Author: Andrew Robinson ’17

A quality tennis match is the peer of a great poem. Like the beat of a palm against a leather drum, the round, yellow metronome sets the meter with its sonorous cadence. 

Thwap! . . . Pum.-thwap! . . . Pum.-thwap! . . . Pum.-Thwap! . . .

An observer — like a reader — becomes rapt in the swift elegance connecting each movement. The rhythmic pattern of power and precision pulses like a lyrical rhyme scheme. A winning shot bursts forth like an incisive turn of phrase dashed across the page. The hairpin margin between triumph and defeat grips like the poetic tension between euphoric discovery and tragic emptiness.

Rallies at the neighborhood tennis courts with my triplet brothers have none of these requisite poetic elements, but we call it tennis anyway. 

Doop . . . Pum shpung . . . Pum.  crrrrk (off the frame, lobbed high in the air) . . . . . . . . . . . pum — boop . . . . pum — SMAP! . . . . . Ching!

A powerful swing sends the flat yellow metronome over everyone’s head, over the fence and rolling onto the playground.

“LONG!” Luke taunts, grabbing another ball from the can leaning on the fence. Luke traveled back to St. Louis from his apartment in midtown Manhattan a few days ago. Without warning, the world’s prolific epicenter of commerce and culture shriveled into a post-apocalyptic coma, crippled by an invisible force that rippled across the globe. Even the might of New York could not withstand the invisible forces. None of its intricate financial models could account for them. None of its powerful figures and committees could ensnare the assassin.

“Damn.” Jack glares at the stringed culprit in his hand, gripping it with characteristic tension. Like Luke, Jack was a college athlete just a few years ago. He is not used to feeling so helpless in competition; typically, his exertion yields increased results. Not so today. The more he grips, the more unpredictable his shot becomes.

“We’re good, we’re good,” I reassure, shuffling back from the net to receive serve, wiping away beads of sweat that refract the setting sun into my eyes. “Next point. That’s all we’ve got.” 

Usually when I give advice in such aphorisms, I do not speak loudly enough or enunciate well enough for the other person to hear. It’s for me, anyway.

After returning from Chicago to our childhood home, living with my year-younger brothers is at once intimately familiar and altogether foreign. Familiar and foreign. Like the apocalyptically barren grocery store shelves, the hollow Chicago skyscrapers, the faces of friends and coworkers on a screen. 

In our childhood summers filled with endless baseball, soccer, basketball and football, we never played much tennis. Now, every evening, the tennis court is an escape and a new form of quarantine. We constantly face our limitations, despite our efforts. Each game provides immediate, often brutal feedback. We cracked two rackets last week in bouts of frustration. They are still mostly functional. For each of us, playing tennis surfaces a neurotic tension and the vulnerability we have spent our lives avoiding. We thought we were so capable. So in control. What happened? 

We have about 30 minutes of light left to break the 1-1 tie. Mark lines up to serve again. “Thirty-fifteen,” he hollers. After the incident at the end of the second set — we lost track of the score and had to replay the entire game, out of fairness — he makes sure everyone can hear.

Mark started his job in Memphis a few months ago. He is meticulous and orderly even by our family’s standards of conscientiousness. When Mark, Luke and Jack were 8 and I was 9, Mark demanded strict adherence to our prescribed 8:30 p.m. bedtime, even when that meant begging our parents to go home from soccer practice early. This time, being back home has shaken his rhythm. So he works to control the metronome, bouncing the ball from his hand against the cracked concrete, with all the trappings of official tennis ritual.

Pum. Pum. Pum . . . Pum. Pum . . . . . . Thoop!

Mark swats the ball with an unconventional twisted stroke, producing a curveball that arcs over the net. It bounces higher and hooks less than expected, jamming me. Defensively, I pop it back over the net toward Luke, who backpedals to receive my return from the baseline. He has the smoothest stroke of the four of us and always takes baseline shots rather than attacking the net, due to a preference for consistency and a vague notion of tennis purism. 

Whipping his hips, Luke smacks a forehand toward Jack, daring him to return it. Jack zips up his racket defensively, distorting his arm until the racket moves over his chest, handle towards the sky.

Pop! Pum. Pum.

The sharply angled drop shot somehow dances across the court along the net, untouchable.

“Are you serious?!” Mark scoffs, chasing the ball.

“First winner he’s had all day,” Luke says as he turns.

Jack puffs his chest, with a pride not entirely feigned but certainly exaggerated. “A young Roger in the making.”

Despite the perpetual frustration — perhaps because of the imperfection — we always come back to the courts, competing and striving until the light fades and the yellow metronome blends into the evening shadows. For scrappy, spirited amateur poets, the court is an empty notebook, our rackets cracked but mostly functional pens.


Next point. That's all we’ve got. I had forgotten that not all poetry has perfect meter.

Andrew Robinson’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2020 Young Alumni Essay Contest. He lives in Chicago and currently works at a public accounting firm.