Sex and Tennis
"Cripes! You don't think I double-faulted
THIS LABOR DAY WEEKEND all across the land, in nearly unimaginable numbers, Americans will be hard at work, puffing and stroking and grinding their teeth as they enjoy a game that seems to consist of swatting fuzz-covered rubber balls across a net. For some years now, this phenomenon has been comfortably referred to as the tennis boom. But the phrase simply no longer serves to describe the massive outpourings of cash and angst, the pop convolutions of status and commerce now going on in the once staid world of tennis. Even the word orgy, though it has some of the right resonances, sounds too temporary and frivolous.
If the zeal displayed were directed only at the ball, the game would be played better, and the current madness might be dismissed as an eccentric fad - and boon to retailers - in a class, say, with the Hula-Hoop or Saturday-night mah-jongg. But this is the age of the ME shirt, of instant psychological replay, of backyard Zen and Women's Liberation. With characteristically passionate optimism, American men and women pursue on the tennis court such things as health and ego reinforcement, true love and sexual aggression, social status and a special vision of the good life. "Let's face it," a Westchester housewife explains. "I took up tennis so we'd be invited to the Saturday parties at the club."
Says a single woman, lately removed to the suburbs: "It's a good way to meet a fairly decent sort of man." No less a student of American mores than Art Buchwald (a tennis player noted for his murderous lob) recently observed that in Washington, at least, the latest problem for divorce lawyers is which spouse will get custody of the tennis membership. "Ninety percent of the men who play tennis with women," says Designer Oleg Cassini, who has lately branched out into alluring multicolored outfits for tennis players, "do so with some hope of sexual reward." As a tennis player, Cassini should know better. But these days who will blame him for hustling his own products, or think him entirely wrong? Meanwhile, in California, a lanky 38-year-old tennis pro named Timothy Gallwey is becoming a national personality (with his own TV show and a bestselling book called The Inner Game of Tennis ) by blending Freud and Zen in his instruction and telling audiences that the way to play tennis, and the great game of life as well, is to win the inner struggle with yourself.
Few win that struggle. But 35 million people are now trying to play tennis; some 24 million play seriously. The total figure has more than tripled in the past five years, nearly doubled since 1973 and is still growing. Last year Americans spent $100 million on tennis balls, $200 million on togs, $230 million on new racquets, stringing, etc. Close to $400 million went to new court construction. Prize money and promotion for pro tournaments and expanding TV coverage, which helped foster the tennis craze, came to more than $10 million.
Untold fortunes are dribbled away on fringe gimmickry. Samples: Kingaroo Practice Pouches that carry eight tennis balls at the player's waist; Volley-Hi, the taller tennis-ball basket stand; GRABIT, a tiny claw set on the racquet butt for picking up single balls without bending; Lobster, one of the many mechanical tennis partners able to shoot practice balls at you every 3 ½ seconds.
Stores bulge with any or all of the several hundred tennis books now in print. (Sample title: How to Increase Your Net Value ). Alluring fashion ads offer raiment ranging from the new see-through tennis dresses to maternity clothes for tennis-playing moms-tobe, along with some advice from doctors on why it is safe to play while pregnant. Also available are cute court togs for the baby ("the little lobber"). Tennis, in short, has become a billiondollar-a-year business.
The most salient fact about the newest wave of tennis players is that more than half of them are women, and the name of the game that has done most to turn the simple teaching pro into a combined guru, shrink, social worker, friend and sounding board is mixed doubles. Of course, mixed doubles - a man and a woman partnered against another man and woman team - has always been part of the game of tennis. And much of U.S. tennis, whether singles or doubles, is still largely played men v. men, women v. women. But in monosex tennis, the stresses and strains of competition are more easily confined to the court, the conventions and etiquette more firmly established and double faults less susceptible to double meanings. A Jimmy Connors tantrum against a male opponent may be unseemly, but it is not ungallant or worse. However, mix sexes on a tennis court and all sorts of extratennis emotions are stirred: recall, for instance, the reverberations of the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King match. Something more than just racquet meeting ball all too often becomes involved, and that is what is making mixed doubles play a fresh and fascinating battleground in the ancient war of the sexes.
