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Life’s Funny

Getting Around to the Inner Game

Fifty years later, a classic book somehow seems wiser

By Maria Johnson

I pull up to the tennis courts late, worried that my friend will be miffed, even though this Saturday morning hitting session is just for fun.

The lag is no biggie, thank goodness.

The place is sparsely populated, and my pal is walking around the court languidly, phone pressed to her ear, engrossed in a conversation about her impending move.

She takes her time, which is fair and fine by me.

It’s a glistening spring day, and I take a few moments to soak it up.

The solid blue dome overhead.

The way my friend’s pastel Nikes leave footprints in the damp green grit of the synthetic clay.

The brush marks on the perfectly combed court.

The lacy overlay of snowflake-size petals blown from nearby Bradford pear trees, stinky but beautiful.

But stinky.

On the back fence, a mockingbird trills through his list of knockoffs.

A few courts down, the resident pro gives gentle reminders to his students.

I unzip my tennis bag, grab a racket and paw around until I feel the glossy cover of a book I’ve been meaning to give my friend, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey.

The thin, pale paperback with a yellow ball on the cover — I wiped off another distinguishing feature, a coffee ring, before I left home — became a best-seller when it was published exactly 50 years ago, at the height of the 1970s tennis boom.

At the time, I was a teenager who was swept up in the wave, brandishing a steel Wilson T2000 racket, wearing a shiny Adidas track suit and racing around in featherlight Tretorn tennis shoes topped with pom-pom socks.

And yes, that was fly way back then. 

I don’t remember how I acquired the book — Did someone give it to me? Did I go to a bookstore and buy it? — but I do remember reading a few chapters.

What malarkey, I thought.

The author went on and on about Self 1 and Self 2.

Self 1 was the self-critical voice, the source of rules and judgments, shoulds and oughts, rights and wrongs, goods and bads.

It was the self that yelled, “You idiot!” when I missed a shot and occasionally hammered the fence with my T2000, though not too hard because a cracked racket head was not terribly cool — or practical for a girl who worked weekends serving hot dogs at a snack shack.

Like most teenagers, I was well acquainted with Self 1, who was chiefly concerned with performance and appearance.

I was not as chummy with Self 2, the home of curiosity, awareness, acceptance and a knack for learning by imitation.

The ability to find joy in play — that is, childlike play marked by getting lost in the process and not giving a whit about scores or what anyone else thinks  — lived with Self 2.

As a teen, I had no use for her.

I tossed the book aside, but for some reason I took it with me when I left home, boxing it up, unpacking it, not reading it I and repeating the cycle of neglect several times during the couple of decades when I didn’t touch a racket at all.

A few years ago, well into my second life as a tennis player, I unpacked a box of books and there it was. I started reading the yellowed pages and, this time, I couldn’t stop.

Gallwey, the author, had gotten a lot smarter in the intervening 50 years, and I wanted to share his wisdom with my friend.

She has finished her phone conversation.

“Here,” I say, handing her the slim volume. “Before I forget.”

She thanks me and slips the book into her bag.

We pluck a dozen of the brightest balls from a hopper, tuck them into our jacket pockets and start hitting short-court, service line to service line, to warm up.

We chat as we hit, taking quick stock of family, friends and the health of the aforementioned before tackling the pains of prepping a house for a move and discussing the merits of track lighting versus halo lighting.

The balls keep flying, arcing and landing inside the boxes as we dance around our shots. With our minds otherwise occupied, the rackets and the balls seem to be doing their own thing.

We back up to the baselines, too far apart for conversation now, and drop into long cross-court rallies.

Bounce-hit, bounce-hit.

The balls fly deep and fast.

My friend, a former college player, is nursing a shoulder injury and has no interest in playing flat out, which is great for me. In fighting form, in a real-deal match, she’d flatten me. That’s just the Self 1 truth.

But today, she just wants to hit, grooving her strokes without worrying about scores. In other words, she wants Self 1 to butt out.

Same here.

Bounce-hit, bounce-hit.

I blot out everything but the ball. By the time it lands on my side of the court and rises up, I can see the brand name spinning like a cyclone.

Gallwey — now 86 years old and set to release a hardback special edition of his softbound masterpiece next month — would say that by concentrating on the ball and giving Self 1 a job to do, I’m freeing up Self 2 to do what she knows how to do: Put the ball where it needs to go.

The rallies stretch. Five, 10, 20 shots.

We’re slugging the balls with topspin. And knifing it with slice. And hitting drop shots that curl up and die, leaving both the dropper and the drop-ee scrambling and panting with laughter.

“Oh, noooo . . . ” we yelp mid-sprint.

“You did NOT . . . ” we scold and take off. We applaud each other’s wicked shots by clapping free hands to string.

We are playing. Tennis just happens to be the game.

It’s tempting to say I’d like to banish Self 1 from all areas of my life, tennis and otherwise, but ’taint true. Making a little room for Self 1 strikes me as a good thing. The ability to kick yourself in the butt without kicking yourself to the curb is a valuable trait, as is judgment when it’s used, um, judiciously.

Plus, I like winning. Correction: I
luvvvv winning. It’s an addictive juice.

But this is also true: My Self 2 comes around more than she used to, and I’m always happy to see her. She watches more, listens more, lingers in the moment longer and tells Self 1 to shush and hold her horses.

Maybe Self 2 is emboldened by age to stage-whisper what experience has shown her: that she is not the game. Or the score. Or how well she hits that drop shot.

She is something else entirely.

On her good days, you’ll see her running around the court, focused and flowing.

On her best days, you’ll see her hanging with other Self 2s.

Today is one of those days.

“My God,” my friend says, smiling and breathless as we break for water. “I’m gonna miss this.”

“Yeah,” I say between gulps. “Me, too.”

We talk a little, pick up a few balls and head back out for another round of moments.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at