~ by Robert Pinsky
1. The Service
The nerve to make a high toss and the sense
Of when the ball is there; and then the nerve
To cock your arm back all the way, not rigid
But loose and ready all the way behind
So that the racket nearly or really touches
Your back far down; and all the time to see
The ball, the seams and letters on the ball
As it seems briefly at its highest point
To stop and hover — keeping these in mind
The swing itself is easy, forgetting cancer,
Or panic learning how to swim or walk,
Forgetting what the score is, names of plants,
And your first piece of ass, you throw the racket
Easily through Brazil, coins, mathematics,
And haute cuisine to press the ball from over
And a slight slice at two o’clock or less,
Enough to make it loop in accurately
As, like a fish in water flicking itself
Away, your mind takes up the next concern
With the arm, ball, racket still pressing down
And forward and across your obedient body.
Straightforwardness can be a cruel test,
A kind of stagefright threatening on the cold
And level dais, a time of no excuses.
But think about the word “stroke,” how it means
What one does to a cat’s back, what a brush
Does through a woman’s hair. Think about
The racket pressing, wiping, guiding the ball
As you stay on it, dragging say seven strings
Across the ball, the top edge leading off
To give it topspin. Think about the ball
As a loaf of bread, you hitting every slice.
Pull back the racket well behind you, drop it
And lift it, meeting the ball well out in front
At a point even with your left hip, stroking
To follow through crosscourt. The tarnished coin
Of “follow through,” the cat, the loaf of bread,
“Keep your eye on the ball,” the dull alloy
Of homily, simile, and coach’s lore
As maddening, and as helpful, as the Fool
Or Aesop’s Fables, the coinage of advice:
This is the metal that is never spent.
Here, panic may be a problem: in the clench
From back to jaw, in manic you may come
Too close, and struggling strike out with your arm,
Trying to make the arm do everything,
And failing as the legs and trunk resist.
All of your coinages, and your nerve, may fail…
What you need is the Uroborus, the serpent
Of energy and equilibrium,
Its tail between its jaw, the female circle
Which makes it easy: all is all, left
Reflects the right, and if you change the grip
To keep your hand and wrist behind the racket
You suddenly find the swing is just the same
As forehand, except you hit it more in front
Because your arm now hangs in front of you
And not behind. You simply change the grip
And with a circular motion from the shoulder,
Hips, ankles, and knees, you sweep the inverted swing.
Hit to the weakness. All things being equal
Hit crosscourt rather than down the line, because
If you hit crosscourt back to him, then he
Can only hit back either towards you (crosscourt)
Or parallel to you (down the line), but never
Away from you, the way you can hit
Away from him if he hits down the line.
Besides, the net is lowest in the middle,
The court itself is longest corner-to-corner,
So that a crosscourt stroke is the most secure,
And that should be your plan, the plan you need
For winning — though only when hitting from the baseline:
From closer up, hit straight ahead, to follow
The ball to net; and from the net hit shrewdly,
To get him into trouble so he will hit
An error, or a cripple you can kill.
If he gets you in trouble, hit a lob,
And make it towering to make it hard
For him to smash from overhead and easy
For you to have time to range the backcourt,
Bouncing in rhythm like a dog or seal
Ready to catch an object in mid-air
And rocking its head — as with your plan in mind
You arrange yourself to lob it back, and win.
Call questionable balls his way, not yours;
You lose the point but you have your concentration,
The grail of self-respect. Wear white. Mind losing.
Walk, never run, between points: it will save
Your breath, and hypnotize him, and he may think
That you are tired, until your terrible
Swift sword amazes him. By understanding
Your body you will conquer your fatigue.
By understanding your desire to win
And all your other desires, you will conquer
Discouragement. And you will conquer distraction
By understanding the world, and all its parts.
Robert Pinsky has produced here an entire instruction guide to tennis. First, really cut loose on the serve, and put the opponent back on his heels. Then, hit diagonally crosscourt from the back of the court; brush-up the back of the ball to lift it clear of the net and deep into the corner. Make sure to really coil before unleashing a crackling backhand along the opposite diagonal angle. Mainly, aim to use crosscourt strokes to make your opponent cover the widest and deepest part of the court — make him have to run! When he hits a ball that is weakly struck and falls short, come flying in for the volley and angle the ball away. Finally, stay focused on every point, and remain undiscouraged by small setbacks (do not give in for a second!) as you must stick to your game and win those points, one after another! …That’ll be fifty dollars. Sure, a check’s okay.