Not long ago, a friend and I on a tennis court were asked politely by an arriving couple to leave. We were just ''fooling around,'' they said, while they , the serious ones, ''intended to play a real game.'' Hitting a ball around in the sunshine - and incidentally getting a kick out of approximating distance and direction in my shots - is my kind of game. Calculating strategy doesn't interest, a sure sign, I'm told, that I'm ''not going anywhere.''
I don't subscribe to Tennis Magazinem and haven't read The Inner World of Tennis.m Indeed, the outer world sees little enough of me on the tennis court, and just as well. I am conspicuously low on the recommended equipment and own no clothing with brand names or crocodile emblems. Worse still - I talk.
Until last year I played most of my tennis games on a broken patch of cement behind the local supermarket. This year, the area's paved over, ''rubberized,'' painted green, and rented by the hour. Now I have to plan my day differently. The ten o'clock spot in summer which had never been contested in the days the court was free and shabby, used to be ideal for defrosting the dinner meat after shopping.
The serious players are incredulous. Why don't I take a court ''for the season'' and really play? Why skim surfaces when depths can be plumbed? Let motors idle when all the world is revving up? Don't I know that to learn a sport expertly is to learn to do it safely? That competition heightens skill, and winning augments confidence? How can I be content with ''mere activity'' when there are great actions to be engaged? Epic thoughts. I sometimes have them.
Homer came to mind the other day as I overheard prospective tennis partners exchanging preliminary information. Each wanted to play but needed a partner. Like opposing leaders in the Trojan War, cataloging their preparations, they checked each other out: experience, class, rank, other players, platform surfaces, equipment. I expected standard bearers to appear with flags (and crocodile emblems.) Whatever happened to the old-fashioned amateur, I wondered, and to playing the game for the fun of it?
He and it went semi-pro, I reflected sadly, and recreation moved into a Recreation Complex.
The manager held his pen adroitly, over spaces clearly blank. There are no prime-time openings, he intoned, for those who are not regulars. There are games , and there are games.
The serve was his, however, and it was good. Then he spied my racquet (humble thing), rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and recited the Center's benefits: demonstration lessons by the pros; on-hand analysis; coaching ''at your convenience'' from computerized video games; discounts at the pro shop; and end-of-the-year competitions: eliminations, semi-finals and Golden Racquets (with trophy and meal.) Smiling, advantage his, he lobbed his final shot: ''Here's all you really need to improve.''
''Improve.'' The very word was like a bell to toll me back from leisure gone-big-time to my only self. At the door, the rhetorical antagonists were still at it, trading tennis trivia: ''seeds'' at last year's games at Flushing Meadows, prospects for next year's win at Wimbledon. I thanked the manager anyway, picked up my defrosting chopped meat, and went home.
The next day, conceding something to the changing times, my friends and I met near the supermarket for a game. It was, despite the fee, the same kind of game we had been playing for years; some things never change.
We reveled in the open air (''I'm choking with thirst; let's break for a soda'') and thrilled to the challenge of physical activity (''I think I'm getting tennis elbow; I just hit myself with the racquet''). The spirit of the play was lively and exhilarating (''Marsha, I think my ball just hit your roast beef''). There was the usual heady action at the net (''I don't care what you say, the violinist was definitely off-key in the second movement''). And, as always, good fellowship (''I'll get it; it's on my side, under the Chevy'').
Amateurs? You bet. We love the game and love it most for being that. In such recreation, we feel we re-create ourselves moving off the tensions of the day.
I salute the silent and the serious, the grim combatants who slip into whites to play taut and competitive tennis. But I celebrate the dilettantes who merely dabble at the sport, for keeping an important idea in play: in the end, isn't it how you play the game that defines it and gives it lasting value?