Across the net, professional tennis player and coach Tripp Phillips steps up to the service line. He’s 32 years old, 6'1", and something about him—equal parts confidence, clothing, posture, and tan—communicates the few million hours he’s spent in sunlight striking perfect groundstrokes through the air. He glances up through his shock of blond hair, tosses the ball three feet into the air just in front of his left shoulder, and swings.
Tripp holds two A.T.P. titles (Tokyo 2006; Indianapolis 2008). He’s a 2006 U.S. Open semifinalist in men’s doubles. This summer he will play as Anna Kournikova’s doubles partner on a national exhibition tour.
My 22-month-old daughter says, “Hi Dad!” and waves from the stands. I bounce from foot to foot on the other end of the court. I’m just under 5'10", 33 years old, bald, 154 pounds, and wear black eyeglasses. My face is bright red, and my lungs are currently on fire. Because right now Tripp is playing me, and that ball is hurtling through the air towards my side of the net.
Tripp played his first competitive tennis tournament 28 years ago and, more recently, spent six increasingly successful years on the A.T.P. tour.
I played my first and only tournament in 1984 at age seven. There were only two entrants—me and my best friend Ralph Brabham—and I came in second.
Tennis. I follow it. I crunch ranking points. I just wrote a novel about it, Doubles, based in large part on a world I learned about from the man across the net. He’s been a friend for more than a dozen years. I was an usher at his wedding. He’s hit with me before. Humored me. But never, until today, have we played. What would have been the point? I’ve seen him beat Michael Chang in singles at Forest Hills; I’ve followed his results on Centre Court at Wimbledon. But like any sports fan, I’ve wondered: How would I stack up? I mean, I know I’m not going to win. But I’m not bad. When I play my friends, I almost always win. I hit the ball cleanly, serve consistently. I’m not embarrassing. I play smart.
“You are my enemy,” Tripp tells me over the phone five days before the match.
“I am Ivan Drago and you are Apollo Creed. I must kill you,” he says two days before the match.
“I just watched a pillow fight to mentally prepare for playing you,” he texts me an hour and a half before the match.
The day of the match, we meet at the net to shake hands before playing. Tripp smiles and leans in, completely at ease. “What do you want me to do?” he says. “You want me to hit a bunch of crowd pleasers? Big winners? That’ll up my mistakes. Or you want me to play so that I win every point?”
“Every point,” I say.
The format is best-of-three sets (points make up a game, games make up a set). “Wear a helmet—with a face guard,” my mother suggests.
Growing up, I was not an athlete. I was into playing music and reading weird books. To me, sports were exotic. Even counterculture. But when I became friends with Tripp, I found myself obsessed with tennis. It was a world apart.
When I encounter art—be it a movie, film, a visit to a museum, or a book—I react in a critical way. I analyze structure, style, and technique; I cast myself as the artist and judge. When it comes to sports, it’s pure magic. Because I know I can’t do what the athletes are doing. At least I think I can’t. I dream, at times, that I can.
What I did do as a young man was excel at playing drums. I signed a record deal with Atlantic Records immediately after graduating high school and went on, for about 10 years, to have a successful career recording for major labels, playing on hit songs. All this occurred at the same time Tripp was ascending the international A.T.P. rankings. The parallels between our lives, in retrospect, were uncanny. We both traveled in moveable, insular worlds, expected to perform daily at the highest levels. He toured internationally almost weekly; I moved to a new town every day. And we both undertook these excursions with a small group of people upon whom we relied for friendship, livelihood, and exacting mutual performance.
I played drums in hundreds of venues to thousands of people. As for tennis—barring that match at age seven—today is my first and only performance.
When rock and roll finally became silly for me and I started a family, it was around the same time Tripp decided to take a coaching position and dramatically scale back his tournament schedule. It was odd for me to have become one of the best in the world at a specific skill, and then—as a young man—decide to leave it behind. It was helpful to see a parallel in Tripp, albeit in a different manner. He truly transformed his skill into a new livelihood—coaching and intermittent touring—while I left mine behind. Both of us ended up back in Chapel Hill, where we’d first met. We both got married, had kids. But soon I was working on my forehand at the UNC tennis facility where Tripp now coaches. It was like I’d left my identity behind, and instead was trying on Tripp’s—one I could never attain.
At the time, I was just beginning a new novel (what became Doubles). Because I was obsessed with tennis, I decided to set the book there. I transposed what I had learned about relationships and traveling in a rock-and-roll band onto tennis players, allowing me to write about a somewhat alien world while reflecting truths I’d gathered firsthand. It also made me even more obsessed with playing the game. I saw in it the challenges I’d seen when first mastering a musical instrument. I could identify what I could not yet do, then strive through practice to achieve it.
But I played drums in hundreds of venues to thousands of people. As for tennis—barring that match at age seven—today is my first and only performance.
The ball has now left Tripp’s racquet and is arcing through the air. It’s the middle of the first set, and thus far, here’s what I’ve learned about playing a professional: I can actually trade groundstrokes with him. I can return his serve. I can run balls down for longer than I would have guessed. I’m doing better than I expected. Much better, actually. But of the many things that separate me and Tripp, one major issue stands above all others: What I can’t do, no matter how hard I try, is win a single point. Not one.
“You have no weapons,” he tells me two days later, over a lunch of cheap tacos and cheese dip. He reviews the match in this specific analytical way I’ve experienced with other professional athletes. To them, match review is engineering, not personal nicety. The performance is fact, not opinion. “No matter what,” he says, “I was going to have you off balance. And no matter what you did, I was going to be perfectly balanced. I knew where you were going to hit it before you hit it. It’s the difference between me and you. But if I played Roger Federer right now, he’d do the exact same thing to me.”
