A Tale of Two Tennis Courts

Travelling, whilst embracing a whole host of new opportunities, inevitably involves leaving some things behind: old friends, family, a secure base, that which is known and familiar. For me, as well as all of the above, I had to forgo my guitars and my tennis, two major passions. Fortunately, however, guitars did appear at odd intervals along the way and I did get to play tennis twice whilst on this trip, on different continents and across a huge economic and social chasm.

March 2015: Calcutta, India.

Opening the curtains at 7am on the 9th floor of our Airbnb bedroom revealed a glorious sight, at least 8 tennis courts, all appearing to be in excellent condition, on which groups of children were being coached. Flanked by nondescript concrete tower blocks it had, for me at least, the appearance of a lost valley, a Shangri-la of tennis.

I went to investigate straight after breakfast, walking up Woodham Road to soon find the gated entrance above which a large metal sign spelt out in large white letters The South Club. Finding the clubhouse area deserted, save for a few mothers watching their offspring, I sat and watched with them: the children were intent on their task, stepping up one by one to return a ball fed by their coach. Smartly attired and well-groomed, these were India’s future captains of industry. Privilege and a sense of entitlement were etched on each and every face as they hit textbook forehands crosscourt.

An older man with a Wilson kit bag came to sit on the terrace and we exchanged nods. After a decent interval I went over to talk and investigate the possibility of being able to play. Yadzai charmingly informed me, in barely accented public school English, that there was indeed an open afternoon in two days time and that he would be delighted if a visitor from England would make up a fourth player in their game. Having no shoes or racquet was not a problem either, and noting my shoe size, preferred racquet and size told me, “It will be arranged.”

Later that day I googled The South Club and learnt that it was one of India’s oldest and most prestigious tennis clubs, dubbed ‘The Wimbledon of Asia’. Quite what I had got myself into remained to be seen. At a street market a pair of sport shorts were bought which, when coupled with a white nylon T-shirt, would make a passable attempt at conforming to the club dress code. Some serious stretching, accompanied by some ‘shadow tennis’ in the room, was all the preparation I could manage.

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On the due afternoon the temperature at 3pm was 85F with 80% humidity. Yadzai introduced me to my partner, Ajit Lall, a handsome grey-haired man of a solid, athletic build. Yadzai’s ‘man’ presented me with an almost new pair of tennis shoes and exactly the racquet I had asked for. Before we left the clubhouse Ajit handed me something. “You might find this useful,” he said and showed me how to attach an ‘ice-collar’ to prevent overheating.

The four of us walked away from the clubhouse, past a swimming pool and then towards a high fenced, screened area. Stepping through the door I turned to see four immaculate grass tennis courts side by side, each with an attendant group of lanky boys waiting patiently with handfuls of tennis balls.

We warmed up with basic drills: forehands, backhands, volleys, overheads and serves. The ground was baked hard sending the ball through low and fast, coupled with the wiry grass which imparted a savage kick to any spin, these were testing conditions. When the set began in earnest it became immediately obvious that all three men were very competent players. There were precious few short balls to capitalise on, the angles were acute, intercepts swift and without mercy. Ajit was solid, rarely missing and we won his service game comfortably. The sweat was pouring off me but the ice-collar helped keep me at a reasonable operating temperature. My turn to serve arrived, always a test in any situation. I bounced the ball whilst shaking out my right arm to achieve what my Sicilian tennis coach had once described as a ‘spaghetti arm’ – loose and flexible. It must have worked as the ball flew straight down the T and past the receiver: an ace! My luck came and went after that in the ceaseless ebb and flow that is the momentum of the game. My time in India served me well, I focused on the process and not the outcome, trying to play the ball and not let it play me. But above all I just enjoyed it, not only was I playing tennis, surely one of the greatest sports ever to grace the face of the earth, but I was doing so on a famous grass court in Calcutta.

Ninety minutes and 2-sets later we all retired to the clubhouse where white-turbaned waiters in matching grey tunics and sashes served us ice-cold lime juice and lightly salted cashews. Yadzaii and his partner departed and I was left chatting to Ajit who proudly told me that his late brother, Premjit Lall, had reached the Junior final in the 1958 Wimbledon Championships and had played on India’s Davis Cup team from 1959 until 1973. We shook hands and an offer was extended to drop by again the next time I was in the city. I could not have been happier.

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November 2016: South Central, Los Angeles, USA.

From where I sat in the hot tub the HOLLYWOOD sign, far away in the hills, glowed in the evening sun. Eric’s Indonesian wife, Surya, refilled my glass and I took a long sip. The white wine and the hot tub were just what was needed after the morning’s activity.

At 10:30am that morning Eric, Grace and I had piled into an elderly Suzuki jeep and spun off down the steep road and through BoHo Echo Park. A zig and a zag later we joined the daily insanity that is Highway 10: 6-lanes a side, no visible lane discipline, tailgating seemingly obligatory, lane switching at random. Cutting across 3-lanes Eric exited and we drove beside a railway line separated from the road by tarpaulin covered piles of building materials. On the other side the single storey light industrial buildings were graffiti covered and in a poor state of repair. It looked like Bolivia, but whereas Bolivia had an excuse Los Angeles did not.

