By Kevin Comer
I know tennis. I’m a player and serious student of the game. I watch hundreds of hours of Tennis Channel and ESPN2 throughout the year. My wife and I go to Indian Wells in Southern California every spring to see the top international players perform. I’m a Federer guy; she likes Rafa. We both love Agnieska Radwanska, although we’d be happy to see the women’s game evolving as quickly as the men’s. Tennis has never been better and it gets better every year.
From the perspective of it takes one to know one, I can tell you with some certainty: JDM played tennis and was a student of the game. I know this because he gave Travis McGee a knowledgable eye.
In Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965), Travis is helping his friend, Arthur Wilkerson, recover his net worth from a gang of grifters when he grifts his own way into the strangely named Royal Palm Bath Club. He’s looking for Vivian and Crane Watts. He spies a soused Crane playing cards, and heads for the tennis courts in search of Vivian. He finds her on the brink of defeat to a young man who, he reckons, is ten years younger than her maybe twenty-nine. The match has drawn a small crowd. Joining the throng, McGee observes of Vivian:
As with all natural athletes, she had an economy of motion which created its own grace.
This is true of all athletes, but tennis players especially. A tennis player has to move like a jungle cat, with the jungle cat’s ability to land on their feet, balanced and ready to spring or swing.
McGee admires Viv’s footwork:
Her brown and solid legs had a good spring, bringing her back into a balanced readiness after each stroke, the way a good boxer moves.
Like boxing, tennis is played on the balls of the feet, with knees slightly flexed. Remaining balanced is essential. A good player has a kind of bounce in rhythm with the ball, always landing perched on their toes in readiness to react to the next shot just like Vivian. If you’d like to see an example of great footwork in a female player, watch rising star Simona Halep.
Travis next turns his attention to Vivian’s opponent:
The boy was a scrambler, going after everything, returning shots it didn’t seem plausible he could reach, lobbing them high enough to give him time to get back for the smash, and preventing her from coming up to the net to put them away.
The kid on the other side of the net is quick and gets to every ball, but he is also playing a good tactical defense. When he is driven off the court, he hits the ball back high and deep to buy himself time to recover to a defensive position and to keep Vivian from establishing positional advantage in her forecourt. When it comes to defending, nobody has ever been better than Rafael Nadal.
Travis asks a fellow onlooker for the score:
“Six-three to Viv, then seven-five to Dave. Now he’s got her nine-eight.”
JDM tells a quite story with this score line. This is a battle. Viv crushed Dave in the first set–breaking his serve twice –but after losing serve in the last game of the first set, Dave’s slowly closed the gap as Viv has tired. Viv first faltered at 5 all in the 2nd set, allowing Dave to take the set by holding serve in game 12. Viv regrouped and stayed tough, but now Dave is serving for the match after she lost her service again at 8 all in the 3rd and deciding set.
In 1965, there was no tie-break rule. All sets had to be won by 2 or more games. The seven point tie-breaker was introduced at the US Open in 1970. Since then, a tie-breaker is played whenever the score reaches 6 games all, except when playing a deciding set at the Wimbledon, French Open, and Australian Open tournaments. At Wimbledon in 2010, John Isner won his first round match against Nicolas Mahut with a score of 70-68 in the 5th set. The match took 3 days.
McGee describes each point of the final game:
He had a big serve and she waited well back, handled it firmly, moved to center court and drove his ground stroke right back at his ankles. He aced her, on his next serve. Then on the next serve he tried to come to the net and she made a beautiful passing shot. Her return of his next serve floated and he let it go out by six inches. He took the advantage on another service ace. At match point, she again tried the passing shot as he moved up quickly, but the ball slapped the tape and, to the accompaniment of a concerted partisan groan, fell into her court.
Sadly, the tight contest ends with an error. Although Viv got up 15-30, Dave’s serve is just too much for her this deep in the match. She only gets two of six serves back in play. But the reaction of the crowd tells us a lot about poor, doomed Vivian Watts.
In The Empty Copper Sea (1978), Travis watches another tennis match on the courts adjacent to the hotel where he and Meyer are ensconced as they attempt to clear professional skipper Van Harder of negligence in the death of his employer.
In the nearest one, two girls in pastel tennis dresses engaged in deadly combat. They looked to be about fifteen. The one on the right, a blonde in pale salmon, had a lovely style, drifting with dance steps to the right place, setting, stroking, following through. The one on the left, in pale aqua, was shorter and stockier, with cropped dark curly hair. She was a scrambler. She was often out of position. She made improbable saves. She went to the net when she shouldn’t have but managed to guess right a lot of times about where the passing shot should be. When she hit it on the wood , it tended to drop in. She tried for shots that were beyond her abilities—long-range drop shots, topspin lobs—and made them pay off just often enough. She was sweaty and grim. She fell and bounded up. They had a gallery of about a dozen people. One point went on and on and on. Had it been a faster surface, the little dark-haired one couldn’t have beaten the blonde. Finally she went racing to the net after an angled return of second serve. The blonde whipped it right at her, apparently trying to drive it right through her. But in desperate reflex she got the racket in the way. The ball turned the racket and rebounded, touched the tape, and fell in for the point, and the people clapped and whistled.
We still call it hitting the wood when the ball hits the frame, even though wood racquets vanished from the game in the early 1980s. Today racquets are made of space age composite materials. They’re lighter, stronger, and the head sizes are larger. When the legendary Björn Borg attempted to return to professional tennis in the early 1990s, after retiring from the game in 1982, he was still playing with his trademark wooden racquet. He didn’t win a match.
Beyond these descriptions of tennis contests, there are frequent references to tennis and the attributes of tennis players throughout the series. For instance, the villain in A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971) is a “superior tennis player [whose] … shapely, powerful legs with their long muscle structure … had kept their spring and bounce through the long sets of tennis.” And the attorney for Meyer’s murdered niece in Cinnamon Skin (1982) has “the tendoned forearms of the tennis buff.” My own right forearm is considerably larger than the left.
Clearly, JDM understood the game. He couldn’t have described those matches as cogently as he does without playing and thinking about tennis. His grasp of tennis isn’t all that surprising. He moved to Sarasota, Florida in 1949 at the age of 33, and exposure to serious tennis would have been darn near inescapable. Florida, along with California, has always been a hot bed of the game. Many significant players, such as Chris Evert, have come out of Florida. Even today, most professional players who live and train in the U.S. are to be found in Florida. The state has the right weather—and tax policies.