Getting a grip: returning to tennis after a long break

It can be frustrating trying to unlearn childhood habits, but tennis is a wonderful sport to return to in middle-age

It’s hard to unlearn things learned as a child. It’s possible to unlearn a look – how you do your hair, the type of clothes you wear, stuff like that. It’s even possible to unlearn an attitude or a belief. They’re all the easy bits.

What’s far, far more difficult to unlearn are those dumb, ordinary, everyday habits developed over time – like, you know, holding a tennis racket the wrong way.

I’ve come back to tennis after a long break. I played tennis as a child, traipsing over to the local courts for game after game during the lazy months of summer. My family was tennis-mad and pretty much stayed house-bound for the two weeks of Wimbledon. My parents actually met at a tennis club so I have been imbued with all things tennis my whole life.

But I’m not a great player. Not even a good club player. Good club players are quite something nowadays. This has all become very clear to me since coming back to tennis in my fifties after a number of false starts over the years. I’ve joined my local club and find myself shaking my head in resignation as Gary, our professional, unleashes a backhand or forehand during lessons, just for the fun of it.

And don’t even get me started on the kids. There they are, practically hidden behind their rackets, doing the whole topspin thing – swinging those rackets in that glorious arc before whacking the ball into the furthermost corner of the court.

Topspin wasn’t really around when I was a child. We knew it existed. Kind of. But it was something Bjorn Borg did during those Wimbledon matches on the telly and had nothing to do with us over on St Mary’s courts.

Anyway, the very notion of a tennis professional didn’t exist back then. You just figured things out yourself. You held the racket the way it felt natural and just went for it. Forehand, backhand, serve, it didn’t matter.

I now realise I have the wrong grip and technique for all of these shots. Completely the wrong grip and completely the wrong technique. Well, to be honest I never had either for a volley up at the net as I had, and continue to have, a very reasonable fear of dying up there so I generally avoid that part of the court.

But take the forehand. I’ve had lesson after lesson about the correct grip and stance for this shot. The right way to turn and swing and hit and follow-through. But in an actual game, during those fractions of a second when the ball is whizzing towards me, that technique goes out the window.

My 12-year-old self re-emerges and, before I know it, without any conscious decision on my side, the grip on my racket has slipped back to what I started out with all those years ago and I’m walloping the ball any way I can.

And as for the serve? Well, we need to get a couple of things straight from the off. The serve is the most tortuous, ludicrous, counter-intuitive sporting skill there is out there. It makes no sense. It’s entirely irrational.

As kids, we just learned to toss the ball up in the air and hope for the best. But I now realise you’re supposed to hold the racket in a chopper-style grip, as you would a knife when slicing up veggies for dinner, and the point of contact involves the twisting and flattening of the wrist which prompts the racket to go up and out. That’s the theory anyway. Up and out.

And as for my return? Many years ago, in a mixed doubles game with nothing at stake, my male opponent, who had one of those wham-bang men’s serves that are out an awful lot of the time but, when they’re in, are pretty much unreachable, took to giving me this pathetic, baby kind of delivery so that I’d have a chance to get it back.

A pity serve.

It was infuriating. And, of course, I had so much time to think about the ball slowly and sadly sailing in my general direction that my return would invariably end up in the net.

But tennis, with all its frustrations, is a wonderful sport to come back to in middle-age. On the one hand, when feeling particularly foolhardy, you can put yourself out there in a game of singles. And on the other, when feeling a lot more, well, social, there’s always doubles.

And as for that 12 year-old deep within, I know she’s going nowhere. I’ve come to accept that now. But we’ll reach some kind of compromise.

Step by step, stance by stance and grip by grip.