These days, there’s not much I prefer on a weekday evening to working up a sweat on the tennis courts. I come home from work, throw my bag on the bed, kick of my clompy shoes and lace up my sneakers. September is the perfect month for tennis, before Vancouver’s rain has started in earnest, when the days are still long enough to get in a few good rallies before dinner. And our new place, like our old place, is only a block from the neighborhood courts. But with new courts come new characters and well, let’s just say I’m not really making friends with the neighbors these days.
At our old courts, there was The Wildcard, a tightly-wound spring of a man who you could count on to do whatever it might take to get his racquet on the ball. He’d show up with one of his short-skirted partners and perform an endless variety of dives, twists, shouts and dances, launching the ball into a powerful, if unpredictable, flight path. And there was The Hacker, a set of lungs that sat near a high window just out of eyeshot, marking the minutes with the clearing of his throat. One Saturday morning there was even a full-blown party on the courts, a cooler full of Kokanee and eight guys, each with a racquet in one hand and a koozie in the other, playing in a style best described as “double-doubles.” For the serious tennis player, these characters might be a little annoying. I could see how someone into keeping score might see them as an impediment to the game. But serious tennis players aren’t likely to show up at the neighborhood court with cracked, buckled asphalt and sagging nets. And I’ve never been all that into keeping score.
But at the new courts, things are different. Yes, the courts are still asphalt, but the surface is a bit smoother and the nets have pretty good tension. At the new courts, we quickly learned, there are rules. Serious ones. One rule, for example, is that no dogs are allowed with-in fifteen meters of the court. Fifteen meters! For those of you who don’t speak metric, that’s over forty-five feet. The sidewalk isn’t even forty-five feet away! And there are signs posted, warning of the $500 fines that may be incurred for breaking the rules. Since we’re dog-sitting the lovely Lola this month, it means she never gets to come to the park with us while we’re there for tennis. But I can live with making two trips down the block each evening, one for a game, one for Lola’s walk. What I cannot live with however, are the people who think they are above the rules. I inherited my love of rules from my father. Like him, I believe the rules exist for a reason, and that when one person chooses not to follow the rules, the whole system falls apart. Specifically, I’m referring to The King.
The King of the Courts presides from his front porch, a white clapboard affair situated conveniently across from the northwest court. The northwest court is also, conveniently, where the King stores his Gatorade cooler, and where, when the time is right, he bellies up to the net, racquet in his hand, glint in his eye, his sweaty tennis whites glistening in the evening sun. The King has a gray comb-over and a little potbelly and a host of minions who keep him running either in singles or doubles games that tend to last the better part of the evening. And, no, don’t be fooled by his middle-age looks, the King is quick, light on his feet, shooting balls across the court like lightning. He’s good.
At first, I thought it was cool that the men in the neighborhood were so into their tennis. They’d chide each other on a missed swing or a misstep–”You’re slowin’ down these days, Gary. I can see your hair graying from over here!” They’d hold vigorous debates on whether a ball grounded just within or just beyond the baseline. But one day we were playing in the court next to the King and he started to seem a lot less cool. When I couldn’t get my racquet behind a ball and it went soaring into his direction, he stopped mid-step, raised his racquet and pointed to my AWOL ball as it rolled slowly between him and the net. With great fanfare the play was stopped and the point restarted.
Okay, I can admit that, to a serious player, an errant ball is a distraction. And repeated errant balls, thus points that are repeatedly stopped and restarted, must be a real frustration. I can understand all of that. And this is probably why, in Wembledon, matches aren’t held simultaneously on two side-by-side courts. But these are the neighborhood asphalt courts, on which these guys play for hours every day. If the ball is rolling into and then out of the far rear corner, couldn’t they just let it slide one time??
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not a great tennis player. And, as it turns out, the more self-conscious I become about an errant ball, the more likely I am to hit another errant ball. (These courts are spaced so closely together, you’d have to be Roger Federer to ensure your ball never travels beyond the safety of your slice of asphalt.) But my real problem with the King is not that he makes a show of stopping the game each time my ball runs off, or that he sticks so rigorously to the rules of the game. It’s that he does not stick so rigorously to the rules of the court! Picture this: it’s Tuesday night, the sun is dipping low, throwing golden shadows across the asphalt, the air is cooling on an early September evening, and the courts are bustling. Two friendly and polite gentlemen have been waiting patiently by the side of the court. First, they swang on the empty playground swings. Then they puttered around in the grass, admiring the neighborhood dogs. But now, after about forty-five minutes of waiting, with only about thirty minutes of remaining daylight, they are pressed up against the chainlink, intently watching to see who will relinquish their courts first. I’ve been eyeing them for awhile, looking past the King and his friends, believing naively that because it’s his turn, because he’s been playing since well before we arrived, because he’s a real stickler for the rules, that he’ll eventually call an end to his game. But no, each time they pause for a Gatorade quencher, they rise again to pick up for where they left off. Finally I say loudly to Justin, “I THINK THOSE GUYS OVER THERE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR A COURT FOR A LONG TIME.”
“Well it’s not our turn to leave,” he responds, stating the obvious.
“BUT IF SOMEONE DOESN’T LEAVE SOON, THEY WON’T HAVE TIME TO PLAY.” I look over toward the King, but he appears quite continent in his game, if concerned–as he’s mentioned several times–about the slowness of his backhand tonight. Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about hitting the ball into his court, and I step up my hustle. Ten minutes later, they’re still going strong.
“I think we should let those guys play,” I tell Justin. He agrees and we flag them over, so they must cross the King’s court to get to ours.
“YOU CAN HAVE OUR COURT,” I tell them boisterously. Then add, “THOSE GUYS HAVE BEEN HERE FOREVER, BUT IT LOOKS LIKE THEY’LL NEVER LEAVE.” I don’t snarl in their direction so much as smile my brightest have-a-great-game smile. But still, of course, they do not seem to respond.
I know, I know, it’s not a very sophisticated way to solve the problem. But someone who isn’t a friend of the rules isn’t a friend of mine, especially someone who’s so serious about every other rule. My temporary solution is to find time to play when the King is more likely to be on the porch than the courts, but as work gets busier, mid-day tennis matches are increasingly unlikely. So the plan is, the next time the courts are full and I’ve been waiting for half an hour, to walk right up and ask him: ”Will you be finished soon?” nodding my head clearly in the direction of the “Court Rules.” I’m feeling bold these days, friends, especially when it comes to the flagrant flaunting of rules. And if that means disrupting the Heather Street tennis court heirarchy, so be it. I’ll let you know how it goes.