TENNIS is the classiest way I know to be a duffer, the least painful way to be a loser, the only way I have found sufferable to face my faults. In what other game is savage reaction to a bad call restrained by such elaborate courtliness? Where are service and deception blended to better advantage? In what other pursuit has the cheering fragility of failure been more evident, or accounted for with a happier disregard for logic? The larger the loss, the greater the chance for a love match. So, since my love affairs at court have been varied and many, the least I can do is share some highly developed hints on courtship. The libraries are full of instruction from the winners; there is great need for advice from the pinnacle of defeat. Whimper to Pancho Gonzales or Bill Hyams about not having a good volley and what do you get? ``Go out and practice it more.'' Ask them when to play aggressively at the net. Their answer: ``Always.'' Few errors in their comedy. Very little tragedy. However, my revelations are in no way to be construed as teaching or technique. I leave it to another of the greats, Don Budge, to tell you to hit the ball down the middle in doubles. The following disclosures are survival secrets, aces up my sleeveless.
Years of confronting, and losing to, a better player resulted not so much in skillful play as stubborn ploy. But just remember, poor timing can often substitute for a change of pace; unexpected retrieves catch your opponent panting; never-relenting hustle may drive him to his own rash experiments in footwork.
First, a word about concentration: When you are changing courts, you may take your eye off the ball.
Now for a dozen or so dos and don'ts, a catechism of catchalls that won't guarantee winning, but you'll lose with style:
Hold your racket a little higher on the handle than you've been told to: This is an intimate association. Grasp your racket passionately, with a confiding grip. Trust your racket. Your racket is your friend, and will work for you.
Feel the court with your feet, the way a ballet dancer feels the floor; a pianist, the keys. Grip the surface; lay hold on the Laykold.
Lean into everything but the net: the ball, the stroke, the court, your knees. Especially your knees.
Smile. This is confusing to an opponent, who has just won another game.
Meet the ball as an offering; don't lie in wait for it. Bend to reach it. Stretch to welcome it. Golfers even address the ball. (There isn't time here for that much courtesy. A brief nod will do.)
If you are playing doubles and you are no good, do not waste your time hoping the shot will not come to you. Your opponents will be ruthless in their aim at weakness. Be aggressively vigilant. Watch, vigorously, as it whizzes past you, and shout generously to your partner, ``That's yours.'' At all other times, poach before being poached upon.
Tennis isn't strings, rubber and felt. Tennis is guts, elasticity, and feeling.
For those of us who were introduced to the game in the street, with the tar for lines and the net an illusion, the fairly recent chic of tennis leagues arouses a touch of condescension -- a short-lived complacency of being first to the party. But I'm glad for any appreciation of its pleasures and profundities. Just so they don't tie up the courts. Anyone who waited after school at the neighborhood clay clearing to play a short, eight-point, two-out-of-three against the high school champ knows the joy of finding an open court when no reservation was made. The loveliest tennis is played with no reservations, anyway.