According to the calendar, today is the birthday of my nephew, Rob, my sister’s eldest, who cannot be the age he fears to be turning, as I am not that old, and I will be seeking a recount. Nonetheless, as you can see from the photo, Rob has been monomaniacally engaged from an early age, and is now a top-caliber amateur tennis player. Just in time for his birthday, as it happens, Steve Tignor, proprietor of Tennis.com’s Concrete Elbow blog, has taken high complimentary note of Rob’s play. Tignor ruminates on the challenges and rewards of encountering a new opponent of quality, and recently Rob has been that player. “Federer-esque short slice crosscourt backhand” will never have quite the same meaning again. I will not be the one to inform Tignor that Rob, by his own estimation, is the elder by ten years of the two.
Rob’s other, tennis playing uncle would have been so proud. This mere fan is too. Happy Birthday, Bubby.
This month, though, I seem to have found a new opponent, Rob. We did two-on-ones drills with a mutual friend before trying some singles (maybe tennis is really a metaphor for something else: dating, and how hard it is to find the right match). Rob and I are about the same age and ability level, but I could see immediately that he brought a wild card to the game, something that my regular opponents didn’t: A live arm. He has a legitimate, good-athlete snap on his serve, a reliably authoritative overhead, a point-ending topspin crosscourt forehand, and, strangest of all these days, a very good topspin one-handed backhand. I had a hunch that he had played baseball, and I was right. But I was surprised to learn that he had been a second-baseman, a position that doesn’t require a gun for an arm. I can only imagine what kind of arm you need to be a pitcher, or a third baseman, or a right-fielder, and what kind of serves those guys would have.
Rob and I have played just twice, and we haven’t worked up to sets yet. It was too bloody hot on one of the days we played to bother with anything overly competitive, so we played service games to 10. Even so, I felt like I had to find a new approach to tennis against him. First of all, he can hit aces, which will mean an adjustment on returns. He can take what would normally be rally shots against my other opponents and put the ball away immediately with his forehand. I feel surprisingly slow trying to catch up with those shots so far, but then again I’m not anticipating them or positioning myself for them yet; they seem to come out of nowhere. And on his backhand side, Rob likes to play a little Federer-esque short slice crosscourt backhand. I’ve had to run forward, bend for that shot, and try to guide it up the line and deep into the corner, none of which I’ve had to do on a regular basis in years.
So far I haven’t played well against him. My answer to his forehand has been to try to hit bigger on my own forehand, which has led, more than anything else, to errors. Wild, ugly, ball-landing-near-the-back-fence errors. This, I guess, is the typical first answer to the unfamiliar: trial and (ugly) error. I was hoping to get another look at his shots today, but it rained in Brooklyn this morning. Maybe next week. Maybe then I’ll start to find the right spot along the baseline to position myself for his forehand. Maybe I’ll start bending more easily and guiding that little approach up the line and into the corner with more pace. Maybe I’ll discover a serve that he can’t handle or a trajectory—high or low—on my ground strokes that he doesn’t like. Maybe he’ll start to miss. Hey, I’ll take that, too.
- You: Roger Federer and the 15 Greatest Men’s U.S. Open Tennis Champions of All Time (bleacherreport.com)
- What to Expect From Your First Tennis Lesson (fitsugar.com)
- Rafa vs. Roger: One for the Ages (straightsets.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Seven Male Tennis Players that Most Changed Tennis (adirondacktennis.wordpress.com)