We parked where Slauson intersected with Van Ness, opposite an open grassy area, beside which a lone tennis court was hosting the first fallen autumn leaves. In one corner a blue plastic bag danced in the embrace of a mini-tornado before snagging on the high fence of the court around whose perimeter were an assortment of sun-bleached tents, supermarket trolleys and black plastic sheeting.

‘I think you’ll like Earl,’ said Eric as he grabbed his racquet from the trunk of the car. ‘He loves to play tennis.”

As though on cue a tall, rangy figure in a dark tracksuit came half skipping towards us carrying a racquet in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other.

‘Yo Eric,” he cried, ‘Wassup man, what we got here then?” And pushing the racquet under one arm and switching the bottle to his left hand pumped my hand hard several times as we were all introduced.

“England, England, now ain’t that a thing. Now you’s in South Park with Eric and Earl. How bout that. You can play…..? You wanna play…..? Good, that’s real good, got some of those England moves goin’ on to show us here in LA.”

We all laughed and walked onto the court with its well-worn lines and pitted surface. Another African-American with a wide smile came over, high-fived Earl, gave him another beer and then shook all our hands while telling us, “I’m the Mayor of this hood, looking after all these folks that LA forgot.” He then swung on his heels and left.

A few other people were milling around the outside of the court, talking amongst themselves or to the people sitting in the open awnings of the tents. All were African-American and spoke in the short, punchy style of ghetto folk jive.

As we were three and I was carrying a back injury we decided that Earl and I would play in the doubles court on our side against Eric in the singles court on the other. There was no serving as such, just a ball feed and a points system based on a simple aggregate score of a point for each win and a change of feed when the current server lost a point. First to a hundred would be the winner. Earl seemed to like to feed so I kept my position at the net which suited my limited mobility.

Both Eric and Earl were of the ‘hit it hard and hit it low’ school of tennis. Top spin was minimal but they achieved good length on their shots. Whenever Eric cracked one at me I volleyed them back into the open court. At my first miss Earl was straight over with some coaching tips.

“Mass times velocity man,” he cried, “Mass times velocity. You gotta remember that all the time. Move your racquet like this,” and he dropped down and pushed his racquet forward to demonstrate. “No mass no velocity, that’s the science of the game working, gotta put some in to get some out.”

Earl was also of the ‘make them play another ball’ school, a superb retriever, his lanky frame gave him superb reach and he scrabbled for everything, chasing down every ball to loop it back high to the far end of the court. Eric for his part also defended well and the points accumulated quickly on both sides. I tried a drop shot in place of a volley and, being out of practice, lacked the finesse to perform it properly.

“Gotta get down to the ball man,” called Earl with a shake of his head, “Gotta make it look like you is going to volley and then, cradle that ball with your racquet, disguise it at the last minute. That’s the secret.”

I nodded back, tongue clamped in place. It had not seemed necessary to say that I had been captain of a tennis team in England that played in a local league. The back injury was definitely stopping me from going for certain shots but I didn’t want to use that as an excuse.

Eric lasted a good time on the other side of the net with two against one but after 20-minutes he was done. Earl went to the other end and I asked if he could feed me some slow balls just to get my eye in. He cracked a hard, low ball straight at me. I wasn’t even ready and it flew past me and slammed into the back wall.

“Wake up England!” Shouted Earl with a high pitched squeal.

I bounced from foot to foot in readiness as another super fast ball was fired at my backhand. My timing out I hooked it high and long.

“The court down here man,” cried Earl.

I walked to the back of the court to pick up some balls and whilst doing so noticed a youngish black woman come out of her shelter on the other side of the fence to shake a small piece of carpet. The tent flaps were wide open and I could see right into her home: it was piled with plastic bags, clothes, a stash of canned food and a cardboard box. She looked up and acknowledged me with a nod and a friendly smile. Turning slowly around I saw that everyone living outside the court perimeter was engaged in some minor domestic act, a rearrangement of the items in a shopping trolley, airing a sleeping bag, or making something to eat.

Earl fired another rocket at me and again I swung too wildly, being out of practice, too tight in my back and there being just too much going on around this tennis court and inside my head to keep focused on the ball.

“Earl, I’m done,” I called over to him. He bounded on over and wrapped himself around me. “You done great Mr England, you done real good.”

We all sat for a while in the shade, then gathered up our bits and pieces and embraced with much slapping of hands and goodwill. I saw Eric give Earl a $20 bill and as we drove back towards the interstate asked him about his relationship with Earl.

“D’you know, I have no idea where Earl lives,” he told us, ‘“he might be homeless but I have never wanted to ask for fear of offending him. I drove past one day and saw him hitting balls on his own and stopped to ask if he would like to play once a week. It started just like that. I give him the $20 because he supplies the balls and although they’re old and tired I don’t give a flying falafel. I like the guy and he gives me the best run around this 69-year old guy gets every week.”

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