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The Magic Racket

by Martin Green
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     Paul Lerner was leaving his swim and tennis club when he noticed the broken tennis racket stuffed into the trash can just outside the entrance. At least he assumed it was broken; otherwise, why was it in there with the trash? Curious, he pulled it out. It looked expensive and seemed okay, but when he sighted down the handle he could see that the frame was slightly bent, as if someone had smashed it on the ground. If that’s what had happened, he could sympathize because the way he’d been playing lately he’d sometimes felt like doing the same thing with his own racket.  He hefted the slightly bent racket again and thought, what the hell, I might as well keep it, just in case I do smash my own racket; I could probably use it for a set or two anyway..

     Paul, who was in his thirties, had only seriously taken up tennis a few months ago, after he and his wife had joined the club, mainly so that their two young sons could have a place to swim. Three of his new neighbors—Ernie, Mort and Bob-- belonged to the club and were tennis players so they’d invited him to join them. They usually played Saturday mornings. In a short time, Paul was competitive with the others, but felt he should be playing even better. He considered himself a pretty good athlete, he’d played baseball in high school, but he couldn’t seem to get beyond a certain level.

     Sometimes he thought that if he could play with the club’s better players he’d improve his game.   But the better players, as happened in most  clubs, were a clique who played among themselves on the first three courts, the ones next to the clubhouse, and looked down on hackers such as his foursome, who always played on one of the end courts.

     Three weeks later, a string in Paul’s regular racket broke in the middle of a set. Well, he thought, now was as good a time as any to try out the other racket and see if he could play with it. He was playing with Bob against Ernie and Mort and serving to Ernie, usually a consistent returner, at 15-40.  He served, not very hard, but just as Ernie prepared to hit the ball it took a funny hop to the right and Ernie completely missed it. Paul’s next serve took a hop to the left with the same result.   Ernie managed to get his racket on Paul’s next two serves, both of which also swerved crazily, but couldn’t get them back over the net. “Hey, what are you putting on your serve,” Ernie called.

     Paul looked down at the racket. “I don’t know,” he said. The pattern continued for the rest of the set. Everything Paul hit either hopped to the right or left or skidded or took a crazy bounce. Most of the time the shot couldn’t be returned. Paul and Ernie won the set 6-2.  Following their usual routine, they rotated partners. Paul won the next set playing with Mort 6-0, then, playing with Bob, the weakest of their foursome, won again 6-3. Paul’s served more aces than he had in all of their previous sets. Gathering confidence with his new racket, he also hit more winners than he ever had. After their last set,  when they were sitting on the club’s patio having their customary beers, the other three marveled at Paul’s sudden prowess. “It must be that new racket,” Ernie said.

      “Maybe he’s been taking lessons in secret,” said Bob.

     “You’ll be playing with the big boys next,” said Mort.

     Paul shrugged and said, “It’s probably a fluke. We’ll see next week.”

     But the next week, as Paul got used to his new racket, his play was even better. That afternoon Paul was at the club’s pool with his wife Sally and their two boys when Ken Beasley, one of the top tennis players, came up to him and asked if he could make a fourth the following Saturday as one of their regulars would be out of town. “I noticed you playing this morning,” Beasley told him. “You looked pretty good, a lot better than those other guys.”

     “Sure,” said Paul. “I have a new racket and it’s helped my game.”

     “Okay. See you at nine o’clock.”

     When Beasley left, Sally said, “I thought you had a regular game with Bob, Mort and Ernie on Saturday morning.”

     Paul was annoyed. “This is my chance to move up to real competition. They can get somebody to fill in for me.”

     The next Saturday Paul met Ken Beasley at the club. They were to play doubles against two of the club’s other top players, Scott Trimble and Mark Harris.  They were on court one. Paul was nervous as they warmed up and then started to play. He thought to himself that these guys hit the ball harder than he was used to and that they knew how to play at the net. Also, the crazy spins and hops he was able to put on the ball with his new racket, didn’t completely baffle them. Still, they had a hard time returning his serves and his shots and Beasley, who also knew how to cover the net, had an easy time putting away their weak returns. They won the first set 6-4 and then the second set 7-5.  

     The next few Saturdays they had the same foursome, alternating partners. Paul didn’t have the skills of the other three, but, with the aid of his racket, managed to hold his own.  Another thing Paul noticed was that the others were intensively competitive. They didn’t play recreational tennis; they played for blood. Mark Harris was the worst. When he missed a shot he cursed and sometimes threw his racket. When his partner missed a shot he yelled at him. Paul didn’t like being his partner and because he was nervous about being yelled at he’d press and play below his game.

     The final blow-up came in their last set on the last Saturday of the month. Paul was Mark Harris’s partner and was serving at 5-6; he had to hold service or they’d lose the set.  He aced Trimble to go ahead 15-0, but Beasley, who’d adjusted pretty well to his crazy bounces, his back a winner for 15-15. Then Trimble hit back a weak return of serve and Harris put it away for 30-15.   Beasley timed Paul’s next serve, hit a good return and they rallied until Paul put the ball in the net, 30-30. Harris glared at him. Then Trimble again hit a weak return of serve but this time Harris misplayed it and hit long, 30-40, break point. Paul’s first serve to Beasley went into the net for a fault.  Harris looked back at him and yelled, “You better not double fault.” Paul tried to put some extra spin on his second serve, Beasley’s return was weak and they won the point, and then the next two points for the game. Then in the tiebreaker they lost 8-6 as Paul couldn’t return one of Beasley’s hard serves. Harris picked up the ball, smashed it into the net and stalked off the court.           

     The other two told Paul not to worry, he’d played okay and Harris would get over it. Maybe, thought Paul, but would he?  He’d wanted to improve his game but did he want to approach tennis as if he was going to war every weekend?  It was a lot more fun when he was playing with his neighbors. He guessed that at heart he was a recreational player. Besides, he wasn’t really that good a player. It was the bent racket that created all those funny bounces that had made him seem that much better.  He hadn’t really improved his game.

      The next weekend he approached the guys--Ernie, Bob and Mort--and said he’d like to get back in a foursome with them.

     “What’s the matter?” asked Ernie. “Thos big guys too tough for you.”

     “No, I was able to hold my own. They just take the game too seriously. It’s no fun playing with them.”

     “Hey,” said Bob. “We heard about Mark Harris throwing his racket at you.”

     “He didn’t throw his racket. He just got mad.”

     “What do you say, guys, should we let Paul back in?” said Mort.

     “Only if he buys the first round of beers,” said Ernie.

     “Yeah,” said Bob. “And if he promises not to play with that funny racket any more.”

     “It’s a deal,” said Paul.

     So Paul went back to playing tennis for fun and gradually, using a regular racket,  his game did improve. But he didn’t throw away the bent racket. There’d be a singles tournament on Labor Day and maybe he’d enter and maybe he’d get to play against Mark Harris and just maybe …


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