On becoming a better player

One of the many satisfactions of my quest to play tennis on every public court in Los Angeles is becoming a better tennis player.

For example, nowadays I hardly ever slice. I still do sometimes if the game is on the line, but I am at the point where I would rather lose than win that way.

Slice is when you put a big spin on the ball. People hate it because slicing is a trick shot and nobody likes being fooled.  Yet I used to slice constantly. That was my game. I thought I was being crafty, like a wily baseball pitcher, keeping batters off-balance

           by changing              

s     p     e     e     d     s

But tennis isn’t baseball. This is an obvious truth it took me decades of playing Sunday League baseball to realize. Not until I hung up my spikes at age 59 did it occur to me that tennis players did not appreciate me trying to play tennis as if it were baseball.

One of the main reasons I set forth on my quest was because I wore out my welcome at my home courts. At first, I blamed other people for the chilly reception. One guy had a mean laugh. I didn’t like being sniggered at when I played. Another guy called me a “bullshit tennis player” right to my face! I shrugged this off at the time with the consolation that this guy was widely regarded as temperamental. Yet his criticism stung in that grain-of-truth way.

I did not want to be a bullshit tennis player. I gave myself a good talking-to:

“Slicing in tennis is like sarcasm in conversation. You swore off sarcasm when you became a teacher as soon as you heard the saying ‘Sarcasm is child abuse.’ So how about not slicing anymore?”

I would always wholeheartedly agree and then keep right on slicing. Bad habits are hard to break. Of course, this is as true as tennis not being baseball. One of the things I have learned from my struggle to quit slicing is the difference between knowing a thing and learning it.

I would tell people that slicing represented the dark side of my personality. No one ever disagreed, even though I meant it as a “joke.” I used tennis misbehavior to vent frustration with the self-control I had to exert as a classroom teacher.

Slicing was only one of these misbehaviors.

There was loud arguing of line calls. 

There was chest-thumping.

“You’re a different person on the tennis court,” my daughter observed, in an objective tone I interpreted as celebratory.

Once I retired from teaching, however, I lost the excuse of needing an obnoxious court persona to vent pent-up classroom stress. With tennis now one of my main social interactions, slicing and other bad tennis behavior threatened to become not an alter ego, but my public identity.

I really couldn’t countenance being a full-time – to put it nicely – trickster. And yet my bad habits remained hard to break. The change didn’t happen all at once, or even quickly. But I’ve been on the quest for over a year now, and after playing on over half of the public park courts in LA County, I do see improvement.

It started with shifting from playing-to-win to playing-to-play. This involved simply focusing on keeping a point going.  This took the pressure off trying to hit winners, reduced unforced errors, and made playing more fun.

A second change involved technique. Bend those knees! Do other things!! I am sparing you the gruesome details of somebody else’s rec sports technique. DM me if you really wanna know.

A third influence was negative reinforcement.  I just don’t gain satisfaction from points I win by slicing anymore.  This kicked in when I was off-quest, playing doubles in Connecticut, trying to make new tennis friends where I live part of the year. These seven other guys couldn’t hear enough about how I live mostly in California but also in Connecticut — until my partner and I got down ad-out on my serve.

At which point I decided to go ahead and slice this guy who I had just been talking with about how much he loves being a grandpa. It was a wicked slice, he swung right over it, to his non-delight. In fact, he lashed out at me, “Does your husband play tennis too?”

I blamed myself for this misogynistic comment, which would never have come up if I had hit a more sporting serve. The vibe changed immediately. Not a word was spoken about me coming back and playing with them again. I had disqualified myself as a potential friend.

So at this point I had my strictest talk-to-self yet – “No. More. Slicing!” And this time, it stuck. 

Because as a new tennis friend recently asked me while we were warming up at the 113th court on my quest, Lincoln Park in East LA, when I commented on how sporting it was of him to hit the ball right back to me when he had a wide-open court: 

“What do I win when I win?”


These are games nobody is watching.

The only thing that matters is how we treat each other.


  1. So much to respond to.
    Slicing is like: (part 2)
    1) Sarcasm in conversation
    2) The dark side of ones personality
    3) Encouraging others to be equally as slicing

    Tennis is a metaphor for how we treat one another in life.
    It can be fun and supportive. Then everyone improves.

    I appreciate, like baseball, tennis is not timed.
    Thus it offers us time, to accept our errors and learn at a speed that meets our capacity to discover the Center of Time. (aka Centro de Gozo)

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