The Unconscious Court


I used to be a good tennis player. I came from a tennis playing family. Lessons started with a pro at eight, and then at twelve my father moved me to a local tennis legend named Dave Perchonock. Dave was a classic player, with stunningly beautiful strokes made for slow clay and wooden rackets. He was a surly man and he'd spend a lot of time grimacing and unhappily walking to the net to inform me of where my stroke was off. I was happy to oblige because being coached by Dave was considered an honor. Watching him hit a forehand, his shoes and socks covered in red dust, legs perfectly positioned, was a thing of beauty. Even at twelve I knew what perfect looked like, and Dave was perfect.

My father was quite different. He took up tennis later in life, having been a scratch golfer. Too much time away from the family, he said. One day he literally decided to give up golf and start playing tennis. I never saw him hit a golf ball, but as a tennis player he became a "high B", meaning he was good but not great. His public persona was like his stroke, understated and traditional.

In all ways and situations my father was loving and kind. I still remember the day I beat him for the very first time. I was about fourteen, and as I watched his backhand sail long I worried about what would come next. After all, I had never beaten him before. When we played, he played to win. "No gimme's", he'd say. But when I won he just beamed, offered his hand over the net, and simply said, "Nice match." I don't think I have ever received greater praise.

Growing up tennis was everything. Weekends were spent at the local club, hours of practice and endless matches. Monthly tournaments in the Middle States punctuated my routine, and as a junior I experienced a high level of success. Tennis became my identity. Professional players such as Billie Jean King and Rosemary Casals became family friends, staying with us on their travels. I lived, breathed and dreamed of tennis. My heroes played, my family played and life was often compared to the game. "Remember" my father would strongly advise. "Tennis is a lifetime sport", putting emphasis on the word lifetime. Baseball, football, basketball, hockey...all staples of a Philadelphia sports childhood were considered passing fads.

This all changed in one horrific day. While playing doubles with my father one afternoon in August, he suffered a massive heart attack and died in my arms. He was just forty-eight and I was sixteen. It was of course life changing. First, it set me on a course for which I am ultimately grateful. There is an appreciation I have of certain things that only a close view of death at an early age provides. Second, while a tragic event for sure, I didn't end up a tragedy, and I suppose that is most important.

After my father's funeral I actively chose to still play tennis. Family friends wanted me to keep playing, and so I did. But as time went by I found my energy for the game begin to wane. As I got older the pleasure of tennis seemed to disappear right from my pores. My temper got worse, punctuated with occasional smashed rackets caused by simmering anger. On the court I became like my old coach Dave Perchonock, surly and joyless. At the age of forty-seven I gave up the game completely, weary and disgusted. That was seven years ago. The reason I rationalized was the game was just too frustrating. All I could remember were the faded glory shots of my youth.

A few weeks ago a series of incidents started to get me back on a court. First, a close friend spoke passionately about Andre Agassi's new autobiography, "Open". Said I would love it. Well, I thought, I really don't do tennis anymore. But then I found myself in an airport and needing a book and there it was, staring me in the face. Looked interesting, what the hell. As I started to read about the names and matches I knew so well from my past, I suddenly became...curious. Then away on a weeks vacation, another friend, who was a great player, asked me to hit. "Use to", I said. "But I really don't enjoy it anymore", explaining a bit of my history. "Do you think," she innocently probed, "that it has anything to do with your father's death?"

A trashcan-lid-sized-penny suddenly dropped. Oh my God. I gave up tennis just as I approached the age my father was when he died on a court! How could I have missed this obvious connection? It was so clear. She then coaxed me onto a court for the first time in seven years. I was quite nervous and my legs more than a bit shaky. But I was feeling something I hadn't felt in many decades...excitement. As I started to hit, the old muscle memory began to respond. I wasn't too bad after such a long layoff and strangely it felt good.Tennis equipment had come a long way in a decade since I had bought my racquets, and I was amazed at how I was literally crushing my backhand. I laughed and joked and had such a great time we planned to play again the next day.

When I got home, I immediately started hitting with a local pro I'd worked with before. Now I can't wait to get on a court. I'm energetic, and calm, and fascinated with where this new discovery will take me. No longer upset at missed balls, my new mantra has become "Next!" As Andre Agassi writes in his autobiography, "Control what you can control". The rest seems to be none of my business. This new attitude has made tennis nothing less than pure joy. I'm hitting very well (given the layoff), and on the court there is a passion and grace I've never had. My pro says there is a smoothness to certain strokes that are new to me. And most importantly, it is now only a game. Whatever demons hung over me since I was sixteen, seem to be long gone.

I have a Ph.D. in psychology, which apparently is useless when looking in a mirror. That I could not have seen this reason for leaving the game is astounding to me. But then again, that is the nature of the unconscious. If I could see it, I suppose, it wouldn't be unconscious. Suddenly aware, I now feel blessed, grateful for the events that conspired to awaken me from my past. This awakening has reinvigorated a passion of something I once loved so much.

I am left this morning with a small interior voice. It wonders how many other parts of my past unconsciously still effect my life, silently waiting for me at the net, hand stretched out, broadly smiling, and ready to say, "Nice match".

Personal StoriesDavid Baum