More and more, tennis is the sport in which American domestic hopes most visibly converge and conflict, the recreation that most remarkably reveals those double-fault lines in American marriage - a want of kindness, a shortage of manners. The swift transformation of a game once played mainly by the happy few - mannerly, immaculately clad and, to the popular mind, a bit sissified - into a mass middle-class mania, which may soon be pursued by more women than men, has already worked a number of apparently permanent small changes in American social life.
In some suburbs, tennis courts are outselling swimming pools. At a minimum cost of $11,000, they greatly enhance property values and encourage togetherness. Explains a New Jersey housewife: "The boys will use it. And if my husband is playing around, at least I'll be able to keep my eye on him." Around the country, the rent-a-court tennis party is beginning to challenge cocktails and the sit-down dinner party as standard entertainment. It is also blossoming as the ideal way to draw large congenial crowds for local benefits, like raising money for the P.T.A. Tennis camps for the young are thriving, as are tennis vacations for Mom and Dad.
In most major cities, swinging singles tennis clubs have sprung up. If the object is marriage, sex or companionship, the immediate subject is tennis. At the Lakeshore Racquet Club in Chicago, for example, Friday and Saturday are Swingers Nights. Single players pay $7 apiece for drinks, use of the chalet-like lounge overlooking the courts and a chance to enjoy musical tennis, i.e. mixed doubles played by six-person teams - three men, three women - so that two can always be sidelined to encourage light conversation. A tennis pro makes sure everyone "mixes," and gives sporadic pointers on the play.
The Tennis Corp. of America reports that all the mixed doubles social programs it runs in six cities are always sold out - and have long waiting lists. Half a dozen pros have been joined to players in holy matrimony, and the groups average about five or six marriages a year between the clients themselves. Commenting on the swingles system, former U.S. Information Agency Director Carl Rowan, an avid Washington tennis player, observes, "It's a safer and healthier way of getting a date, but it sure costs a lot more than buying three martinis." Confided a single girl at a New York City tennis club: "It's not like being picked up in a singles bar. At least you have tennis in common."
Thus far, no fond literary genius has come forward to do for romance and tennis what the late P.G. Wodehouse did for love and golf in stories like The Heart of a Goof and The Clicking of Cuthbert. Nor has any opera or fairy tale yet taken up the game. Still, whenever a starry-eyed young thing with a shaky backhand contemplates courtship and marriage, through mixed doubles, some dreadful figure should come out of the woodwork, wave a gnarled finger and howl: "Beware, my pretty! Tennis may prove no bond but a curse." The best warning that exists is a Buchwald column about a tennis-blighted romance between Patty and Bob. Its message can be taken in two quotes from Bob. Premarital: "You look so cute when you miss." Postmarital: "Don't hold your racquet down, stupid."
Partly with that comic contrast in view, Douglas Wallop (The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant) has just finished a novel about mixed doubles and infidelity in the suburbs. Another effort, Courting by Sue Costello, promises to be a tennis player's version of Fear of Flying . But the best stories of the mixed doubles scene might better be told by a writer like Edward Albee of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf who could chronicle the explosive marital tensions of the game. "What we'll soon need around here," says California's celebrated tennis pro Vic Braden, "is mixed doubles counselors, not marriage counselors."
Why sex and tennis are so often a flammable mixture lies partly in the intricate and marvelous nature of tennis itself. It is a game, one of the very few, that can accommodate in one match on one court a fair range of differing skills. Few sports can equal its sweetness - when one's timing is on and all's right with the world. No player easily forgets the delirious thwop as racquet perfectly connects with ball, or those tigerish moments when even a hacker happily coils himself under a sun-touched, softly falling lob, certain that this time - for once - he is going to pulverize it with an overhand smash, and then watch the dust kick up near the helpless enemy's baseline.
