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Of personalities that shine on and off the court

The first game I learned to some basic proficiency—I mean, apart from Ludo and the like—was badminton. There was a court near where I lived as a kid, off Colaba Causeway. We’d go there regularly for a game, carrying our wooden racquets in those old-time wooden screw-down frames. Even when we moved some distance away, we’d go there for a game every Saturday morning. After which, a brunch of bhelpuri and kulfi at the tiny joint next to Princess Dairy hit the spot just right. 

Somehow I quickly got the hang of connecting racquet to shuttlecock, and so managed to at least play a few rallies. My mother, I remember well, regularly beat me. I attributed this to the years and muscles she had on me in my single-digit years. Besides, she was just far more proficient at the game that I was, of course. Still, trying to win a few points off her was a challenge I relished. 

So it was a distinct surprise to learn that there were those who thought of her as a novice at the game. Whoever owned the court organized regular informal tournaments for those who used it, and one of those was a mixed-doubles league. At one of these, ma was paired with a yahoo who thought he was one exalted master at badminton. We knew this because he told her: “Look, you serve and then just stand to the side. I’ll take care of everything after that.” 

She was seething. But she found a way to make a point. She served and stood aside, sure. But every now and then, as the yahoo rushed around the court, as he returned shots from everywhere, she would step in and stick her racquet out to intercept the shuttlecock. Their team would promptly lose the point. When he protested, she’d smile at him sweetly and return to the sidelines. Only to repeat a few minutes later. 

Needless to say, they didn’t win. But he was certain she had merely misunderstood his instructions. Before the next match, he told her again: “Leave it to me, we’ll win!”—thus proving he had totally missed the point, which of course wasn’t about winning, but about playing the game. You guessed it: she stuck her racquet out randomly in this match too. You guessed it: this particular team did not progress very far in the tournament. Actually, this particular team wasn’t much of a team. 

Years later, some encounters on tennis courts brought my mother’s badminton antics—or really, her partner’s attitude to the game—to mind. 

Item: supercilious bandicoot. There was the time I got on court with three others for a spell of doubles. As we are warming up, hitting balls back and forth, I suddenly find my partner waving imperiously at one of our opponents on the other side of the net. “Hey you!” he shouts, this pot-bellied bandicoot. “You better sit down and let someone else play! You’re not as good as the rest of us!” 

Understand, this fellow who sees fit to issue this order is not quite the second coming of Rafa Nadal, not that I think even Nadal would say something like this. Needless to say, I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. Just to confirm, I ask him what he said. He repeats it, waving again at the man across the net. I’m so angry, I can’t help myself. “You have a problem,” I say. “You sit down, okay?” 

Item: graceless hotshot. One evening I walked onto the courts to find just one other player there, a young man with a slick, powerful game whom I know to say hello to. He is practising his serves. One slams into the fence right next to me. I pick up the ball to throw back at him, and shout across the net: “Wanna hit a bit?” “Thanks, but sorry,” says the fellow. “I can’t walk today.” He doesn’t look like he can’t walk, but what do I know? I shrug and go off to practise my own serves on another court. 

Fifteen minutes later, a young lady shows up, racquet in hand. Any inability to walk is suddenly history. He plays with her for an hour, zipping around smooth and speedy. I’m flabbergasted. I mean, I have no complaints about him wanting to play with her rather than me: maybe they had arranged to play, maybe she’s prettier than I am. But about that false excuse, I do have complaints. When I leave, they’re still playing. I compliment him on his miraculous recovery. 

Item: sisters whose noses turned skywards. Fine players both, I often hit with them when they were young girls, as did a few other regulars at the courts. There was even once when their mother, watching us closely as we played, urged her daughter to come forward and take shots in the air. “Like he does!” she yelled, and that minor recognition of my tennis skills pumped me up no end. 

But as they grew older, as they began playing in tournaments and doing well, there came a time when they had grown too good for us regulars. I don’t mean at tennis, as much as I mean in their pretty, if empty, heads. One day I found them actually snickering at an older man for missing a shot or two on the next court, for playing below whatever exalted level they thought they occupied. Forget playing, they and their ma no longer even recognized us. 

Item: unseeing champion. We usually can’t play during the monsoon, for obvious and wet reasons. But one July a few years ago, the rain let up for a couple of days, so a number of us tennis fanatics made our way to the courts. A frequent partner and I were playing on one court, another regular and his partner on the court to my left. The surface was still slippery, though, which I learned the hard way. 

My partner hit the ball crosscourt wide to my backhand. I ran for it, slipped on a wet patch and landed flat on my chest, winded and in some immediate pain. I could see my partner running over to check on me. I could see the man in the adjacent court also running over, though not to check on me. His partner hit the ball crosscourt wide to his forehand. He ran for it, stepped over me and returned the shot while—I am not making this up—actually straddling my prone body. Then he stepped back over, ran back and continued playing. 

The point of all these small stories? Badminton or golf, tennis or cricket or something else, these are games. They reflect the rest of our lives; they carry lessons for the rest of our lives. I think that’s the spirit in which one Martina Navratilova once wrote: ”A player's personality can shine through on a tennis court, and not only when she loses." 

So if on court we are selfish and supercilious, intolerant, inconsiderate and generally insufferable—well, I’m guessing those charms shine through off court too.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Jukebox Mathemagic: Always One More Dance. 

His Twitter handle is@DeathEndsFun 

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