May 17, 2015

Playing Court to the Classics

Clockwise from left: Adidas Rod Laver, Adidas Stan Smith, Spring Court 1936

Playing tennis should be as effortless for today’s gentleman as texting is for today’s teenager; one should know how to do and do it as often as he has the opportunity. But unlike texting, which has resulted in hordes of zombie-like youngsters, faces aglow in the pale light of their smart phones, tennis offers a more meaningful social opportunity. It also presents the opportunity for misstep and confusion unless approached with caution. Here is where the natural gentleman and his pedestrian counterpart differ: the former isn’t swayed by the technocratic claims of today’s sportswear marketers. At some point in the 1990s, the idea of modest, simple tennis clothing all but vanished, outside of the All England Club. For the stoutest evidence, the reader only has to scan down when watching his or her favorite pro player: tennis shoes have become nothing short of comedic. Mad neon colors, laces that coordinate with other parts of the outfit, air soles, and gel absorption are just a few areas where I recommend you tread lightly. (I cannot help but think here of that phenomenon of my youth known as the Reebok Pump.) But as is the case so often these days, falling into the pit clown-footed can be avoided by turning once again to the classics. (Because let’s face it, looking good IS winning, regardless of how the scorekeeper reads.)

While the classics are never a bad choice aesthetically, the only rub with wearing now what dad wore then is that today’s model is going to be imported and likely of dubious quality. My advice is to buy two or more pairs when you find a style you like. (Once, back in school, a friend reluctantly showed me his father’s closet. At some point, a shoe salesman had alerted his father that his favorite court shoe was no longer going to be made. In the bottom half of the closet were three stacks of boxes containing the original white and green mesh Rod Lavers in the same size. An imported version of that shoe has since been reissued but the idea of stockpiling in the face of scarcity stuck with me.)

But what if said quality results in discomfort on the court? It has happened to me and all I can say is that there is no better reason to stop play for a drink of water (or a sip of your Bloody Mary if it’s that kind of club.) Just be sure not to use your cheap shoes as an excuse for a lousy game. The assumption here is that nothing is at stake other than your reputation as an enjoyable opponent and good sport.

Color should be provided by the ball, the court surface, and your tan. Otherwise, stick with white. It really isn't just for Wimbledon. And white does not necessarily mean “new.” In fact, that should be avoided. Find a way to break in a shoe before you introduce it to your friends. If it means solitary service practice for a few days, so be it. Your doubles partner will thank you once he sees your improved topspin.

It’s important not to overthink this. I was once severely beaten by my brother-in-law (a former junior state champ) while he was wearing simple canvas All-Stars. (In white, naturally.) And yet I distinctly remember how, shaking his hand afterward, he left me with the feeling that we both had won. Was it the shoes? Maybe. Maybe not.

Naturally, I recommend you take all of this with a grain of salt. If score matters, go technical. None of this need apply in the world of leagues, ratings, or sponsored tournaments. Even I keep a pair of fairly recent (mostly white) Asics on hand for when a match is anything other than fun. (But it’s always fun, really.)

Final thought: If you’re not sure on the matter of socks, err on the cautionary side. History offers the unfortunate account of young Calvin Coolidge, Jr. and a fatally blistered toe. Granted, there aren’t a lot of us dying from foot blisters these days, but I’d rather not tempt fate. Besides, the contrast of a clean white crew sock above a scuffed-up or clay-stained sneaker sends a message to your opponent: I’ve never not been doing this. But let’s not get too carried away. After all, it is only a game.