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Puddle tennis

By Richard Sorenson / June 22, 1987



IT MIGHT BE INTERESTING to play tennis using a handball instead,'' my brother-in-law suggested. I was looking through a box of sporting equipment, trying to locate my can of tennis balls, when he made that remark. It reminded me of what a gift he has for transforming any game he participates in. I recalled that once we had played Scrabble together, and after having completed a conventional game, with its typical frustrations of drawing too many vowels or too many consonants, my brother-in-law said, ``Let's forget about dictionary words. We'll play using only words we invent, but for each you have to offer a convincing definition.''

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What a breeze that game was! When I found that I had drawn an excessive number of E's, it was a simple matter to unload them. I merely formed the word ``eeeeel'' and explained it as being an especially long eel. One of the words my brother-in-law formed was ``frudola,'' but unfortunately I've forgotten its meaning. Maybe if we had worked the word into conversations a few times, it would have had a longer life.

To the uninitiated, the letters on our game board appeared no more logically ordered than those in a bowl of alphabet soup, but to us they were meaningfully employed. ``It's amazing how your vocabulary can increase once you stop insisting on a word's legitimacy,'' my brother-in-law concluded.

Now I was heading out the door, can of tennis balls in hand, and my brother-in-law was pointing to some dark clouds that were fast approaching. Instantly I adjusted to the prospect of a canceled game, picturing myself sitting by the fireplace, reading Mark Twain while rain tapped on the roof. But he said, ``Hey, this is great. It might be interesting to play in the rain.''

We reached the courts, began hitting the ball back and forth, and found, with each racket stroke, that the wind was strong enough to push the tennis ball off of its predicted course. My brother-in-law, intrigued by this phenomenon, smiled as if to say that anything done under normal conditions can be done better in a wind tunnel.

The eventual drizzle weighted the ball with water and made it feel on impact like one was hitting a head of lettuce. Any rotation put on the ball would cause spray to be thrown off, and my brother-in-law remarked, ``Isn't it amazing how easily you can read the spins?'' I would have preferred to read Mark Twain.

But within 15 minutes, I found I was sincerely trying to meet the challenges of playing in rough weather. ``It makes it a whole new game,'' he shouted. As the rain fell harder, our playing became more earnest.

``Extreme conditions call for the development of new strategies,'' said my brother-in-law. He began hitting high lobs, knowing that, while I tilted my head to watch the ball's descent, raindrops would pelt my glasses and obscure my vision. Even if I managed to see between the tributaries of drops rolling down my lenses, I was laughing too hard to make a good shot.

Soon small bodies of water collected on each side of the net, resulting in a new tactic of aiming for the opposing court's puddle. The water would absorb the ball's impact so that it would bounce no more prodigiously than does a soggy newspaper.

After I had hit a particularly deadened ``puddle shot,'' my brother-in-law staged a mock argument, claiming that the ball struck the water, was floating, and thus never touched the ground. He could not concede the point, he said, and he would call his lawyers in to settle the matter if necessary.

Again I witnessed as my brother-in-law applied his imagination to find variations on a highly structured game. It was a most memorable match, although what we were playing couldn't exactly be called tennis. We need a new word for it. I think ``frudola'' is available.