I’ve found summer joy in being a terrible tennis player

I hadn’t touched a tennis racket for nearly 20 years when last month I decided to join an adult clinic at the local courts. I figured that whacking a ball around might help release the tension that has me up in the middle of the night, might wring me out just the way my kids are wrung out at camp, after which they come home and sleep, hard. The tennis players range from college grads to septuagenarians. Some days, 12 people show up, and we play games; others, just two, and we run drills. I used to play as a kid, and was terrible back then – competitive and erratic, a lethal combination that had me cursing a blue streak, throwing my racket with abandon, and clenching my teeth in a vise grip for hours after a lost match. Now, as then, I am terrible. And yet, I’ve found that I am also profoundly happy being terrible.

Whoosh! There goes my backhand, sailing over the fence. Wheehaw! There’s that serve, which might be in, if only my opponent were in the neighboring court. The pros quietly smirk as we lob balls back and forth, like we’re playing on the moon. Some of us are better than others, but we all exist comfortably in the “pretty mediocre” range, and no one cares, least of all me. Compliments whizz about freely, and nice tries are a constant.

We’re scheduled during lunch, when the summer sun scorches the courts and clears them of any spectators or serious athletes, who are all home icing their elbows or restringing their rackets or bleaching their whites or polishing their marble busts of Federer or whatever they do in their non-match time. Some days, the preschool campers play next to us, their counselors teaching them the fundamentals of hand-eye coordination by throwing balls up in the air for them to run and fetch. They careen around, panting like little puppies let loose in a bumpered bowling alley, and next to them, we do the same, a multigenerational desecration of the sport. It’s an image straight out of John McEnroe’s worst fever dream.

Yet I keep returning. One reason is that it’s ever-so-slightly social, after so many years of enforced, panicky isolation and grim solo jogs. The tiny chit-chats we have with each other when we switch sides, or stop for water, or cheer each other on, are part and parcel of the weak ties so many psychiatrists were shouting to the rooftops that we’d lost in the past few years, and are so critical to our wellbeing.

Another is that, even though I know I’m going to suck at it, the stakes are so low I can really lean into my sucking – something that can be a palliative for the stressed-out and over-anxious (read: nearly everyone, or 87% if you need a number, at least according to the latest Stress in America™ survey from the American Psychological Association, published in March). And it’s a corrective other people have recognized and touted for years, and one that seems particularly relevant now, as we hurtle towards yet another uncertain fall, with the world very literally on fire, and the future so bleak that people have reportedly stopped reading the news altogether, unable to bear yet another tragic headline. Low-stakes pursuits and embracing mediocrity might be a nice tool to have in our self-help kit.

“In the process of trying to attain a few moments of bliss,” Karen Rinaldi wrote of her dreadful surfing in a viral op-ed she later expanded into the book (It’s Great to) Suck at Something, “I experience something else: patience and humility, definitely, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the futile. And the freedom to suck without caring is revelatory.” In the book’s introduction, she urges us to consider the importance of “celebrating the life-making art of doing something seemingly irrelevant, especially when the rest of your life is being pulled towards one resounding, overwhelming, all-encompassing and weighty relevance”.

I suck at so much right now. I suck at not watching five episodes of The Bear and going to sleep on time. I suck at putting my three-year-old to bed, which means that nearly every night ends with me cowering in a child-sized pink chair as she barks commands at me. I suck at not eating fistfuls of Goldfish when I’ve forgotten lunch. And in each of these moments, however minute, the stakes feel legitimate: that my emotional reserves will dry up and poof away with each hour of sleep lost; that I’ve failed at being an authority figure for my children, with whatever down-the-road ramifications that may hold; that my body will one day just power down, after it can no longer mine Pepperidge Farm’s enriched wheat flour for the folic acid it so desperately needs. In large part, I fear that what I’m sucking at is being a grownup.

At tennis, if I suck, it truly doesn’t matter.

This week, with a break in our work schedules coinciding, my husband asked me if I wanted to hit. He’s good, actually good, having competed seriously in high school, but we hadn’t played together in years, after a dire game shortly after college. My competitive streak was still blazing back then, and after I demanded he play to win and then got crushed, I vowed we’d never return to the court without a couples counselor present as referee. With my newfound love of mediocrity, I figured we could give it a whirl. And aside from the fact that he kept shouting “TWINKLE TOES!” every time I didn’t adjust to the ball fast enough, some bizarre holdover phrase he learned when being coached years ago, we had a blast, and only played for points towards the very end. We left the court tied, and yes, it felt fantastic to take those winners off him, even if I knew, deep in my bones, that he was playing down to me.

And so, in the dog days of summer, before that nostalgic camp-like window shuts and we find ourselves back at our daily grind, with our pencils sharpened and our eyes on that amorphous weighty relevance, I urge you to join me on the metaphoric court. Who knows? You, too, may be terrible, or at the very least, mediocre. Here’s hopin’.