Backhanded Compliments

US OpenThe U.S. Open is getting underway today in Queens, NY, not far from where my New York daughter and her husband live, and the New York Times Magazine is awash in tennis talk and nostalgia, and so am I. I, the early tennis dropout.

Both my parents were avid tennis players, and my father tried valiantly to turn me into one as well. But I was skinny and pigeon-toed and claimed to be more interested in ballet. Until I became a dropout there as well. That was when I became interested instead in high school and being popular and having boyfriends. My poor father.

What I seem to remember most about tennis instruction from my father in the times we spent at the East Orange (NJ) Tennis Club is how to place your hands on the racket. What is that called? The handle, the arm? You see what a dropout I was: I can’t even remember the terminology. You were supposed to arrange your hand around that part of the racket with your fingers just so if you were going for a forehand shot, and then shift the position just so for a backhand shot. BOR-RR-RING!

And now Michael Steinberger is writing in the Times Magazine about the demise of the one-handed backhand. “The one-hander has become the last redoubt of artistry in tennis,” he writes, “a final vestige of the sport as it was traditionally played.”

I did wonder, in the years after his death, how my father would have reacted to the two-handed backhand being practiced at first by the likes of Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg, and then later by nearly everyone, just as I similarly wondered what he would have said about the relaxation of the tennis whites dress code. And how about the shouting and displays of temper? Fortunately for him, my father died in 1970 and missed all the upheaval the sport endured, not to mention that in modern life in general.

But Ed and I are determined to make it into ripe old age so our children will witness all of our stumbles in geezerhood, embarrassing them and ourselves with our intransigence in the face of so-called progress. It’s so they won’t be surprised when their time comes.

But here’s something I gleaned from Steinberg’s article: “The fact that children’s rackets, like adult rackets, are significantly lighter these days suggests that it should be easier now to teach a 10-year-old to play with a one-handed backhand than it was 20 years ago. In addition, many children are being taught to play tennis using low-compression balls which are more conducive to rallying and perhaps more conducive to hitting backhands with just one hand.”

Squash playerThere you have it: I coulda been a star. Just born in the wrong time.

[Photo: Yes, I know that’s a squash racket, but my father had high hopes that I would become a multi-sports phenom.]

9 comments on “Backhanded Compliments

  1. Lewis Dana says:

    Re: The Photo. Forgive a minor cavil, but that is a Badminton racket. But your grip, while a trifle choked up, is perfect.

    A minor glitch in an otherwise entertaining piece.

  2. Roger Keyser says:

    FUNNY! Yes, I remember how important it was supposed to be to switch my grip 1/8 of a turn clockwise when hitting a backhand shot, feeling with my thumb that I had crossed the ridge on the racket handle. I guess that might have made a big difference, if I ever actually connected with the ball on a backhand shot. What a disappointment I must have been, with my clumsy moves, lack of interest, and miserable playing ability. No, tennis would never become my sport. But I am improving at geezerhood.

    • patnieder says:

      Aren’t we all? But I’m interested to see you also call it a handle. I’m sure there’s a proper word for that part of the racket. Perhaps the person who corrected me on the type of racket in the picture will edify us.

  3. Roger Keyser says:

    I think it is called a grip. However, I didn’t want to refer to my grip on the grip. 🙂

    • Lewis Dana says:

      Grip it is.

      The part that connects the grip to the racquet head is the shaft. In the illustration the Internet provided, the shaft is actually Y-shaped and not, in my opinion, at all shaft-like.

      And definitely unlike any shaft I ever saw in the anthracite mines in the part of Pennsylvania where I grew up. But that may be by the way.

  4. patnieder says:

    All right guys, I’m trying to get a GRIP on this conversation. But I know neither of you is SHAFTING me (deceiving, deluding, duping, defrauding, double-crossing or a whole lot of other words not starting with the letter “D” per the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus). However, in my New Jersey high school, giving someone the SHAFT was not a particularly nice thing to do.

    What is it about blogging that makes a person no longer hate punning?

  5. Roger Keyser says:

    There you go — puntificating again.

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