Last June 15, at Littered With Books in Singapore, Noelle, author of “Blood: Collected Stories” (Ethos Books 2015) and “Cursed and Other Stories” (forthcoming from Penguin Random House SEA October 2019) gave a talk on her two passions—tennis and reading—for the Ethos Books Deep Cut lecture series. The following piece is her talk, adapted for print.
Even as we’re all still talking about Rafa Nadal’s French Open triumph over Thiem, I’m already looking forward to grass. I am also overjoyed that Ashleigh Barty’s won her first slam, and I’m loving the “It’s really anybody’s game” nature of today’s WTA. We’ll have to wait a little longer for the changing of the guard in the ATP, while Djokovic, Nadal and Federer are still fairly dominant. But it’s tremendously exciting to witness younger players rise to the top and begin to take wins here and there from the champions they idealized.
It’s in this in-between stage, when there’s no tennis on TV that I turn to the next best thing: reading tennis. I’m very old-school. When I fall in love with something, as I did with tennis in 2011 when I had my first lesson, I want to read about it.
The rewards are rich and varied. One can read tennis for entertainment or “story”—the life of a champion or the fascinating anecdotes about the various people a great coach has helped. One can also read theory. In books like this, all that’s required is clarity, a cleanness of expression and maybe, a cleverness of description that flicks on the screen in your head.
But when a book is so eloquent as to approach literature, well, not surprisingly, the rewards are magnified. At once, you find pleasure of language at the level of the line. Reading is then a delightful, deeply satisfying enterprise that simultaneously entertains, teaches and triggers its own resonances. Such satisfaction is heightened when the writer is able to recreate the sensations of playing on court through prose. And since tennis is such a perfect metaphor for life itself, great tennis texts offer philosophical rewards. Like life, great tennis demands that you combat pressure, focus, relax, stop thinking and simply do—because you’re the only person you can rely on.
Where it all started
2011 was not the first time I held a tennis racquet. But it wasn’t something I learned as they say here in Singapore, “from young.” In Manila in the ’70s and ’80s, tennis was simply not accessible to me, not the way it is to kids in Singapore. After all, here there are public courts that can be booked for a song. Many schools, both public and private, at all levels have tennis courts. Community centers have tennis courts, and there are tennis courts in condo and apartment complexes. Not in Manila. The tennis I knew, I watched on TV before the existence of cable sports. And when I could find them, I rented betamax tapes of tournaments.
In 1985, my dad got playing rights at one of the city clubs. The first week of summer between high school and college, I took my saved allowance to pay for one tennis lesson. I had no racquet. I wore denim shorts, a T-shirt and my rubber shoes. I showed up in the punishing glare of the 11 a.m. sun. The guy had me choose from a pile of old racquets. I picked up a huge wood thing that was probably circa ’70.
“Palo-palo lang tayo,” he said.
And that’s what we did. After 40 minutes or so, I had to stop. I went home, took a shower and climbed into bed with a savage headache and the most painful body aches I’d ever had in my life. Tennis is too hard, I thought. I should forget it. And I did.
In the US for graduate school, we had a brief fling with squash, which was playable indoors in the winter. Later the husband and I started playing badminton, as it seemed everyone did in Manila in the mid to late ’90s. Then we had kids, moved to Singapore, and resumed playing badminton. But the booking system was tough, cornered by the local community who would book up courts on evenings and weekends, well in advance. We had a few tennis-playing friends in our little Pinoy SG community, so I decided to give tennis another try. This, only after I picked up a friend’s slick titanium racquet, shocked at how light it was.
It was love at first hit. I remember thinking to myself that somehow, the swing and pop of the ball on the racquet’s sweet spot was just way more satisfying and more hypnotic than the whisk and doink of the shuttlecock. At my first lesson, exactly two strokes—forehand and backhand—were broken down for me by the coach, a Singaporean pro who had on his resume over 15 years experience teaching tennis at the number one girls’ elementary school. I was hooked. Realizing I knew nothing about tennis theory triggered my pre-occupation with tennis books.
Who says you can’t learn tennis from a book?
The best books on fundamentals I’ve encountered? Unfortunately, there are plenty of duds out there. One rather poorly written tennis fundamentals book had me mystified than when I began. I read another that explained the concept of topspin as though it were a physics computation. I complained about this to more experienced players and they looked at me like I was from outer space.
“You can’t learn tennis from a book, Noelle.”
Well, I beg to disagree. A good book on tennis theory can clarify many things that aren’t addressed in a lesson, and in that way, can be a perfect complement to an excellent coach.
After a couple of years playing club socials, I joined a bunch of ladies to form a team in one of the ladies leagues. And that’s when the dual nature of the sport dawned on me. Why was I able to play well in practice but not in matches? Why did I make errors in a match that I would not make in a social game? I began reading more. I read “Winning Ugly” by Brad Gilbert who coached Andre Agassi. I read Vic Braden’s “Tennis 2000” and his “Mental Tennis: How To Psyche Yourself To A Winning Game.” Braden coached Tracy Austin, and then went on to establish his own Tennis College, and remains one of the most exceptional tennis educators of all time.
These books have the necessary purity and clarity to break down strokes, describe strategies, and summarize tips and tactics, plus offer plenty of good humor and stories about the pros they coached. As I learned more, I wanted to read even more.
Never get a stroke
I found “Late to the Ball” by Gerald Marzorati, a former magazine editor, who decided when he retired that he would now devote his time to improving his tennis game enough to be able to play in the seniors circuit at the national level. Sub-titled “A Journey into Tennis and Aging,” its appeal to me was self-evident, as I started playing at perimenopausal 43. Marzorati was 60 when he began his tennis journey.
