CLEVELAND, Ohio – Tennis once used to mess with my head.
I started as a kid, taking lessons at Fairlawn Swim & Tennis, while our chlorine-soaked hair crisped in the mid-day sun. Then I played four years on my high school team.
Let me clarify that; I played junior varsity for my high school team. (Does it sound better if I add that the team won state my senior year?)
I was never very good, in part because I hated to run. But more so, whether I was winning or losing, playing singles or doubles, I psyched myself out. I’d double fault once and suddenly lose a whole game. I’d whiff on an easy shot or slam the ball out of the lines and I’d yell at myself. My friends called it taking my own name in vain.
I ended high school with a pity varsity letter. After that I played only occasionally, with my mom, my annoyingly athletically gifted sister or with a friend from the newsroom, who always beat me 6-0, 6-0.
I liked tennis. But I was too afraid of losing to have any fun with the game.
Then the pandemic hit, and even the playgrounds were closed. But the city tennis courts next to our shuttered library, miraculously, remained open. And hitting the snot out of a cheerful green ball made me feel much better. Every smack felt like a punch, expelling the pent-up anxiety of work and home and family.
I started playing weekly with my next-door neighbor, riding our bikes and rallying as we vented our frustrations about COVID, kids and life.
Tennis was fun. Even if I played poorly, the game relieved my stress. It exercised my body, exorcised my brain and calmed me with fresh air. It was safe when gyms were closed.
My serves got more consistent. My backhand got stronger. With every game I played, I wanted to play more.
The popularity of tennis surged during the pandemic. According to the U.S. Tennis Association, 28% more Americans over age 6 played tennis in 2021 compared to 2019, for a total of 22.6 million Americans.
The 3.4 million wholesale racket units in 2021 represents the …….