THE ORIGIN OF MY SPECIES

My blood type, AB - which first appeared in humans less than a thousand years ago and now occurs in less than five percent of the population - indicates a recent evolution, along with a possible mutant factor. 

Body type: ectomorph. At six one and a hundred and sixty pounds in my prime, my physique is ideal for tennis: tall and wiry with sturdy legs, and deceptively strong from the waist down. Excellent hand eye coordination. Good ball sense from all those childhood hours on the softball field and the basketball court.

I've also got decent quickness. Nevertheless, my anticipation can be spotty; and my overall court coverage leave something to be desired, especially in singles. Which is why I've evolved into a doubles specialist, with mixed doubles as a subspecialty.

The tennis playing mantis is a stalk and pounce predator. Best exemplified by my characteristic stance at the baseline when receiving serve; the stance, in fact, from which my name derives.

Ideally I'm receiving serve in the ad court. I usually set up from two to four feet behind the baseline for the first serve.  I'll only be there until the server's toss goes up in the air; at that point I go into read-option mode - but I'm jumping ahead in the sequence.

First I assume the stance.  Feet no more than a shoulder's width apart. Knees flexed. Leaning forward a little at the waist - the mantis gangsta lean. The better to lock on to the server's toss as it goes up. And the better to track the serve from impact, along its trajectory, tracking the ball right up to its moment of impact with the strings of my own racket. But again, I'm jumping ahead in the sequence.

Still assuming the stance, I'm  rocking back and forth on the balls of my feet in anticipation. My arms are extended, but cocked at the elbow, with my forearms in the upward, praying position.  I'm playing, not praying.  But I am almost ready to prey on your serve.

Completing the distinctive silhouette of the Tennis Playing Mantis is the way I hold the racket. In a two-handed grip, as if presenting it as an offering. At the same time dipping the racket head down in front of me like the racket is a divining rod and I'm dowsing for water...


THE HOLLYWOOD SWEET SPOT

Commentary by Steve Brodeur

BACK IN THE BIG TENNIS BOOM of the 1980’s, a hot movie project in development was said to have “topspin”.

A brief “explainer” for the non-tennis player: when a tennis ball struck with topspin contacts the surface of the court, it kicks up and bounds forward.

So instead of slowing down a bit due to friction, the ball actually speeds up. This phenomenon remains counter-intuitive no matter how many times you experience it.

Even more disconcerting, the ball literally seems to gain weight. A heavy topspin shot from your opponent can twist the racquet in your hand, send a shockwave up your arm, and send your return into the net - or into the fence.

It’s enough to make you seriously consider taking up golf.

Topspin is both a gift and a curse from The Tennis Gods, a force to be reckoned with on the court. So as far as I’m concerned, the statute of limitations has yet to expire on Hollywood’s poaching of it back in the 80’s.

Decades later, it still reeks of bad movie irony - because tennis gets no love on the big screen.

There have been many great films about boxing and baseball. I can easily name you a couple of screen gems about basketball and cycling. Even pool has The Hustler.

Meanwhile tennis in the movies gets played mostly for laughs. And mostly cheap laughs at that. Or, worst case scenario, unintentional laughs.

Now it’s axiomatic that the sports movie genre is always problematic - especially movies about pro sports. Very few actors possess the athletic chops to pull off the convincing physical performance necessary to the all-important suspension of disbelief.

And when it comes to the extraordinary skill set of even your run-of-the-mill pro athlete, faking it Hollywood-style is simply not a very workable option. This goes double for tennis. Or did, until recently.

But more on faking it in a moment.

First, you may be surprised to hear that the best tennis movie to date may well have been directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock.

Okay, so I’ll admit it is quite a stretch to call Strangers on a Train a tennis movie, even though the protagonist, Guy Haines, is a tennis pro. His occupation is no mere detail, however; it’s integral to both Guy’s character and to the plotline of this classic Hitchcock thriller.

And while Guy’s playing style is defintely old school - Strangers came out in 1951 - the extended tennis match upon which the third act turns is expertly shot and edited, with an undeniable feel for the unique dynamics of the game. Highly recommended.

I sincerely wish I could say the same about Players, the 1979 tennis epic from legendary producer Robert Evans.

The bad movie irony here is that Evans’ personal love for the sport is well documented. The private court of his Beverly Hills estate was the epicenter of celebrity tennis in the 70’s - the only court on the planet where a typical match might find Jimmy Connors and Henry Kissinger on opposite sides of the net.

But despite what probably still stands as the biggest budget ever for a movie about tennis, with unprecedented access to the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon, and multiple cameos by star players of the era - including a teenage John McEnroe - the film double faults itself out of contention with a ludicrous screenplay and staggeringly bad acting by its leads.

The critics came down on Players like the chair umpire from hell. With classic cheap shots like “there’s something wrong with any movie where Pancho Gonzales gives the best performance”.

Which is true, the late great Gonzo did give the best acting performance in Players. It’s also true that the late Dean-Paul Martin, son of Dean Martin, delivers a pretty credible athletic performance as the young tennis hustler who games his way into the Wimbledon finals.

Unfortuntely, “young tennis hustler games his way etc.” is only half of the logline for Players.

“Inspired by his ill-fated love for an older ‘kept woman’ who happens to be the mistress of a powerful international man of mystery” is the other half.

The kept woman was played by Ali MacGraw, who was Robert Evans’ wife at the time, as well as the star of his 1970 mega-hit tear-jerker Love Story.

Yes, the movie with the immortal tagline “Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.”

Which brings me back to faking it.

A quarter of a century after “Players”, another big budget Hollywood movie was filmed on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon. They even titled it Wimbledon.

This time around it was a romantic comedy, one which should have come with the disclaimer: no actual balls were harmed in the making of this movie.

Because the tennis sequences were all choreographed, with the actors swinging away...at nothing. The tennis ball was a special effect, computer-generated and added to each shot in post production.

Somewhere The Tennis Gods are weeping.

It’s enough to make you seriously consider taking up golf.

Then again, when’s the last time you saw a great golf movie?