practices and two or three a week get-back-at-9:00-pm matches were taking up too much time for something I no longer enjoyed. I stopped going.

I think a big part of the appeal of tennis to me was the individualism of it all. You and you alone are responsible for your side of the court. You and you alone decide whether you win or lose. I remember my dad saying he was suprised that I was trying out, as independent as I was, playing on a team.

The tennis team experience was the end of my golden years of tennis. After graduation I started college and my game languished. Matches were few and far between. But when I moved back home things reached their nadir. Nobody to play with. That's when I decided to look beyond people. Tennis is an individual sport, right?

The other day the UPS man brought the centerpiece of my tennis renaissance: the Lobster Elite 2 ball machine. After having it out a couple of times, I am loving it more and more.

Pros:
  • always willing to play
  • doesn't complain
  • unfailingly consistent in doing what you tell it to do
  • doesn't get tired
  • can shoot up to 80 mph
  • can put ridiculous topspin and underspin on the ball
  • can randomly fire balls all over the court

Cons:

  • takes some time to set up to shoot properly
  • 80 mph isn't as fast as I thought it would be
  • $20 cell phones have better battery charging systems

The battery is probably my biggest complaint. The thing takes "12 to 36 hours" to charge and can be damaged by overcharging. Why they would put 20-year-old battery technology in a brand new ball machine is beyond me. Or maybe it isn't. For about $200 more, you can "upgrade" to the premium charger, which takes about 3 hours and doesn't overcharge. And if you have another $200 lying around you can buy a remote control to turn the feed or sweep off and on. Mind you this remote control looks like the keyless entry for your car and even has fewer buttons. $200 anyway. Oh well. Another way to perpetuate the whimsically rich blue-blood tennis afficionado stereotype.

Well that's the bad stuff. As for the good, I got a blister and made my arm sore the first time I had the machine out. I could have kept going for hours but it got dark. I haven't gotten too cute with it yet, just settling for regular straight feeds to get my forehand and backhand back. And they are coming back gradually. I think the mechanics of the ping-pong swing have to be un-learned each time I go back to tennis and vice versa. While my college years were a tennis drought, they were golden years for ping pong. My ping pong swing is more compact and more wrist. Using a similar swing in tennis results in erratic and weak (not to mention often painful) shots.

I've been using the topspin setting of 2 (out of 5) sometimes. The ball gives a pretty good kick off the bounce when using this setting, passing by about shoulder height. I haven't tried any higher settings yet. I have yet to use the underspin setting yet, but if it's anything like the topsin, a setting of 4 or 5 will probably cause the ball to reverse course and bounce back over the net on its own!

In short, I do love my new tennis partner. I'm just scratching the surface of what it can do. Thankfully I was able to find one on eBay for about 30% less than what they cost from the factory. I was a little nervous about it working properly but so far so good.

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