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Books | Sports

August 15, 2016

What It's Like To Pick Up Tennis In Your 50s

Gerald Marzorati began playing in his 50s. He got a book deal out of it—and a pretty good one-handed backhand.

Carl Bialik

Gerald Marzorati was almost 55 when it occurred to him that he should try to be a tennis player. He loved watching tennis and was in good shape, but he'd hardly played the sport. He'd spent most of his adult life editing magazines, and now Marzorati wanted to try to get better at something new, something difficult, something he couldn't learn by reading.

Gerald Marzorati. Photo by Kathy Ryan.
"In some ways practicing and playing now is easier. It's not 'material.' "

Gerald Marzorati. Photo by Kathy Ryan.

His quest continues. Its first few years are captured in his tennis memoir, Late to the Ball, in which he travels to coaches, camps, and tournaments looking for competition, camaraderie, and a better one-handed backhand. In the following interview, conducted by email, Marzorati explains how he knew he had a book, whether he learns by watching the pros, and what it's like writing about sports for the New Yorker's website.

Gelf Magazine: When did you know your journey as a tennis player could be a book?

Gerald Marzorati: I'd never kept a diary at any point in my life. But I did begin keeping one when I began training with Kirrill, my young club pro. Nothing psychological or emotional—just what drills we did and how well I hit. So I had something to draw on, material. Then I wrote a piece for the New York Times sports section about my taking up tennis in my mid-50s, and I heard from an agent and two book editors. That's when I thought I had a book.

Gelf Magazine: Your book is a very personal one. Did you have any misgivings about baring your tennis soul? Anything you left out, or almost left out?

Gerald Marzorati: I had no hesitation talking about anything and everything having to do with my tennis feelings and failings. The stuff I hesitated about had to do with my boyhood. I worried my parents might think I was talking about things not meant for a reading public.

Gelf Magazine: How has your game developed since the period covered in the book?

Gerald Marzorati: I play on three or four club and USTA teams, mostly doubles. I continue to work on my one-hand backhand—which I think I made some real progress with this summer. As long as I'm not expected to stay in a backhand rally with someone hitting with pace.

Gelf Magazine: Has it been harder to stick with playing and practicing now that a book doesn't depend on it?

Gerald Marzorati: No, not really. In some ways practicing and playing now is easier. It's not "material."

Gelf Magazine: You've been writing a lot about pro tennis at the same time that you've been working on your own game. How does watching and writing about the best in the world translate into your own quest to improve?

Gerald Marzorati: I agree with my old friend and mentor Roger Angell: Professional athletes have become people apart from us now. They are simply too strong, too fast, too big, too skilled for us to compare our games to theirs. With tennis, TV can fool us: The ball seems to be hit with less pace and spin for some reason. Sit up close on an outside court at any tournament and you will see that the game the pros are playing is only in its outline and setting the game you play at your club on weekends.

Gelf Magazine: Which person, living or dead, pro or not, would you most like to hit with?

Gerald Marzorati: Well, there are so many, and so many obvious people. So maybe someone less obvious: I'd like to have Martina Hingis as a mixed-doubles partner. The way she commands at the net.

Gelf Magazine: What court would you most love to play on?

Gerald Marzorati: Hm. How about a side court at Wimbledon? I do love grass. It's so easy on the (aging) joints. And I hit flat and have a low strike zone—I like balls between my waist and my knees.

Gelf Magazine: You and I love playing tennis and love watching tennis. It's hard for me to see how anyone couldn't love watching tennis. Do you think for the pro game to achieve mainstream popularity in the U.S., it will take getting more Americans to play tennis?

Gerald Marzorati: More Americans will watch when more American men are in the Top 10. I mean, is swimming exciting to watch? But you put a Michael Phelps in prime time, and folks watch.

Gelf Magazine: What's it like writing about sports for the New Yorker? What do they see as their role or angle on sports coverage?

Gerald Marzorati: Well, first off, I write for the website, not the magazine, which are still more or less separate things. That said, the editing is just so superbly careful: That, and the company you get to keep, are the reasons to write for them. As for the New Yorker's sports coverage: I think they are of two or three minds as to how important sports are to the magazine's identity. David Remnick, among his many gifts, was and remains a terrific sports writer. Bringing Louisa Thomas on as a regular contributor is a good sign that sports matter to the magazine, which they should. Sports are our pop culture to a remarkable extent, nationally and globally.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the general state of tennis coverage in the U.S., and in the English language?

Gerald Marzorati: I think there are any number of tennis writers I look forward to reading every day or every week: Chris Clarey, Steve Tignor, the aforementioned Louisa Thomas, Jon Wertheim, you! Twitter has been a boon around the majors—lots of fine conversation spurred by these writers and others.

Gelf Magazine: You contributed an article to the first issue of Racquet. Do you see a bright future for magazines, and for tennis media in the U.S.?

Gerald Marzorati: As a magazine editor for the better part of four decades, I root for any new magazine. It's not a friendly word out there for print. Time will tell.

Gelf Magazine: You wrote about Davis Cup for Racquet. How would a World Cup of tennis work?

Gerald Marzorati: To make Davis Cup a real World Cup of tennis, you need to dial it back—play every other year; hold it at a neutral site; change up the rubbers format; and limit the teams participating. Don't hold your breath. But I'm trying to begin a conversation. As Davis Cup is now, too few people care.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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- Sports
- posted on Dec 09, 16
Tom Flynn

Just (belatedly) spotting this. Great article, Carl.

Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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