I stepped gingerly onto the clay court. It was surprisingly firm. I walked a couple of feet and looked back. There were no depressions. It was dry enough for play, although behind the baseline, where the trees cast shadows, the court looked darker and was certainly soft.
That shouldn’t stop us from playing, I thought.
There aren’t too many clay tennis courts these days. Most have been paved over, but this one, in upstate New York, has been there for as long as I can remember. Usually, by this time of year, it’s a dust bowl, bone dry and worn smooth by hundreds of feet and thousands of balls.
This year was different. Spring rains, summer rains and finally the torrential downpour of Tropical Storm Irene – some sections of this part of the state got 13 inches of rain – left the court a sodden mass. Playing tennis on it would have been like playing on Jell-O.
But by last weekend, probably our last visit for the season before my father closes the house, the court looked playable.
Carol and I thought we would give it a try in the afternoon, although I hadn’t thought to bring her racket and it was only chance that mine was in the back of the car. Surely we could find something resembling a tennis racket around the house. There were always balls in the closet; nobody threw them away, even after years.
The search was productive, although the racket should probably be in the Tennis Hall of Fame Museum in Newport. It is a “head” that belonged to my mother, one of the first metal racquets: Aluminum.
In its day it was cause for lots of attention, which, of course, delighted my mother. The fact that she won a lot of games with it didn’t hurt either.
Now, resurrected after more than 35 years with the same gut strings, looking no bigger than a Frisbee at the end of a stick. Rackets have gotten a lot bigger. Placed on top of mine, the surface area looked about half size.
"Play with mine," I suggested. No, Carol was going to stay with the steel.
Then there was the first surprise of the afternoon. Someone had visited the court after our morning survey. The net was gone, put away for the winter.
We looked at each other.
We weren’t going to let the absence of a net rob us of what was a beautiful return to summer.
Leaves filled half the court. There were acorns and tiny pinecones, but the surface was firm. We had to at least try hitting a few balls.
We faced one another and I lobbed a ball toward Carol. It bounced, and then seemed to die. She swung, a clear miss. She hit one for me. I got it back, although if there had been a net, that wouldn’t have been the case. This time she connected. There was a hollow sound and the ball came sailing at me. It hit the ground with barely a bounce and skidded away.
This was tennis like no other I’ve played.
Yet it was fantastic. The sky was cloudless, the air still and the autumn sun cast long shadows. We found the technique. Balls couldn’t bounce more than twice or they would simply die and they would have to be hit high. Whacking them didn’t seem to make much difference and so we did a lot of that. The volleys were extended and the net game was flawless.
We had the court to ourselves, which is often not the case in mid-summer. It's in demand among family and friends, although matches are a matter of inclusion, not just the mighty. There have been round robin games where even the youngest kids – to be able to hold a racket – get to swing away.
The unspoken rule is that the last game on the court is responsible for brushing and sweeping the lines.
The brush and the broom were gone; put away for the season.
It was then that I took a closer look at the court surface. Under the leaves it was pockmarked with prints. Deer had crossed. Dogs, or perhaps coyotes, had left their prints. There were the outlines of webbed feet. Had ducks or geese paid a visit? Summer tennis hadn't been a total washout for some.
And for sure, like the imprints court visitors had left, our end-of-the-summer match would be etched in our memories...maybe, who's to say, even a tradition in years to come.