A fresh, sharp storyteller, Marzorati is most effective when he is writing about his learning process. We all take pleasure in reading good process prose, no matter what the subject is, and his process prose was excellent. He skillfully reproduces the feel of the play, and ably summarizes a lengthy rally point with deft, action-packed description. He does an impeccable job of making you see the game in your head, while teaching you how to play it at the same time.
Moreover, his book is a passionate, philosophical treatise that rises above the sport of tennis. He highlights a certain way of life at just that point where much of life is over and done with, yet still describing the potential for more for those who want it. Life holds more, Marzorati says. You can learn more and achieve more and fulfill more possibilities, regardless of your age.
The tennis writer David Foster Wallace
Last year, I picked up a beautiful hardbound edition of the novelist David Foster Wallace’s “String Theory,” David Foster Wallace actually played tennis at the national junior level. And thus, he wrote about it in fiction, essays, journalism and reviews. Tragically, he committed suicide in 2008.
“String Theory” collects his five extended essays on tennis, including “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” and “Federer Both Flesh and Not.” The latter had the GOAT himself marveling at the breadth and depth of Wallace’s piece, despite only speaking with him for half an hour.
In the former essay, Wallace confesses he is “a rabid fan of tennis in general and Tracy Austin in particular” such that when her biography, “Beyond Center Court,” came out, he was devastated at how insipid and terribly written it was, explicating the frequent disappointment that comes with reading athlete’s memoirs.
Like Wallace, I also long for a great book about the players I most admire. At the very least, a truly great book about Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal. Unfortunately, I have yet to find one I love unequivocally. There is nothing that stands out about Serena either. I would love to read a book about the recently retired David Ferrer—the literature lover from Valencia who has had such a great career but never won a slam due to the Big Four. Or what about a book about my boyfriend, Juan Martin Del Potro? He won the 2009 US Open, defeating first Rafa Nadal in the semi-final and Roger Federer in the final, the only player outside the Big Four to win a Major between 2005 and 2013, before falling off the charts due to not one but four major wrist surgeries. To my mind, there are many phenomenal tennis stories to tell—the amazing athletic headcase that is Gael Monfils or the wild tantrum-throwing Nick Kyrgios.
I’ve decided I will read Maria Sharapova’s “Unstoppable My Life So Far,” only because I’ve heard a few good things. But I have my doubts. Will it ace the best athlete memoir out there, bar none? Will it beat the unmitigated winner that is Andre Agassi’s “Open?” I wouldn’t bet on it.
The ace that is ‘Open’
The reason “Open” is so remarkable is that Agassi is clearly a reader. It was he who sought collaboration with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, J.R. Moehringer, after having read the latter’s own memoir, “The Tender Bar.”
As a result, “Open” is a triumph of the form over function. Like a powerful novel, it charts a heartbreaking story with evocative drama and compelling characters in a voice of allure and pathos that’s also, unmistakably, Agassi.
Agassi wanted Moehringer’s name on the book alongside his. Moehringer refused. It was the perfect, noble decision. Moehringer could never have written “Open” without Andre Agassi. But he is the only one who could have written it as well as this, shaping the events in the athlete’s life around his most compelling conflict—Agassi’s love-hate relationship with his father, and by extension, with the sport of tennis itself.
“Open” is a book you keep coming back to, always finding something that resonates as though you were reading it for the first time.
“Suddenly, my father had his backyard tennis court, which meant I had my prison. I helped feed the chain gang that built my cell. I’d helped measure and paint the white lines that would confine me. Why did I do it? I had no choice. The reason I do everything.”
Waiting For Wimbledon
What do I do until Wimbledon? There is the writing. And fortunately, there is tennis to play, even if the leagues are off-season. I’ve started playing singles mostly with the husband. Not only is it a better workout, it offers the double psychic rewards of perimenopausal management and the catharsis of marriage conflict resolution, without actual conflict.
And as I look for more tennis books, I’ve decided to try my hand at writing one. A tome full of the peculiar, often hilarious misadventures and life lessons, off court and on, playing ladies league tennis for more than half a decade. Ladies of this “certain age” are among the craziest, most competitive beings on the planet, and thus, rich and ripe with conflict. That’s something to look forward to, a second tennis act. At any rate, I’m confident there are more strokes and more plays like this note I wrote on Facebook seven years ago.
To be sure, there are obvious disadvantages to picking up tennis as a fortysomething mother of teens. You are not seven. You no longer possess the same energy or agility you once had. Immediate physical mastery is a faint memory, and you have a rather heightened fear of falling to the ground. Certain movements make you hear distinct creaking and feel twinges in your bones and muscles. Your body no longer obeys the commands of your mind.
And yet, there are surprisingly undeniable rewards to learning new actions in a new space. There is pleasing satisfaction in the pop of the ball against the sweet spot of your racquet held just so. To marvel with awe at such diversity of feel, awe that would have gone unnoticed had you learned this at 9 or 10, except to think, mechanically: this is a volley, this is a slice, this is topspin.
Fortysomething is as good a time as any to learn things you thought you knew well enough—patience, timing, when to step in, when to hold back, when to apply power and when to use placement. Ultimately, for the fortysomething mother of teens, it’s difficult not to see the parallels the game has with parenting itself.
Both demand self-discipline and consistency. Both require the ability to shake off the deep frustration and regret of unforced errors, the will to keep eye on ball, and the know-how to step in at the right time, not necessarily with power, but with calm, thoughtful placement.
Finally, for the fortysomething mother of teens, there is almost unspeakable, exhilarating joy in doing something right within a game. There is joy that goes far beyond winning or losing. Such addictive pleasure there is, for example, in hitting a ball, low-to-high, so it takes flight, soaring high but with topspin enough to rein it in the last few seconds of descent, so the ball lands an inch within the baseline, before bouncing, free, easy and just out of reach. —CONTRIBUTED