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Letters From Berlin

Tennis Match (Scene from Infinite Jest), 2010, Jennie Ottinger
Courtesy the artist and Johansson Projects

Krokodil des Kapitalismus

Seeking greater self-discipline and new adventures, our writer moves to Berlin to play tennis—the sport that’s equal parts therapy and sadism—and winds up on Nabokov’s old courts.

It’s May Day in Berlin and we’re at the Mauerpark flea market in Prenzlauer Berg. My girlfriend Luna and I are searching for a tennis racket so that I can “coach” her. It’s hot standing in one long queue, slowly filtering through the market’s narrow avenues, but it’s so early in the year that we can only salute the sun.

When we leave, cheap racket in hand, a man gestures in my direction, approaches me, and jabs a finger at my chest. An inch more and his index finger would be rooting around in my left ventricle. The man is ginger-haired, short, dressed in black, and sunglasses hide his eyes. I’m concerned because he looks mean—not your standard street crazy person. He says something in German. I react instinctively and say in English, “I’m sorry, my German is not so good.” He ignores that and repeats himself. Now I hear him: “Das ist das Krokodil des Kapitalismus,” he says, stressing every syllable with a practiced and theatrical voice.

He is saying that the Lacoste logo on my shirt is “the Crocodile of Capitalism.” I reply, “That’s why I wear it.” This is my attempt to disarm the premise that sporting a reptilian agent of the dominant economic system is something I’d be opposed to, if only someone were kind enough to point out. Actually, it being May Day, I wish I’d said, “Well, at least it’s red.” Or, “Actually, it’s an alligator.” Being able to reply to an insult in the native tongue is a good test of fluency. “Eigentlich ist es ein Alligator.”

But Luna and I didn’t stop to engage in conversation and were glad to have avoided violence. Oh, and the brand of the Gator Hater’s sunglasses? Oakley, a company with approximately triple the annual revenue of Lacoste. My Lacoste shirt, meanwhile, was a gift, but now I’ll buy more. I also now empathize less with Mr. Hater’s struggles, whichever ones they were, probably all of them.

Strange that on International Workers’ Day, even a Lacoste shirt can become a symbol of defiance.


Before I moved to Berlin, I was already saying “Why not” when people asked, “Why Berlin?” because I was sick of answering the question. There wasn’t a job waiting, my German is terrible, and savings will probably be burned before the first heat wave, but I can’t think of a better place to spend the summer.

A few days after May Day, I get a message from Coach Andreas, who sensed my eagerness for tennis during a trial lesson where I absolutely dominated some absolute beginners. I’d felt bad for inflicting it on them, but Andreas’s encouragement during the lesson made it feel honorable. He writes me to say he has lined up some playing partners, and a game for me is scheduled at 8 a.m. the next day.

I have decided that tennis, German tennis, is the cornerstone of building greater self-discipline. It’s a common stereotype that at Mediterranean beach resorts, the Second World War continues between British and German tourists in the daily fight for lounge chairs with prime pool position. Germans get up earlier, lay down their towels, and the vacation Lebensraum is theirs. All that lazy Brits can do is complain. I need to learn from this German attitude. German efficiency is not all Vorsprung durch Technik (Progress through Technology), but also the simple way that subway doors open seconds before the train has stopped. (I did the math: It’s a daily efficiency gain of 129.6 days for the whole city.) I want to get up earlier, get stuff done like the Germans.

The more frustrated I get, the more errors I make, and the more frustrated I become. But when I’m confident, relaxed, and focused, the better I play. It’s no stretch to call tennis therapy.

So my priorities for Berlin, in reverse order of importance: find work, drink beer, play tennis. True to my priorities, with a little freelance work keeping me afloat while I search for more, I plan to play tennis as much as I can, with beer-drinking in between. I already drank beer all afternoon at a regular Saturday rave in the park last weekend, and I didn’t feel a shred of guilt because it showed that I’ve got my priorities straight. Every morning, it feels like I’ve won a competition, one anyone automatically wins by virtue of entering. All it takes is the requisite confidence and/or ignorance to enter and accept the repercussions.

So why tennis? I played a little at school and college, and regularly at home with my dad, and after a college girlfriend split up with me, I went straight to a tennis shop and bought a new racket immediately to make myself feel better. But my relationship with the sport has always been like that of a crowd watching two pros begin to play an important point—excited and restless, but quiet and still, anticipating the coming action. I want to break through all that and jump to my feet. So, my answer to “Why Berlin?” is now just, “To play tennis.”

When I’m deep into a final set I often lose my head. The key, I’m learning, is to maintain concentration and enthusiasm in spite of weeping blisters, sore ankles, weakening biceps, locked-claw grip, a greasy face, and fading interest. At my level it’s not hitting winners that determines matches, but hitting the ball back over the net. For most intermediate players, he who wins is he who makes the fewest errors. Yet my tennis game is chaotic. My one constant is an overwhelming faith that tennis is 90 percent mental, and that my mental state has the potential to doom my game so much more than my physical skill. The more frustrated I get, the more errors I make, and the more frustrated I become. But when I’m confident, relaxed, and focused, the better I play. It’s all applicable beyond the court, so it’s no stretch to call tennis therapy.


