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A man may marry an inconvenient woman. He may decide to become a cricket official. He might continue in his 70s, like my father, to use Old Spice occasionally. These are acceptable errors of judgement. But selecting the incorrect tennis partner—not a doubles partner but your regular opponent—is fundamentally dangerous. This is the man for whom you wake up at dawn four days a week. He is the man you bring your hangover to, your broken heart and your pathetic forehand. He is the one before whom you will reveal your worst self. Usually in defeat. Choose wisely.

I did.

My man across the net in the late 1980s was called Gyan Singh. His early morning patka was badly tied and it resembled something between a hippie bandana and a halo. He was a van-driving, bass-playing Sardar in a band, though I told him repeatedly his backhand had no music to it. He shrugged. From the University of Hip, he had a degree in cool. We called each other Peter but it’s too long a story.

The tennis partner stands at a distance, yet he knows you with a startling intimacy. He is well-versed in your weaknesses, he recognizes the minuscule signs of impending madness even before they completely manifest themselves. I muttered on court to myself like my mother searching for her lost hand towels, which was a signal that my racket was a few flunked forehands away from taking flight.

I’d swear loudly. Gyan would walk to the net.

“Cool it, man."

I’d hurl my racket across three courts, pout towards the ground, look up and there he was with my racket.

“Take it easy, man."

I did.

The perfect tennis partner—I’ve had four over 26 years—is a hard fit to find. If you beat him too easily, too often, it’s only your ego, not your game that expands. If the converse occurs and he emasculates you 6-1 consistently, it can have awkward repercussions on your sex life. If he’s cocky, it can get tiresome; if he cheats, it soils the experience; if he’s too serious, it strips away the joy.

If your partner is slightly superior to you it is best, for he elevates your game and forces introspection. Losing 5-7 or 4-6 are both hideous yet reassuring and result in an exhausting preoccupation. You will walk into lifts and down corridors with your hands imitating a Lendl forehand. You will concoct imaginary points like a colonel plotting a coup. Then you will actually hit that forehand, and go home, and drip sweat on your wife and recount every nuance of this shot and she will say “Oh, great" when truly she is thinking of a new colour for her sofa. This is a true story.

Gyan and I were a perfect fit. We played sophisticated junk tennis, full of uneven pace, inadvertent spin, mishit drop shots, off-balance winners. His second serve was hysterical, his first was sneaky and superb and frequently led to complaints from me that he must be foot-faulting.

In the Calcutta early morning, school buses belching under a quickly unfriendly sun, there is nothing like the feel of court dirt under shoe, the hiss of opened ball can, the fingers tugging at guts like a contemplative violinist, the quick knee bend, the first forehand. And the belief that I will beat my tennis partner today. MY tennis partner. Should he go and play with someone else, he is but a cheap flirt.

Gyan knows my game, I know his. We are the impoverished version of Borg-McEnroe, whose familiarity with each other makes the contest not duller, but even more bewitching. We are tuned to each other’s nuances even as we strive to break each other’s patterns. Can we lift today, above each other, above ourselves? Can we out-think, surprise, confuse?

But the tennis partner is not about tennis, it is far more profound. After tennis, after defeat, after victory, day after day, raw and sweaty, a man cannot hide himself. Gyan was revealed as a man gentler than a morning zephyr. His immaculate decency confronted me with the idea that I needed to be a better man. He won with an arm around me and lost with a grace which was my education. He was 11 years older, but for me he was Yoda with a shrugging walk and a face that must have been craggy at birth. I loved him. Probably because I’d oversleep, leave him stranded on the court and he’d say “bastard..." and forgive me.

When the tennis ends, the last point played, the best partners sit in a sea of tossed wristbands, complaining lungs and puddles of perspiration. They lament, they speak of worn shoulders, a son’s school play, a book recommended, a Wilander tactic and the triviality, the travails, the tests of life. It is a beautiful lingering.

Gyan ran a hotel in Calcutta called Broadway. I worked for Sportsworld magazine situated close by. Lunches there were tomato chicken, bhindi (okra) and grinning reports by him of my racket-throwing to my colleagues. I sat in his old home on Lansdowne Road (now Sarat Bose Road) and yelled abrasively at him about Tendulkar; he argued less loudly and gave me whisky and dinner.

For an unmarried, lonely young man, my parents having left Calcutta, this house of endless books and fine conversation and band rehearsals was a school, a refuge, a home. His wife Jayshree was erudite, kind and sang wondrously with a voice that suggested vocal chords soaked in smoke. His brother Divnain had the look of a weary sage, was an assistant coach of the Indian hockey team once and spoke of the game with an old religiosity. His son Jiver was on his way to playing the drums and studying cinema. Here was kindness with nothing asked for in return.

I went to Australia, Gyan recorded a CD. I visited in 2001, we ate in Broadway. We’d lose touch, then an email would arrive, a call would be exchanged.

“Hey, Peter." And we’d grin down the line.

I sent him a piece I wrote on my wife and running in Singapore last year, he replied that it was “beautiful". Of course he’d say that. We made plans to meet, but life got in the way. There’s always time, you think. Next month, next year, I’ll go to Calcutta. We’ll laugh, we’ll play.

Why do we wait?

Two weeks ago, Gyan died of cancer. He was 61. I sat on a golf course on a sunny Singapore morning and wept. For my tennis partner. And for our match left unfinished.

Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.

Write to Rohit at gametheory@livemint.com

Also Read | Rohit’s previous Lounge columns

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