Indoors to outdoors

Winter drags on. The gray sky dissolves on your skin, the sun sequestered somewhere behind the chilly mist. You shrug low into your warm-up jacket. Your  New Balances sink into the waterlogged sod. You hustle inside the club.

You’ve been here since September. Will you ever play outdoors again? On TV, the pros are scampering across purple courts beneath Miami’s sub-tropical sun. Some 1,500 miles north, you’re playing beneath lamps that hang from a corrugated metal roof, struggling to cope with a Vitamin D deficiency.

And then, seemingly overnight, the blooms erupt, an explosion of color and light. The temperature climbs 30 degrees, a bright sun banishes gloom from the shadows.

“We’ll start practicing outdoors this week,” the coach emails the team.

It’s time to make the transition from indoor to outdoor tennis. In warm-ups, the superheated asphalt burns holes in the soles of your shoes. You know you’ll need to make adjustments, but that knowledge doesn’t make them any less frustrating. Among the surprises, the same ones year in and year out:

  • You have no power. Indoors, you hear the ball explode off your strings. The report echoes inside the club, sustaining the illusion that you hit your forehand like del Potro. Outside, there’s just the dull ping of of a soft tennis ball on polyester strings. Without the auditory illusion, you doubt yourself. Your strokes lose their sting. A week ago, you were ripping cold-blooded winners. Now, the balls are coming back. And back. And back until your head implodes.
  • You have no serve. Indoors, the roof serves as a fixed point of reference. You toss the ball in the same place every time, just to the right of that seam in the insulation. Outdoors, you lose perspective, the sky a shifting tableau of sun, cloud, and shadow. It’s two or three games before you can serve four points without a double fault.
  • You have no stamina. Indoors, the points are short. The courts are fast, no wind, no humidity. Outdoors, the courts are gritty. The wind and heavy humid air slow the ball down, keep it aloft, turn your nuclear-grade groundstrokes into tame rally shots. Five and six ball rallies are the norm. After a few minutes, you’re a heaving, sopping mess. Do you have enough in the tank to make it to the second game?

The transition is underway. Outdoor league play starts in a few weeks. Will I be ready?

–A. Clarke


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