When I joined a local tennis league in 2015, I figured it would come with the usual pluses of participating in any other community. I’d meet a few people and, this being Washington, cultivate some new professional contacts. Visions danced through my head of grabbing a couple of cold ones with my opponent after a match. Research shows people start losing friends in their late 20s; groups like this one would help me buck that trend. Of course, exercise and improving at tennis would round out the multiple benefits.
It didn’t take long to realize that my expectations for the D.C. tennis league were off the mark. This was no social club. There would be no IPAs after tennis. No swapping business cards, no D.C. power networking. Looking back on the past four years, I see that it has offered something else, though, besides increasing my Facebook and LinkedIn connections.
For a small sign-up fee, I got access to an online list of players at my level of ability, including their cellphone numbers. Someone named Boris reached out. We texted to set up a time and location for playing, then I mentioned that it’d be my first match in the league.
No reply. I didn’t expect shooting-star animation, but a Welcome aboard! would’ve been fine.
Showing up to the court in Chevy Chase, I found him practicing his serve against the hitting wall. An odd amount of time passed before he acknowledged my presence, then he came over and shook hands. As with most players I would meet in the league, Boris’s demeanor was pleasant, but it became clear he had zero interest in talking. After the first game, when players switch ends of the court, we stood side-by-side sipping our water bottles.
“You live around here?” I asked.
His gaze flitted over me before returning to his racket. “Pretty close. Mount Pleasant. You?”
“Silver Spring.” To this, he gave a short nod. I opened my mouth to ask how he liked Mount Pleasant, but he’d already headed to the baseline, ready to resume.
During the next several changeovers, I learned that Boris worked in “the hospitality industry” (that wouldn’t have been my first guess), grew up somewhere in Illinois, and wouldn’t pursue any conversation topic for longer than 15 seconds.
I was also learning that my game needed serious fine-tuning. He thrashed me 6-1, 6-1, a score I figured he’d enjoy recording on the league website. But when it was over, he smiled and said, “6-4, 6-3?”
I suggested the real score, but he shook his head, claiming to remember it differently, intent on inflating my numbers. At this point, I’d assumed Boris mildly disliked me, his reasons unknowable. The last few changeovers between games, we’d hydrated in an awkward silence. But when he gave me a break on the score, presumably because it was my first match, I understood I shouldn’t take his stony silence personally. He just wanted to focus on playing well.
As I got more experience in the league, I found other players somewhat more interested in conversation, but none were exactly talkative. They showed up for a singular purpose, not to be confused with chitchat: competing at a sport they love.
It took some getting used to. It’s a departure from other situations in which I find myself, like my office job, which is decidedly pro-social. There, kitchen encounters, coffee runs and meetings include breeze-shooting about family and weekend plans. In the elevators, co-workers who don’t know one another practice the art of chirpy, time-pressured small talk between floors. Exclamation points are sprinkled throughout emails.
Like most people, I prefer the upbeat atmosphere; offices where employees mingle tend to be happier and more productive. After work, the chatter continues with friends and relatives. It’s all well-intentioned, but over time, I’ve come to value the quietude of the tennis league, how it complements the social demands elsewhere in my life. I suspect some of the other players feel the same. Perhaps a few signed up for this league looking for a distraction from stresses related to work or family, the most obvious fodder for small talk. Maybe there’s also an element of lane enforcement; for better or worse, many of us grew up with the “worlds collide” theory from “Seinfeld,” which tells us to avoid mixing our social circles.
But more than escapism and compartmentalizing, all the players were dedicated to taking the sport seriously. In the past, when I tried to force conversation during breaks, I found that my level of play dropped off.
One guy showed up to matches with a notepad and pen, scribbling furiously between games. The first time we played, I asked what he was writing about.
He looked up. “You.” Then he continued to write.
“You’re writing about me?”
He explained that he takes notes on opposing players to help think through his strategy.
I don’t pretend to know these guys well; the culture of the league makes that pretty much impossible. But scratching past the veneer of introversion and standoffishness, I think we all share something worthwhile: a longing for the satisfaction of improvement.
There is one topic that does tend to fly with my fellow players: tennis itself. We discuss coaching sessions in the area, podcasts on strategy, new racket models or the latest pro tournament — most watch the Tennis Channel religiously. If I beat a higher-rated player, I usually get a couple of texts or emails from other players congratulating me (no exclamations). Not once have I hung out with any of them off the court, and yet, somehow, this league of taciturn stoics provides a satisfying community.
Dedicating such time and energy to tennis might seem shallow. But by focusing on an ultimately meaningless hobby, the players in my league can freely experiment with the art of getting better at a challenging pursuit. The obvious next step would be applying the lessons to more important domains.
Some of us may already be doing just that. Not that they’d ever tell me.
Matt Fuchs is a policy analyst who lives in Silver Spring, Md.