When Dad Makes Tennis a Family Game, ‘Love’ Means More Than Zero

My father learned to play tennis as a young man in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s. The game had not been an option in the little Missouri village where he grew up, though he did make one doomed effort to bring the sport to his hometown. As he told the story, he was seized with an impulse to play on a trip home soon after he learned the game, so he and a cohort rigged up a makeshift net and painted lines on a patch of relatively flat cow pasture. The trouble was that the ignorant cows kept wandering onto the "court."

Beginning in Washington, he played at least once a week for about 55 years. Tennis was his outlet; it was one of the ways he expressed himself; it was a vehicle for learning and teaching, and in the end it was part of his personality.

My dad played doubles a couple of times a week with six or eight friends at a nearby two-court park. I noticed that his opinion of his friends often stemmed from some aspect of their tennis game. One man would curse when he missed a first serve and announce that now he would probably double-fault, and he usually did. My father figured the man hexed himself. Dad had little use for the guy who gave himself the benefit of the doubt on close calls, and I remember him lecturing me on the man's smallness of character. A man who never brought balls was another target of his scorn for his cheapness.

Tennis is a revelation of character--the way we play is the way we are. My father tried to teach my brother and me when to be patient, to wait for our chance, and when to be aggressive and close for the kill. The game demands a mastery of one's impulses and a calmness in moments of anxiety, useful lessons beyond the court. When I played in junior tournaments, he would show up, but not to coach--just to be there in silent support, sometimes drifting among the trees like a shadow a hundred yards or so from the court.

Tennis gave him his friends, and he made tennis integral to our family life. We all loved to play, in some degree because it was a way to be close to him. My wife once said that the most recurrent conversational topic among the men in our family was volleys, the discussions often disagreements on the best way to hit a shot at net. The people he felt closest to, those who sat around our kitchen table on weekends making each other laugh, were the men he played tennis with. Maybe he felt you could always be yourself with someone who knew that much about you.

Dad had been burdened from infancy with a name he constantly had to explain: Zalph. Never in his long lifetime did he meet another Zalph, nor have I. He would tell people that it was like Ralph with a Z. I found it interesting that in most of his business associations (he was a lawyer) and among casual acquaintances he was known as "Jack." Zalph was too much to deal with. But his tennis friends always called him Zalph.

Humor was part of every match, as it was part of his personality. He maintained a running commentary during points. When an opponent at the net left the alley open for him to hit one down the line, he would say something about "no forwarding address." When he was cleanly passed, he would sometimes remark that his foe didn't have that shot yesterday. He would berate himself as well. "Give me a couple of days and I'd get to that one," he'd say, or "If I was any slower you would have to paint me." He always liked to write, and he sometimes composed poems or limericks on a tennis theme. I remember one about the friend with a poor record for bringing balls: It was called "The No-Ball Prize."

When he began to slow down he played a more stately and guileful game at a relaxed pace. He and his friends would play a set and then tell stories for half an hour before playing another. This was a concession to age that made sense--and it was another lesson in the interplay of tennis and life.

My father always told me that one attraction of tennis was that you could play all your life. That was the reason to teach it to your kids. And in his case it turned out to be close to true. He was 79 when he finally gave it up. He had fallen a couple of times because of numb feet and ankles--"bad wheels" as they say in sports--and he had emphysema and heart trouble. His condition took a nosedive as soon as he stopped playing. Within a year he was obliged to use a walker, then he couldn't drive, then he hardly went out at all.

When he died not long ago, a couple of his lifelong tennis friends, still playing at 88 and 90, made it to the funeral. One stood up at the service and spoke about what a gentleman Dad always was on and off the court and how much fun he was to be around. The other man saved his memories for the reception afterward. He pulled out an envelope filled with tiny pieces of paper bearing typed poetic messages that looked like the ones in fortune cookies. My father had apparently distributed them at a birthday party some years earlier.

His old friend read them aloud. The first said, "With foot, ball and racket all in right place, maybe '78 will bring you an ace." The next was, "Join the move to cut down cursin', and stop bangin' the ball at the fat netperson." And finally, "You handsome, you jolly, how come lousy volley?"

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