There’s an ancient tennis club hidden in Berlin named Tennisplätze am Kurfürstendamm. It’s part of a complex designed by Jewish-German architect Erich Mendelsohn, and it’s the club where Vladimir Nabokov received a free membership in April 1926 due to the high quality of his game. Until leaving Berlin for Paris in 1937, Nabokov coached there for $3 an hour as his main source of income, sometimes fitting in ten lessons on a sunny Saturday; he lived two blocks away. I try to translate an article I find about the club, but I can’t make sense of the German. Knowing the name of the street, I decide to go find it. On Google Maps, you can see people playing on the court, but from a more recent photo it seems abandoned. I decide against taking my racket.

Four train rides later, I find nine sad, abandoned clay courts filling a courtyard. There are old apartment buildings on three sides and a theater at the north end—it was a cinema in Nabokov’s day, and in 1996 it hosted Nabokov’s play The Pole. The old tennis club’s sign is still proud and bright above the entranceway to the courts, but ivy obscures it, and as the courts have been deemed too historically significant to demolish, it will stay up for now. Weeds have taken position along the baselines. Through the old Dunlop banners and chain-link fences I see a man snoozing in front of the presumably abandoned club house, but in the maze of fences and locked gates I can’t get any closer. A man shouts down from a window and tells me in two languages that I look malicious.


I lose my first match on clay and blame my opponent’s old tennis balls. I fare much better when I play him again, with new balls this time. The tennis club I’ve found is also old, set up in 1848. It’s on the northern border of the Tempelhof airport, which closed in October 2008. The airport was reborn as a park in May 2010, but a month later a plane was forced to conduct an emergency landing on the old runway, scattering park-goers.

The club is more municipal than elitist, but there’s still plenty of Lacoste and sparkling white wine. One woman whom I begin to play regularly tells me that being on the club’s team is great except for all the cake consumed between matches. Let them eat cake; we just want to play.

There’s nothing inherently bourgeois about tennis, but since I’m enjoying it all so much, I’m growing fond of what the economist Paul Samuelson said about Marx and communism: Were the sacrificed games of tennis worth it?

I don’t play tennis to burn calories, but it’s nice to feel my body being used, rather than functioning as a poorly maintained machine that carries my brain from screen to fridge to bar.

It’s even more perfect—I now live on Karl Marx Strasse; I wrote my college thesis on Marx’s conception of human nature; I painted a hammer and sickle on my bedroom wall when I was a teenager. While Marx appreciated that using energy playfully can help self-realization, he hated physical exercise, so I don’t think he would have been a tennis fan.

After I lost that first match, someone shouted at me in the street while I walked home. It was another guy in shades, only much bigger. But I wasn’t wearing a Lacoste shirt, and the dude was grinning and saying something about my jacket, an athletic warm-up jacket bearing the name and logo of Ghana’s leading soccer club, Accra Hearts of Oak Sporting Club. He knew and probably supported the team. But he was talking excitably in German and before I could get a word in, he jogged away with his fist clenched, raised high in air.

A few days later I talk with a non-tennis-playing but Lacoste-wearing shop assistant, while I buy tennis shoes. He asks where my girlfriend and I live. When I say Karl Marx Strasse, in the multicultural district Neukölln, he describes the place strangely. He calls it “heavy.” It could be dog-whistle racism, clumsy English, or perhaps the area weighs down his soul, but it sticks with me. “Heavy.”

Since the Gator Hater experience I’ve been on Lacoste Watch. Along with that shop assistant, I have seen: the head of the tennis club wearing a gleaming white polo; a hipster in green cardigan who looked guilty when he noticed I was also wearing das Krokodil; two fat Turkish guys in turquoise polos; and a sad middle-aged Asian man staring at the pavement with his head hung close to his striped polo. The Asian runs the florist shop below our apartment, and he has seemed happier since then. Finally, there was the Douche Berg, an ugly dude who shoved onto the metro wearing a dirty striped polo, a child’s-size baseball cap perched on his head, and aviator glasses hanging from the back of his ears. Lacoste was doing none of us any favors.


To pay the tennis club’s membership fees I need a German bank account, which requires mastery of a few dozens levels of German bureaucracy.

Filing taxes as a non-VAT-paying sole trader will be an even more painful process: I’ll probably have to reach Level VII and attain KLAR status, like in Scientology, in order to be deemed worthy by the bureaucrats. I’ve got to decide if I want to stay in Berlin enough to deal with it all, to pay the annual fee and learn a tough language while relying on freelance work.

But the bureaucratic and financial stress melts away when I play tennis. So does my face. It’s hot, and for the past month almost every day has been great tennis weather. A homeless man on the metro says this means it’ll be a cool summer.

Having played strenuous doubles for a couple of hours, the exercise made me feel like I actually deserve to eat for the first time in weeks. We eat ribs marinated in a cola and barbecue sauce. I don’t play tennis to burn calories, but it’s nice to feel my body being used, rather than functioning as a poorly maintained machine that carries my brain from screen to fridge to bar.

No tennis today, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been, having successfully OD’d on tennis in the past month. It’s hard for me to successfully OD on anything, but it shows I’m playing enough. So do the tan lines, though sometimes the tan is actually just red dirt from the clay court that washes off in the shower. It’s the blood of the conquered, and the blood of self-inflicted wounds, blood that will mark my white shoes for eternity, or at least until it rains, whichever comes first.


TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith