I called it the Arsenal Curse, and it had been around for some time. It didn’t refer to the on-field results of the English Premier League’s Arsenal FC, one of my two favorite professional soccer teams and the only one whose games are regularly televised in this country, although most fellow Gunners fans would agree that in recent years the team has been plenty cursed in that domain as well. No, this was a scheduling phenomenon in which Arsenal’s weekly game times and my weekly USTA and North Shore League match times inevitably overlapped. It didn’t matter if I was playing tennis on Saturday or on Sunday, in the morning or in the afternoon. Every week I’d check my Premier League scheduling app with the expectancy of a young child on Christmas morning, only to be left feeling like Charlie Brown after Lucy has once again snatched the football away just before he can meet it with his outstretched leg. I usually played only one competitive match per weekend, yet somehow Arsenal’s contest and my own nearly always fell in similar time slots, and in my DVR-less existence, that was a big problem.
This fall the Arsenal Curse has at last been lifted. I can tell you with authority that the team’s new East European left-back, Kolasinac, is an absolute beast. I can tell you with equal certainty that “playmaker” Meszut Ozil is utterly useless and should be sold, or even given away, at the first possible opportunity, his supposed world-class pedigree be damned. I can tell you- without the slightest shred of bias, mind you- that regardless of whether they are attacking or defending, the Gunners get absolutely screwed on every disputable penalty decision. And I can tell you a lot of things about Arsenal’s longtime manager, Arsene Wenger, the gentlest of them being that he should enter an overdue retirement posthaste. I can tell you all these things not because the scheduling issue has suddenly dematerialized, but because I have not hit a tennis ball since Labor Day.
In truth, I have not hit a tennis ball pain-free for much longer than that, so when a full summer of USTA playoffs ended in the disappointing fashion chronicled in my last entry, I decided it was time to take more drastic measures. And it was the two tennis buddies with whom I’m in most frequent contact, Todd Toler and Andrew Haynes, who persuaded me to take those measures. I thought- or rather knew, from a summer’s worth of evidence- that even on one healthy foot I could compete as a slightly-above-average 4.0. But Todd and Andrew, with backgrounds in competitive hockey and competitive running, respectively, finally convinced me that it was wiser to take a more long-term view. That meant keeping off the tennis court until I was pain-free. It also meant seeking medical help.
Although I like some of them very much as individuals, I’m not a huge fan of doctors collectively, and as a result I try to avoid going to them if at all possible. In this I’m hoping I take after my grandmother, who didn’t believe in seeking medical help yet managed to live deep into her 80s (she didn’t believe in paying her income taxes, either, but that didn’t turn out quite as well for her). Yet it’s a habit that undoubtedly pleases my insurance company more than it does my future self, and which I’m therefore doing my best to modify. So in mid-September I went to a doctor in my primary care physician’s group, and was essentially told that I had plantar fasciitis and needed to see a podiatrist. You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to predict that outcome, but she knew more than I did about how to provide some temporary relief and it was a step in the right direction. It would be another month before I could get in to see the podiatrist, Jeff Davis. I considered it worth the wait, however, for Jeff is both a longtime acquaintance and a 5.0-caliber tennis player, though with the exception of one now-distant Concord A singles title he has always played purely for enjoyment.
The wait still wasn’t easy. I’m a tennis player, not a Renaissance man. No one’s going to mistake me for the next Leonardo da Vinci. I don’t have a ton of hobbies. I can’t grow anything besides fatter, which rules out gardening, and I likely have already maxed out my foreign language capacity. I’m not much for going out to bars and clubs: my present social life can best be summed up by noting that the Saturday-night Domino’s delivery lady now greets me as warmly as she would an old friend. And my day job drains me so completely that even getting to the gym a few times a week can be a challenge, especially without the motivation that a clear timetable of return to the tennis court would provide. I have more time to write, but much less to write about: putting me into a world without any tennis is a little like putting Paul Gauguin into a world without any naked women. I’d like to say I’m reading Goethe in the original German or researching a cure for cancer, but it would be more accurate to say I’m doing a lot of sports watching. Fortunately, fall is a terrific time for that. There’s college football: I’ve seen more games than I have in years, although it hasn’t helped me predict their outcomes any better. There’s pro football: suffice it to say that with all my downtime, my fantasy league team won’t need another miracle to contend for a second straight championship, although its present good luck will no doubt turn when it matters most. There’s baseball: after seeing about a dozen close plays in the decisive game of their wild-card series against the Nationals both rightly and wrongly called in their favor, I’m thinking Vladimir Putin has decreed a Cubs repeat. You heard it here first. And then there’s the PlayStation version of FIFA, in whose alternate universe Arsenal has currently won three consecutive Champions League titles and is hard at work on a fourth (memo to Wenger: your best bet to avoid an eventual involuntary retirement might be to clone and sign Andre Marchais, a Belgian striker who would bear a curiously striking resemblance to yours truly, if yours truly were fast and strong and able to shoot a soccer ball accurately from long distance).
In the meantime, my corner of the tennis world is going on just fine without me, just as it one day will in more permanent fashion. Team Algonquin may have passed its peak on the New England scene- or not- but it still has more than enough talent to excel at the local level, having won its first three matches of the new 40-and-over season. John Duckless’s excellence at lineup construction has more than compensated for his almost complete disinterest in recruiting new talent: he even fit me in for a default win, the first 6-0, 6-0 match that has gone in my favor in years. Even with Adam Hirshan and Gary Roberts having defected to Mountainside (a move I less-than-diplomatically told Gary was the recreational equivalent of Roger Clemens signing with the Yankees), another trip to Districts looks like a strong possibility. The results of the Willows B team, which I joined in order to team up with Andrew, who recently returned to the game after several years of pursuing other interests, have been at the opposite end of the competitive spectrum. Still, I’d love to be part of that group even though the weekly ass-kickings they absorb would no doubt continue. You get into a rut sometimes when you’re playing regularly, and take things for granted a little too much. At least I do. I’d like to think I won’t do that anymore when I’m able to get back out on the court, but it might be more realistic to hope for greater appreciation of the little moments of joy that tennis brings: the feeling, however rare, of a shot struck perfectly; the smell of a can of newly opened balls; the adrenaline-fueled high five that accompanies a critical service break. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to manage that.
I hope I can experience those things again sooner rather than later, but right now I just don’t know. I finally did see Jeff Davis for a cortisone shot, and I have to go back for another one in two weeks. He also took a mold for a custom set of orthotics- my first- and hopes that will provide more of a long-term solution. He says I could be back playing around Thanksgiving and I could be out for months, even years. Time will tell. I know there are millions of people with far worse physical problems than me (I can still do my day job, after all), and I’m trying, though it goes somewhat against my nature, to look on the bright side. Maybe those orthotics will one day help me hike the Appalachian Trail, or at least get back to Nationals. Maybe the extra time away from the game now will buy my prematurely aging knees a few more years before replacement beckons. The recent retirement from competitive play of my Willows colleague Bob Pallazola, a man not much older than me whom I competed with and against for years, certainly provides additional food for thought. Bob’s leaving the sport against his will shows that love of the game isn’t always enough to keep even the toughest competitors on the court against that undefeated opponent, Father Time.
I’m afraid that’s something for me to ponder another day, though: right now I’m going to need to sign off. It’s almost time for Andre Marchais to take on Chelsea.