In the collective imagination tennis means Wimbledon, crisp linen whites and Williams sister smashes. It also, surely, means the romcom Wimbledon — which I watch probably every six months or so — manicured courts and elegant aces.
So it was disappointing to discover that tennis could also mean me missing ball after ball; me throwing a John McEnroe style-strop as I sent another underpowered shot into the net; and me being hit in the face by the ball I tossed into the air during a “serve”.
In March I stepped on to a tennis court for the first time in more than a decade. During this yawning chasm of time it transpired that I had forgotten how to hold a racquet properly and that tennis lessons were very, very much required. My patient tennis coach — Milton, a former champion now in his 60s who has been coaching community tennis in south London since the Seventies — had his work cut out for him.
My motivation to pick up a racquet was not simply the influence of a romcom and a dilettante’s interest in the grand slam circuit. My Camberwell flat overlooks a jigsaw of pristine courts, radiant as a Slim Aarons photograph. On many evenings I have found myself standing at the window, mesmerised, as tennis players gambolled across them.
Moreover, after years of voguish gym classes in studios styled as nightclubs and presided over by tyrannical instructors who demanded that I “be the pain”, I was disillusioned with exercise. HIIT classes hone muscles but I wanted to be outside. I wanted to play.
Inevitably, I am late to this party: London’s courts are already prime real estate. According to the register Tennis for Free, the capital has more than 2,600 local tennis courts (not including those at clubs like Queen’s). In Burgess Park, where I now play once a week, courts are booked up a week in advance. In Stratford’s Olympic Park the courts are reportedly heaving on weekday evenings and weekends. Milton tells me he coaches in Camberwell morning until evening, seven days a week.
Obviously, it’s brilliant exercise. Tennis whittles the trunk, creating an ironclad core, steely obliques and toned upper arms. Getting low on the court targets the glutes and an hour of tennis is phenomenally efficient cardio.
But it’s also a game, and there’s the thrill of strategy. After years of exercise for vanity’s sake there is something satisfying in finessing a skill.