“Shit!!!!!” I screamed, as only a New Yorker can. Okay, so I was a bit loud. Big deal. I couldn’t help myself. The damn wind forced my cross-court shot to go wide and I was pissed off.
My double’s partner was pissed off too, but not about losing the point. “Sshhhhh!” she quickly responded, holding her manicured finger up to her pursed lips. “We don’t talk like that here!”
By here, she meant the West Chop Tennis Club, a Waspy private club on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. I had come to the island in late September to visit my mother for the Jewish holidays. She had heard that some women were looking for a fourth for their doubles game and, oblivious to the nuances of that particular club, recommended me. Oops.
By 9 A.M., I had already broken two cardinal rules: the first was being Jewish, a small issue they were willing to overlook, given that it was a quiet Monday and no other members were around to notice the violation of their unspoken bylaws; the second was my swearing, an infraction that carried a much heavier penalty. I would not be invited back.
There’s no better way to understand and assess a society than through its tennis, both on and off the court. I’m continually fascinated by the cultural metaphors implicit in all aspects of the game, illuminated by my recent visit back home.
It’s hard to believe that such prudes and Victorians still roam the earth, bullying the un-rich and the un-Protestant. Of course, my family never knew about that aspect of the island when they naively bought their summer home there in 1972, an inexpensive wooden cottage on the ‘other’ side of the Vineyard.
As a small child, I always felt a bit out of sorts playing tennis there, although I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand why. I internalized my discomfort, assuming it was personal, not cultural. It wasn’t until West Chop in September that I made the connection. WASPs – White Anglo Saxon Protestants – originated in northern Europe, a tenacious breed largely characterized by austerity, frugality, and a lack of emotional abandon.
Remind you of anything? Okay, so the Calvinist Dutch don’t wear green pants with whales on them like their Waspy cousins abroad. But there’s enough in common at a Dutch tennis game to make you feel like you could be at an American yacht club event.
Last month, during a friendly game of singles at Amstelpark, my funny friend Wanja made a wry comment between points that caused both of us to erupt with laughter. We were quickly served an earful by the Dutchman on the court next to us, admonishing us for the noise and blaming us for his losing shot. Wow, who knew joy could win a point for the opponent.
Those of us who have been here long enough know that being too aggressive is a complete ‘NO NO’ in the Netherlands, a fact I often ignore, particularly during competitive sports. After the first point of a double’s game at my local club this summer, my opponent made an annoying hand movement, the kind that implies, “Calm down, relax, take it easy,” followed by this: “You’re so aggressive and we’ve only just started”. After the game, when we all sat for a drink, he casually remarked, “What happened? You weren’t as aggressive as you usually are”. If I hadn’t already drunk my coffee, I might have poured it on his head.
To compensate for their inability to be overtly aggressive, my Dutch partners have mastered the art of passive aggressive tennis. Rather than screaming, “I got it!” when the ball comes anywhere near your reach, as they do in the US, my partners in Holland scream “You get it!” This cracks me up every time it happens, because they aren’t in the least bit aware of what they’re doing.
Frugality makes its way on to the court too. No one ever cracks open a can of new balls. They prefer to play with balls that are either completely dead or semi-dead. True, a new can of balls is quite pricey here compared to the States. But even when I’ve brought back brand new balls from Walmart, bouncy and bright, my Dutch partners balk. “My game is being thrown off,” they complain, before exiling my new balls to the sidelines. So familiar is this phenomenon, I’ve renamed the game “dead ball tennis”.
But Dutch tennis also has some wonderful qualities, inspired by the culture of large, that Americans could really learn from.
When I first became a member of my small club in Watergraafsmeer, I was asked which nine hours I wanted to commit to. I was dumbfounded. I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. Of course, they were referring to the nine hours of community service all members are required to give, either serving drinks behind the bar or cooking in the club kitchen. I loved this on so many levels, from its socialist roots, to its money saving benefits, to its thoroughly un-American notion that membership requires more than just cash. Not only did it result in great networking, but I also felt I was a real part of a community.
Best of all is the social tradition that follows a game. It’s considered bad form to go home without having at least one drink with your opponent. This couldn’t be further from American mores, where socializing and sport are rarely combined. In the US, you always have to be considering your next move, rather than lingering in the moment. It’s not profitable enough.
Not surprisingly, the girls in West Chop didn’t want to stay afterward for a drink. Not even with one another. Perhaps it was their abhorrence of me that prompted all of them to drive away the minute the game was over. But I suspect it was something more American than that. They just had somewhere more important to be.