By John-Paul Gemborys
Laurence Isaacs, a tall, vociferous redhead not quite on the cusp of 45, strolled across the baseline of the tennis court, spinning his racket in one hand.
“Nice serve,” Laurence yelled to his opponent on the opposite side of the net. “I didn’t hear as much shit talk earlier.”
“That’s because you weren’t here,” Eddie Blount called back.
Eddie, an older gentleman who was quick on his feet despite the considerable girth age had bestowed upon him, was on serve, and rather than trade verbal barbs with Laurence, Eddie preferred to let his game do the talking.
And his serve was a big talker.
In one fluid motion, Eddie drew his racket behind his head, tossed the ball into the air and then blasted it into the opposite service box, sending Laurence scurrying to the baseline, barely managing a return and pushing the ball back with an arcing lob. Despite its lack of pace, Laurence’s lob wasn’t actually that bad of a shot, and it forced Eddie to send back a lob of his own — only his had slightly less English. Taking the initiative, Laurence poached Eddie’s lob out of the air, swatting it down like a fly and sending it careening into the fence without even a second bounce.
“I just aim at the big red thing,” Laurence gibed, pointing his racket at Dominic Wainwright, the opposing net player who wore a bright red T-shirt.
On that warm Saturday morning on the hard courts of C.E. Jordan High School, Laurence, Dom and Eddie enjoyed a game of doubles that was both casual and competitive. All three of the men had been playing tennis for most of their lives, and now all of them found themselves playing on the same team within the Eno River league in the 40 and over category at the 4.0 skill level (7.0 is a player of U.S. open caliber, 1.0 is someone picking up a racket for the first time) — subdivisions within subdivisions of the national USTA League, the largest recreational tennis league in the country.
For many, tennis is an escape. For some, it’s a passion. And for some, still, it can be an obsession.
Having played the sport for most of my life, compelled by my tennis coach dad, I abhorred the game for many years. For me it wasn’t so much a game as it was a job — a toil on sunbaked courts where you could see heat mirages flicker and dance in the summer. But being so close to something often gives one a warped view. And as I grew to enjoy playing on my high school tennis team, my relationship with the sport grew increasingly complex, blending hate with love — aloofness with respect. To this day I don’t know how I feel about the sport.
So I’ve always been curious about the men who do love it. What draws these recreational (or not so recreational) hitters to the sport in the first place? What continues to make them play? And what is it about the sport that made them fall in love in the first place?
The casual third space
Edward W. Soja, the soi-disant “urbanist” and distinguished professor emeritus at UCLA, theorized that in life there are two social spaces people typically occupy: the home and the workplace. Soja posited a theory that there is a third space, one that blends the disparate social natures of home and work, which people seek out in order to express their own individuality and uniqueness. For Dom and Eddie, that space is on the tennis court.
“You make good friends,” Eddie said, resting on aluminum bleachers under the shade of a young oak tree. “It’s fun hanging out together, and then if you qualify for states you go on a four-day weekend — everybody gets out of town and has fun, so it’s the camaraderie. And then, you know, the competition’s fun too.” When I asked him, he said there was nothing he hated about the sport. For Dom, his doubles partner, it was a similar story.
“It’s my main social activity,” Dom told me, “so that’s what I like about it. You rarely run into people who aren’t nice.”
Dom is co-captain of the spring team the three men play on, Eno BCK (short for Bullet City Killers). The team, they tell me, won back-to-back state titles in 2011 and 2012 as well as in 2015 in the 40 and over, 4.0-level division before heading to sectionals, which sees the cream of the southeast United States come together and compete for a spot at nationals. Though the game is casual, the men were quick to tell me that it can still be competitive.
“It’s pretty fierce at states,” Dom said. “We’re picking guys from Raleigh and Cary with the intent to go to states and see how far we can go because you go to states, you need such a solid team.”
For Dom and Eddie, they said they both enjoyed the camaraderie and exercise the sport provides. While competition is still a key ingredient, Eddie said the need to win tends to fizzle with age.
“I think, too, the older the league — I think the hardcore ones who are going to be calling lines close are the 18s. You know, they’re still thinking that it’s important in life. The rest of us, you know, we’re just out there to have fun. By the time you’re in the 40s or 55 plus, you’re patting each other on the back and, you know, chatting it up between changeovers, having a good time.”
Competition is everything
For Laurence, tennis wasn’t always recreational, and competition, he said, is always what made the sport fun.
“I am excessively competitive,” he told me. “I have to be competing.”
Laurence is the former men’s high school tennis coach at Durham School of the Arts — he was also my high school tennis coach while I attended DSA from the ninth grade to the twelfth. During those four years, Laurence delivered many impassioned post-game speeches from the front of the team bus, some of unbridled praise for our exceptional play, others of vexation and disappointment.
“When I was coaching you all,” Laurence told me over a glass of sangria after we had retired to Town Hall Burger and Beer, “I would allow not winning to bug me more.”
Laurence eventually left the coaching position so he could spend more time with his growing daughter Ellie.
“I honestly think having a kid has really mellowed me out in a lot of ways,” he chuckled, “but I still maintain that good tennis should be played with just a hint of anger.”
As I polished my California burger off with a swig of ale, the four of us began to wax poetic about past glories and triumphs on the court. Laurence recounted how he went undefeated for two straight seasons.
“So I won 52 consecutive matches across two seasons plus states, plus sectionals,” he told me. “I was fortunate because I had great doubles partners.”
Eventually I asked Laurence what the best part of the sport is.
“Winning,” he replied matter-of-factly.
Making career moves on the court
Not every player I spoke to played the sport strictly for recreation or for a onetime job. For Leo Evans, the sport has been a career. Beginning during the tennis boom of the ’70s and after only playing for a few years in junior college, Leo took his first job as a teaching pro at a resort in the panhandle of Florida.
“I was a little bit of a poser,” he laughed, recalling his lack of experience at the time.
“I really thought I was being hired to be a court maintenance person and maybe work in the shop, but I got there the first day, and he stuck me right on the court teaching.
“My first lesson was with a married couple — newlyweds, you know? A young couple. They had never played tennis before, so it was a match made in heaven.”
Since then, the 61-year-old Leo has worked as a jack-of-all-trades at various pro shops and country clubs. Right now, though, he plays the game nonprofessionally — just for himself.
“I tried a season as the coach of the (C.E.) Jordan High School girls’ team, and that wasn’t very fulfilling,” he told me. “You know the thing is, when you start teaching tennis, quite often that requires you to be teaching when all the players are around to play, you know? And I wasn’t making enough to take up my valuable playing time,” he joked.
As for why he plays, Leo told me that the social aspect is important, but it’s the competition that keeps him coming back.
“I make most of my friends through tennis,” he said, “but, no, still, the absolute joy of playing is the number one thrill to me. If I never met anyone — if I just showed up someplace and just played tennis and never saw ’em, I’d still play. And I’d probably still play as much as I do. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I started a little late, but I still have the same interest and joy of playing that I had when I picked up a racket 37, 38, whatever it was years ago.”
Regardless of the relationship that each player had to tennis, I discovered that beneath the thin veneer of experience, all of the men shared essentially the same reasons for playing. For each one, they all needed a competitive outlet. If it wasn’t tennis, some told me, it would probably be basketball — only basketball can be a killer of joints, and as Leo told me, tennis “is something I can compete at until I get ancient — like I am now.” All of them also claimed to have made their closest friends on the courts.
And after playing a long match, they all agreed that nothing soothes the aches like a cold beer.
Edited by Alison Krug