But tennis is treacherous. A golf ball just lies there while the player, lost in private concentration, slowly gathers himself to address it. Ping Pong strokes go so fast that the point is over before the player knows it. Besides, a week's solid practice will make a competent and more or less reliable Ping Ponger out of almost anybody. Not so tennis. Except for the backhand, its strokes are unnatural motions. Both ball and player are always on the move, and each individual shot is very much in public view. Every tennis player, from pro to patballer, is haunted by the knowledge that suddenly, for no discernible reason, his forehand may forget its cunning. Many games, sets and matches may pass before it can be relied on again.
How to explain (and correct) inexplicable disaster lies at the heart of primitive religion, superstition and the game of tennis. A litany of familiar player excuses is more often offered ritually beforehand, to ward off evil, than as ex post forehand exculpations. After the fact, of course, if a convenient scapegoat exists, too many tennis players will make use of him/her - whence some of the agony of mixed doubles.
The precariousness of tennis and the high visibility of tennis players are only contributing reasons why the game is so intense and unsettling. According to one of New York's tennis-loving psychiatrists who has watched friends please or torment each other on her private court for 30 years, tennis is a kind of vortex for assorted inner and outer stresses. "In neurology, there is the concept of the final common pathway: a vast, branchy tree of nerves with impulses flowing down into a narrow trunk." Tennis is a final common pathway. All sorts of personal and psychic stresses converge in it. All sorts of personalities come into conflict with others and with themselves, all sorts of characters are on display.
There is the player who passionately needs to show off. The player who does not, but is destroyed by looking bad. The people who must win to be happy, and the people for whom making good shots is what matters. All of them run risks of great humiliation in tennis. Along with cooperative pleasure, hostility, subservience, competitiveness, narcissism are all at play, sometimes in conflict with one another. Inner conflicts occur, however, when subconscious primitive urges (read id) and value systems (read superego) clash. A player about to realize a "forbidden desire" - from simply winning to smashing a ball at a female opponent - is a player in trouble. There are other divided and ultimately unstrung souls: the man who needs to feel great hostility in order to play hard, but whose conscience tells him that hostility is a bad thing. The woman - these days she is usually over 35 - for whom beating her husband or trying to win at all may be a deep and sensitive taboo. Many women admit that they want to win, but feel "I'm being mean" when they do. Gallwey, for example, has watched superior women players breeze into a 5-1 or 5-2 score over their husbands, only to find themselves unable to put the set away by winning the sixth and final game.
The deepest cause of stress when playing with partners is a vulnerable sense of tormented and helpless guilt or responsibility, which destroys tennis strokes and poisons the atmosphere of the game. Profound, personal involvement of any sort off the court - "deep love or hate," or both together - can invade the game and make being tennis partners intolerable. (Playing against someone you love is much easier.) Fathers or mothers partnered with a favorite child are often as tense as husbands and wives. Father and son players know this all too well. A tournament player learned long ago that his game goes to pieces just knowing that his father is in the stands. In the early informal days, the proud father, longing to see his son, would sneak up on the game, skulking from tree to tree at the country club. But the son - mysteriously sensitive to his father's presence - always blew up on the court.
It is no surprise that when they are not berating their partners, hard-pressed tennis players of any gender tend to talk to themselves. The level of discourse is not high. It is also likely to be hortatory and derisive. "Watch the ball, dummy. Watch the ball!" According to Gallwey, such self-abuse is highly destructive. So is what he calls the "Oh-Oh Experience" - as in "Oh-Oh! Here comes a backhand." Gallwey: pioneered “yoga tennis” (or Zennis, as some people call it), From his Inner Game Institute above Malibu Beach, Calif., he has urged hundreds of thousands of students, TV viewers and readers to improve their game by shutting up that judgmental and frightened voice. Stop trying so hard, he argues. Let the body and racquet emulate "the unthinking spontaneity of the leopard" and do what comes naturally.
