Life is too short to stuff a cia­batta

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - John Cundill

WITH 78-year-old Clarry still re­cov­er­ing from a knee re­place­ment, I am at present the old­est mem­ber of our ten­nis group. It started as a reg­u­lar friendly Wed­nes­day morn­ing four­some but quickly grew to a group vary­ing in num­ber from 12 to 20. I’d put the av­er­age age some­where in the mid­dle 60s. Hardly any­one ar­rives on court with­out some sort of anatom­i­cal sup­port. Hips, knees, el­bows, wrists, shoul­ders and, in some cases, even hearts and ar­ter­ies have re­quired sur­gi­cal at­ten­tion. Some of us re­sem­ble ar­moured grid­iron foot­ball players. All that’s miss­ing are the hel­mets.

We’re a ran­dom as­sort­ment from a wide range of back­grounds. A dairy farmer, an air­line pi­lot, a prop­erty de­vel­oper, an es­tate agent, a screen­writer (that’s me), an oil tanker driver, a baker, a one-time jazz mu­si­cian and a former Span­ish naval of­fi­cer. All but three of us are re­tired. One is a multi-mil­lion­aire. The rest are part-pen­sion­ers or self-funded re­tirees.

Ev­ery­one hopes and strives for im­prove­ment but the re­straints of ad­vanc­ing age tend to nul­lify any signs of progress. The ten­nis is in­tensely com­pet­i­tive but since it’s con­stantly mix and match no one’s overly con­cerned about win­ning. Mean­while, ul­ti­mate ex­cel­lence al­ways lies just beyond our grasp.

The hard­est part is keep­ing track of the points. A game can have been in process for ages be­fore some­one won­ders: ‘‘What have we got?’’ Or if it’s Car­los: ‘‘Weech eez the score?’’ Es­ti­mates can vary from 40-love to love-40. When all else fails we set­tle for deuce and carry on. There may be a tech­ni­cal de­bate over a mar­ginal line call but never an ar­gu­ment. Ev­ery­body’s so kind and con­sid­er­ate and hon­est it’s al­most em­bar­rass­ing.

Af­ter win­ning a hard-fought ser­vice game that went to sev­eral deuces I an­nounced ex­cit­edly, ‘‘I might be on a roll.’’ ‘‘Make the most if it,’’ said Jeff. ‘‘It could be your last.’’ Con­so­la­tion came when, in del­i­cate def­er­ence to my age, my part­ner gave me a pat on the back for pulling off a shot you wouldn’t nor­mally as­so­ciate with a 76-year-old.

There are mo­ments of huge ex­cite­ment when des­per­ately de­fended ral­lies con­tinue un­til the win­ners set­tle the con­test with a roar of ex­ul­ta­tion that rat­tles the neigh­bour­hood.

The un­spo­ken code is that only low-level coarse lan­guage is ac­cept­able. Once a stranger turned up un­in­vited and de­ter­mined to dom­i­nate the group with end­less wise­cracks and foul lan­guage. It took a while but even­tu­ally he got the mes­sage and qui­etly departed.

More re­cently, Lou sud­denly an­nounced that a hot-shot player called Penny had asked if she could join the group. ‘‘Any com­ments?’’ Thun­der­ous si­lence. ‘‘No? OK, I’ll take that as a yes then.’’ The sus­pense lasted all week. What will she look like? How old? What if she beats the pants off us! Came Wed­nes­day — no Penny. ‘‘She changed her mind,’’ Lou ex­plained. ‘‘Afraid she might be an im­po­si­tion.’’ Phew! Sol­i­dar­ity pre­vails.

Ev­ery­body ac­knowl­edges there’s some­thing more than ten­nis go­ing on here. A spirit of fel­low­ship and ex­u­ber­ant ca­ma­raderie that tran­scends the game. And in a world of de­clin­ing virtues and val­ues it’s nice to feel you’re pre­serv­ing some of the old-fash­ioned cour­te­sies. In mod­esty, I like to think of us as a league of gen­tle­men who can’t wait for Wed­nes­day morn­ing. And to re­joice in our lit­tle bub­ble of san­ity and chivalry.

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