“You have no weapons. It’s the difference between me and you.”
It isn’t the speed of Tripp’s groundstrokes that impresses me; it isn’t his pace or serve. It’s his consistency. He places the ball where—even if I get to it—I’m so compromised that my legs are jelly and—if I do manage to return it—the ball just lilts over the net. He makes no errors. None.
“I’m never nervous during a real match,” Tripp tells me at our post-match lunch. In a normal contest, he’s not worried about losing points; he’s worried about losing the set. But I’d constructed this beast so that each point was a potential downfall. If I win a single point, I conquer. If he makes one error, he looks like he’s cracked.
The crowd at our match—a dozen adults and four children, all under the age of five—boo Tripp after winners. They heckle him enthusiastically: “Why were you only All-American for one year?” “Didn’t you triple double fault once?” It doesn’t seem to faze him. When someone does actually cheer for him after one point (his wife, I see, when I glance up), I’m strangely flattered.
I’m standing so far back that the wall is closer to my feet than the baseline, to compensate for the huge topspin that I know is going to make Tripp’s serve jump. But now I step forward, toward the oncoming ball. I’ve decided to try something new, desperate.
This serve of Tripp’s—the one in air before me right now—is a second serve, so I know it’s returnable. He’s been playing it safe, making sure he doesn’t give me a freebie on a double fault. These second serves are slower than he almost ever hits them in actual play. He guesses that they’re dropping in around 95 miles per hour. My first serves, on the other hand—of which I am rather proud—aren’t even 75 mph. He serves a few aces at 120 mph down the line. And Tripp’s serve is his weakness. John Isner, who just made headlines for playing the longest match ever at Wimbledon, averages around 120 for his second serve, in the mid 130s for his first. At that speed, you basically have to guess which way it’s going to go and if you’re wrong, just get over it. And even though Isner is from my hometown, Greensboro, N.C., I’m not channeling any of his skill.
The ball strikes the court and jumps high to my right shoulder. Instead of taking a full swipe at it, which I’ve been doing with some success, I chop at the ball, slicing a cute little floater deep into the service box—the last place I want it to land. Because it’s going to bounce high and give him as much time as he needs to rip it anywhere he wants. But it’s also going to give me that one extra second I need to put myself into some sort of position other than desperate defense. Which is something I haven’t yet achieved. So as the ball drifts through the humid air, I charge the net behind it like I’m fleeing a swarm of angry wasps. Tripp calmly approaches, covering 39 feet in two seconds like it was nothing. As he moves, he tactically steps around the ball to open up his forehand, which—as I close into position at the net—he hits as hard as he can directly at my chest; at that distance—we’re approximately six feet apart—the ball would strike me with the force of an angry fist thrown by a man much larger than I.
Athletes are perfectly human, sometimes disappointingly so, but when they perform, we inhabit them, demand perfection, and expect them to obey us.
This is an acceptable play. If the ball actually hits my body, I’ll lose the point.
Although Tripp says he hasn’t been this tight in years—simply because of the ridiculous nature of the contest—I’m feeling strangely comfortable. Of course, I have nothing to lose, and the crowd is all either related to or pulling for me. But still, I’m amazed my nerves haven’t gone haywire. It’s all wish fulfillment, really. Playing on a real court versus a real pro. It’ll never happen again.
At the net, while my wife and daughter watch, something amazing happens. I somehow reflex my racquet onto the ball, punching it back with more pace than it originally came at me with. It shoots directly off my strings back at Tripp. The butt of his hand jams against his sternum as he tries to find the ball with his racquet, which he does, but just barely, and it flies uncontrolled far out of play behind me. Tripp’s eyebrows raise and he grins a sheepish smirk of pure surprise. I pump my fist and scream. It isn’t irony. I’m not pretending. It’s something I haven’t felt in a long time. Pure animal ecstasy.
“I thought for sure I was going to golden-set you,” he says, referring to the term used when one wins a set without allowing the other player to win a single point. “And I thought one million percent that, if I did not, it was going to be my fault. But to lose a point because you came up with a spectacular play at the net that I could not handle is not what I expected.”
I could type that quote a million times.
The night after the match, I wake up twice while replaying the point in my mind. I feel great about it, justified that I’d performed admirably on the most intimidating stage imaginable. In the morning I watch a few Wimbledon highlights on ESPN and feel like, for the first time ever, I understand exactly what the players are feeling while in the midst of a point. Then a friend emails me a video of the match, and when I see my actual form I’m mortified. Just the way Tripp and I walk around the court between points reveals who’s the athlete and who’s the author. It’s all mental playacting on my part to think I’m doing anything other than wasting his time. Athletes are perfectly human, sometimes disappointingly so, but when they perform, we inhabit them, demand perfection, and expect them to obey us in a way that we wish we’d obey our own wishes. People like Tripp allow us to project ourselves onto them, to say, “I can’t believe you missed that! Run! He sucks!” or “Yes! Finally! Oh my God!” And I’ve managed to project myself into an actual court, voicing a running commentary in my mind. “Brown is just outclassed. His movement is terrible.”
But still. On the very first point of the second set I chip and charge again and manage to put away an overhead backhand volley for another winner. For the span of a few seconds, as I walk back to the service line, I am actually ahead. Fifteen – love, Brown. It’s the last point I get.
Final score: 6-0, 6-0.
In total, Tripp makes zero errors. He scores 50 points. I score two.
Outcome: I win.
Videos courtesy Daniel Wallace and Cary Levine