For the purposes of his instruction, the denigrating voice is designated as Self 1 (read ego), the natural body as Self 2 (read id). Unless you can shut Self I up or calm him down, Gallwey contends, Self 2 will be too nervous to play. To help Self 2 devote itself to tennis, Gallwey wisely offers practical exercises on how to relax and watch the ball. Among them: actually trying to see the ball's seams as it approaches; following its trajectory back and forth while imagining it is creating a huge linear, free-form painting in the air. Says he: "The ball should always be now." Gallwey was the captain of the Harvard tennis team (class of 1960). He later studied meditation with the Maharaji and traveled in India. Though he rejects the Self 1 Western view that your self-respect depends on winning, he has managed to reconcile Eastern passivity with the thoroughly Western notion that striving and competition are essential to excellence. "What have you really won when you win?" he asks his students. "What have you really lost when you lose?" As if to show that winning is no big deal, he stages a pushing match between his left hand and his right, then points out that if winner and loser do not push hard, there is nothing in it for either one. True competition, it follows, is really a sophisticated form of cooperation.
Aspirant players who wish to improve their game or their court manners without benefit of Eastern philosophy are free (at $200 for five days' instruction, plus room and board) to try Gallwey's most eminent competition. By California standards, it is just down the road, at Coto de Caza near Laguna Beach, a 5,000acre mission-cum-tennis college presided over by Vic Braden, 47. Though Braden bears a faint resemblance to a vest-pocket Buddha and has a graduate degree in psychology, his methods epitomize two current hopes of Western civilization - a sense of humor and trust in technology.
Braden's indoor classrooms have enough electronic TV gadgetry, cameras, screens, replay devices and tapes to make the average TV newsroom look medieval. When his students are not having balls shot at them or stroking backhands into canvas practice funnels set up like spokes on a wheel, they listen to him lecture or sit in yellow and orange director's chairs and watch thousands of feet of film, much of it videotape, of themselves, some of it comic. Of the 3,500 people who attend the school each year, nearly 75% are couples. While teaching mixed doubles, Braden can be serious enough. But his films and lectures showing male chauvinism rampant on the courts make the women hoot with glee. The men grin and bear it.
And take the blame. For if there is one serpent most easily discernible in the Garden of Eden togetherness that Americans hope for from tennis, it is the American husband. Until the advent of Women's Liberation, when men began to be accused of a certain piggish dominance again, a sociologist's easy generalization about the American middle-class husband was that he had lost his domestic clout. It is hardly more than a decade, in fact, since wits began describing the commuting husband as a "yard man with sex privileges." Now it appears that whatever happened in the den and kitchen, this henpecked hacker remained master and monster through it all - at least on the courts.
Women at all levels of playing skill, and not a few tennis pros of both sexes, accuse the husband-player of as many sins as a bishop might curse with bell, book and candle. He is found guilty of coaching and poaching - i.e., taking shots from his wife's side of the court. Of preaching and reaching and teaching. Of cheating and bleating. Of serving too fast. Of serving too slow. Of hitting the ball right at his female opponent. Of not hitting the ball right at his female opponent. Of bad tennis, bad sportsmanship and, above all, a bad mouth. Women who attend Gallwey's classes have no trouble recognizing the angry voice of Self 1: it is their husband. They are poor Self 2. Such descriptive phrases as "cow," "fat banana" and "pregnant elephant" can be heard on the most elegant courts. "Move your ass" appears to be a not infrequent admonition - not to mention a stream of not so sotto voce expletives, four-letter words and hectoring commands: "Run! Run!" "Hit the ball. Hit the ball!" "Up! Up!" and, maddeningly above all for women partners, "Outta the way! I got it! I got it!" Even where the female partner is the more skilled, men seem to have a disconcerting habit of trying to remake her playing style to suit their own strengths and weaknesses.
