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.]