Monday, 15 September 2008

Anyone for tennis? (All right, but just make sure nobody's watching)

There's a campaign on here in France at the moment to get people - young and old - to eat better, cut down on the takeaways and fast food while reducing their intake of fats. We're exhorted to eat more fruit and veg, and definitely get off our backsides to play more sport.

Television commercials for any food or drink products even carry a reminder to check a government-sponsored website. They want us all to lose weight and be healthier.

It was with that thought in mind that I decided as local sports clubs were now recruiting for new members, I would follow such pearls of wisdom and sign up for something. Tennis perhaps - although it was donkeys years since I had last held a racket, let alone put my best foot forward and ventured on to a court.

So I joined a club. Actually it's pretty much the way things happen here. You can't just decide on the spur of the moment that "ooh a gentle spot of hitting the ball back and forth with a friend is just what I fancy doing." You cannot pitch up any time you like - unless you join. So that's exactly what I did.

Except of course once you join something like a tennis club, it doesn't just stop at that. You then have to have all the paraphernalia that goes with the burden of membership. Well at least the racket.

Although I knew I used to own one - way back when - I wasn't convinced that after several house moves I would ever be able to find it.

Besides, if I wanted to be taken at least half seriously, I would need one of these new-fangled carbon whatever things, that looked at though it meant business (even if I didn't) rather than a piece of antiquity more resembling something that had probably last seen action some time just after Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.

So it was with that thought it mind that I headed off to the local sports shop.

I would be restrained. Just a racket. No fancy garb, oh and some balls of course. You can't play without those (although it might in my case have been easier).

And it didn't take me long to find just what I was looking for. Second hand with a big open-headed frame that would surely mean I couldn't miss a thing. It looked brand new and it only cost - well I'm not saying, because the price made me gulp a bit. The balls - well balls are balls aren't they? So six of those yellow ones with the flashy brand name.

Anything else? Oh did I have any shoes to wear? Perhaps my Timberland walking boots would look a little out of place, and you can't really wear sandals on a tennis court.

All right then, perhaps a pair of shoes. But what sort? There were dozens of different pairs to choose from. For beginners, intermediate and experienced, and then broken down into how often you intended to play. Once a week? Once a month? Once in a blue moon? What sort of surface, hard, grass, indoor?

Crikey what ever happened to pulling on a simple pair of gym shoes and being done with it?

Shorts - no I didn't need those. I had several pairs that I had worn on the beach over the summer. But would they really be appropriate? Red, yellow, blue and green stripes sort of 70s psychedelia meets "what does he think he looks like." Perhaps I had better buy some shorts after all.

A shirt? Surely I had a tee-shirt that would fit the bill. But there again as I had already decided to buy a new pair of shorts, why not the shirt as well? And that little navy blue number apparently had special ventilation flaps that would keep me cool as I lunged around the court. Oh and socks. Burlington knee lengths don't really look good with shorts, and six pairs of white ankle-lengths for the price of four seemed to good of a bargain to pass up.

Anything else? How about one of those smart bags the professional always carry around with them at the Grand Slams? Go on then? Shop 'til you drop. And then I was done. And so was my credit card. But at least I had all the gear necessary to make myself look the part, even if my skills were definitely lacking.

I had rung around my friends and found someone who claimed he was just as out of practice as me and we had both registered with the same local tennis club. That meant we could use the court whenever we liked.

So we did, and the big day came this weekend. Everything was packed and we were ready to go.

The courts were free, and there was nobody else around (thank goodness) and we could pretend we had both taken to the Centre Court for the all-important final to determine the end of season rankings.

A gentle warm up - where the longest rally involved successfully being able to return the ball over the net - once. I remembered how to serve though - and 40 per cent of the time it went cracking over the net and remained inside the tramlines - impossible to return. Eat your heart out Pistol Pete.

But I clearly hadn't got the knack of actually hitting the ball very accurately when it was headed towards me. It ricocheted off my racket and headed skywards behind me more often than not. Sort of reverse slice.

Or I made a desperate swing, missed entirely and ended up on my bottom. I could lob though - into the next court. I could even hit a double-handed backhand - straight into the net and although my playing partner didn't appear much better, I foolishly agreed to try to play a set - heck a match.

It wasn't so much the Grand Slam occasion I had somehow pictured in my mind. More Laurel and Hardy taking to the court and doing their best to show just how bad they were.

Except that both Laurel and Hardy were on my side of the net. I was both of them at once to my opponent's sudden transformation into Roger Federer.

I fired off serve after serve. He suddenly remembered how to return. I wheezed my way from one side of the court to the other, arms flailing and temper fraying. He just converted every shot of mine that trickled over the net into a winner.

And it didn't get any better. "Practice makes perfect," goes the old saying - yeah a "perfect fool out of me," I thought.

After 45 minutes the inevitable had happened. I had lost. Actually not just lost, I had been annihilated. 6-0, 6-0. But apart from the score, there wasn't much love on my side of the net.

I couldn't stand the thought of another set, and besides there were now a couple of teenagers who had arrived on the adjoining court and I didn't really want to make a complete fool of myself in public.

So far I had got away with just humiliating myself in front of my friend. There was no need to labour the point.

But boy did I feel better? That was the most fun I'd had in a long time wasn't it? The heart was beating faster, the pulse was racing. I was perspiring (men perspire don't they, it's horses that sweat, so I've been told) and I was feeling good about myself wasn't I?

Well the answer to all of those questions was a big fat NO. So why then did I agree to put myself through it all over again the following weekend? In the hope that I might just win one game perhaps.

Anyone for tennis? (All right, but just make sure nobody's watching).

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