The tense exchanges that result run to repetitive caricature, like mother-in-law jokes. "I felt like walking off and saying, 'Go ahead. Play the whole court.' " "My husband's favorite words are 'Shut up and hit the ball.'” Frosty silences can be plangent too. Carl Rowan remembers that when he used to play with his wife Vivien (a better player than he is), there were times when he did not dare look at her on the court. "I knew if I caught her eye, we'd spat." They get on better now because his game has improved. Ira Herrick, a suburban New York mixed doubles player, remembers that once while playing with a woman, not his wife, he inadvertently cleared his throat. "Now don't you start in," she said, turning on him. "This is as bad as playing with my husband."
The serpents, of course, plead extenuating circumstances. Some men hate mixed doubles play and endure it only when caught. "You could play it in your tuxedo," says one. Why? Because, so the argument goes, women are slow. Another excuse is that most women had a deprived childhood - i.e., they did not get to throw a ball much, which plays hob later with the motion needed for a good serve. Some men will blandly generalize, in the face of all history, that women lack that killer will to win. Others will argue that unlike men, who in doubles usually feel ashamed if they play at a level so far below that of other players that they ruin the game for everybody, women persist in trying to bridge impossible gaps in skill. Says Boston Columnist Jack Thomas: Women "are confused about equal rights and equal skills."
To be fair, it is true that many men have been caught in an agonizing shift in court customs largely created by the consciousness raising of Women's Liberation. "In the old days," Columbia's Dr. Hendin points out, "winning was not considered important in mixed doubles. It was expected that the man would poach and hit easy balls to the women." Even where winning was important, tradition and good tactics tended to give women a subordinate role. Pauline Betz Addie, now a teaching pro in Washington, remembers being teamed with Bobby Riggs in a championship mixed doubles match when she was the NO.2 female player in America. Said Riggs: "Stand in the alley. Don't hit anything that isn't going to hit you." Recalls Addie: "We won. And that's still good advice, provided the man is a really good player."
There is still an unstated convention among mixeddoubles men that a male player is never beastly to the woman across the net. When it is broken, reports Ethel Kennedy's tennis pro Bob Graham, male rage is aroused. Says he: "I've never seen men actually come to blows, unless they're playing with their wives." Today, however, more and more women are acquiring the skill to be beastly on their own and to hit hard. "I love to shock men by coming back with a strong overhead," says Debbie Humphreys, the wife of a New Jersey teaching pro. Women, especially those under 35, often demand a hard serve. One reason: being patronized is more humiliating than risking the loss of a point.
Whatever the provocation, the result is soon clear. A surprising number of men, in fact, admit to unbearable tennis behavior, reflecting on it bemusedly like sobered drunks, as if at a loss to explain what gets into them. Things go wrong even when they are trying hard to be helpful - sometimes for just that reason. Every tennis player has watched a husband encouraging his wife. The harder she tries, the more encouragement he offers. The worse she gets, the more he grits his teeth to be nice. Says one woman: "Even when he doesn't say anything, I feel watched."
"I tell myself, 'Don't be impatient. Treat her like anyone else.' But how can you treat your wife like anyone else? You say things to your wife that you would never say to another woman or to a man." The speaker is an even-tempered, otherwise happily married tennis pro, a former English teacher and Ph.D. in education who used to play mixed doubles with his wife. As Gardner Stem, a Chicago supermarket executive who met his second wife on a tennis court, says, "With my wife on the court, I'm a regular Jekyll and Hyde."
