Autumn Phillips: Testing the tennis gene


I am in sports limbo. I'm not so bad that I'm ashamed to play, but I'm also not good enough that people like to play with me.

I'm the tennis equivalent of a dog that wants to keep playing fetch long after his owner has gotten annoyed. I stand there smiling, "Tennis, anyone?" and I get that half-curled smile I've seen so many times at barbecues right before the dog's owner shouts, "Give it a rest."

I'd like to say that my passion for tennis and my complete inability to play are a new phenomenon.

Alas, this is not a bumbling but hopeful discovery of a new sport during adulthood. This is a lifelong disaster.

My biographer will use tennis as the constant thread in this Greek tragedy called my life. It begins with a young Autumn Phillips.

It is the prerogative of every parent to test their offspring early in life for what a friend calls "the tennis gene."

My parents waited until my early adolescence then threw me into the arena with the rest of the short shorts and sweatbands. (It was the '80s.) After one season of work on my backhand -- and probably a pleading, behind-my-back conference with my tennis instructor -- my parents did not enroll me in a second year of lessons.

They decided a better investment than money thrown at my tennis career might be the Edsel, laser discs or land on Khyber Pass.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I did not take the hint. When it comes to tennis, I am oblivious to the snickers of others or to the reality of the situation. Therefore, I do not have the scars many of my friends incurred after learning their tennis gene is as withered as a raisin in the sun.

Like golf, sailing or skiing, tennis has a lot of baggage. It's a class game as much as a form of exercise. Where you play, how you play and what you wear while you play mean just as much as the score at the end of the game.

Start talking tennis (or sailing for that matter) and people unconsciously slip into that peculiar, slow-talking face they wear around their parents' friends.

Consider this example:

I was surprised last summer when I pulled out the racket and bounded toward a friend to see him break out in a sweat. He wore that "don't bring this up" look socially awkward people get when you start talking about high school, or the one chubby girls get when you bring up ballet. I soon learned that my friend has tennis trauma.

As I opened my mouth for "Tennis, anyone?" he melted into a rambling story about the children on the court who made fun of him when he was young. Apparently, his family summered on the wrong side of the island or some similar East Coast story of troubled youth.

I told him, tennis is a lot more fun in the Rocky Mountains far away from all that. Here, if you wear a white skirt to a match, people are more likely to laugh at you than be wearing one themselves.

Here, when I can convince someone to play, I happily volley ineptly on the bones of what once was a trailer park, grunting like a professional, living the mountain lifestyle.


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