John Gunther once noted that in Hong Kong, the Chinese, after observing how the English groaned and sweated, how gruff and red they grew on the court, mildly inquired why they did not hire coolies to play their tennis for them. Much the same sort of observation might be made about the psychological stresses of mixed doubles for many couples. Indeed, the mystery is, in view of the possible pain, why so many people want to play mixed doubles at all. One reason, masquerading under the jargon of togetherness, is a persistent yearning for a shared skill, for a kind of comradeship that husbands and wives feel ought to be part of a modern marriage. "It was sort of like circling the wagons," a 45-year-old wife says wistfully. "However you worked it out, you were supposed to be stronger for being together." Another reason is the evident pleasure of the game as it can be played, a fine and courtly conspiracy in motion, full of nuances and restraints and insights into character, as well as hard shots and action. "Mixed doubles," says John McPhee, author of Levels of the Game, the best book on tense, competitive tennis yet written, "has to be played with a pinch of forbearance. It doesn't have much to do with winning. It's more like a fleshly version of that other rarity, a civilized conversation between four friends."
Whatever the motives, whatever the pangs, circumstances alone seem likely to keep mixed doubles growing. Crowded and expensive courts force people to play doubles, and some clubs have dictated doubles only for weekends, which frequently translates into mixed doubles. One of the largest groups in the new wave of tennis players are the over 50s, men and women whose children are grown up and who want to do something together. They also tend to prefer the slower pace of mixed doubles.
Prize money for mixed doubles at the U.S. Open increased over 300% in the past year, and such matches are covered more heavily than ever by television. The network of smaller mixeddoubles tournaments for amateurs, sponsored by companies, is increasing. In 1970, Kodel's first year, 600 players competed. This year more than 10,000 men and women were in action, and the company is thinking of doubling that number next year. More mixed doubles play does not necessarily mean less conflict. Braden notes that in tennis, as women free themselves from inhibitions about sweating and yelling and hustling to win, they may prove more of a court scourge than men. Says he: "Women are hurt more deeply and stay hurt longer by losses. I've had women come to me saying they wanted to be good enough to beat someone two years from now. The arguments in the new all-women's leagues are something like 25 times as many as occur in the men's leagues. For many women who don't work, tennis is their only outlet. There is no definite reward system in being a mother. With tennis there is a definite reward system."
Braden's view of the California court manners of recently unleashed female players competing against their own sex is borne out by experiences elsewhere in the country. Says a Georgia psychiatrist: "They look at the ball and think of it as the washing-machine repairman, and flail away." The Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association, which began in 1950 with just 35 members, now has 10,000, among them 4,500 women who compete every week on 400 organized teams. This year the competition on and off the court, and the consequent bickering, grew so hot and ludicrous that many veteran players withdrew from the game. Said the program's coordinator, a woman: "They couldn't pay me to do this job again." Efforts to psych the opposition ran all the way from intentional on-court talking (and even smoking) to giving wrong driving directions to teams headed for a remote court, so that the enemy would be more than 20 minutes late and thus forfeit the match. Off-putting snide remarks, of the sort now openly urged by many books as part of tennis strategy, flourished. ("Are you paired with Sue? You'll never win.") In Class A, where some of the best women tennis players in the city compete, a woman with a reputation for making bad line-ball calls to her side's advantage sued for defamation of character when her opponents protested.
If Freud were living at this hour, he would not have to ask "What does a woman want?" The answer is a big serve. The spectacle of women trying to prove that anatomy is not destiny and - temporarily, at least, turning into cavepersons on the mixed doubles courts as a result - may be either good news or bad in the long run. One who thinks cutthroat competition for women is bad is Anthropologist Margaret Mead. She admits that if women turn their backs on the home and childbearing, they may need sport to give them confidence in their bodies, as men have done since the beginnings of society. But she thinks Americans are terrible sports ("We're always saying, 'Kill the umpire.' "), and she wishes that in or out of sports, American women would set a better example for men. They still could. Significantly, perhaps, it appears that among the new wave of women players, those who have full-time jobs and, like men, play the game at night and on weekends seem most calm and mannerly. For the Women's Movement and mixed doubles alike, that phenomenon may have many happy returns.