PARIS — While many Americans were cooped up at home or learning to love camping, in France (and many other places in Europe) we had an almost normal summer.
Last month, I even managed to attend a weeklong adult tennis camp in southeastern France. It wasn’t exactly tennis as usual: We wore masks in the clubhouse, and kept our distance on the outdoor courts.
We campers knew we were lucky to have a break — what the French call a “parenthèse” — from the pandemic. It was a relief to focus on our forehands instead of on whether the coronavirus might be on our groceries.
I hoped that tennis might also solve another problem: Like many women, since Covid-19 emerged I’d retreated from my job and spent my days cooking and shouting about homework. My mind and body both felt flabby, and I wasn’t sure how to re-enter the working world.
Amid these existential concerns, I arrived at camp having barely considered a more practical one: How will my undertrained middle-aged body cope with six hours of tennis and exercise per day?
It is an immediate culture shock. At the end of a fitness class on day one, I am on my back, with my knees on a giant exercise ball, as a coach insists that I once again lift my “fesse” — that parlor-room-appropriate French word for “rear end.”
“I can’t anymore, I’m too tired,” I groan. Normally I give up at the first sign of fatigue or pain.
“There’s no tired here, we keep going!” he barks. To my surprise, I have entered a world where you can’t just complain and then quit.
My morning tennis group is full of casual weekend players. I have time to learn that the doubles alley is a “couloir” (a hallway) and topspin is “le lift” (not to be confused with “le lifting,” a face-lift).
But — aside from me — only the most hard-core players have signed up for the afternoons. Later that day I find myself on the court with a stocky Parisian urologist who attacks the ball like he is carving an errant prostate, and a 20-something from Guadeloupe whose forehands shoot off her racket like bullets. I feel guilty that they have to play with me.
Our coach Nanette, a Dutchwoman in her 50s who once played on the pro tour, observes my struggles benevolently. “Don’t worry about power,” she says. “They supply the power. Just hit it in front of you.”
On day two, we are sent to a classroom for “mental” — pronounced men-TAL — where another coach explains that “in tennis, you have a tendency to focus on what you’ve done badly” and then lose confidence.
To combat this, she says, we must develop a routine to push away negative thoughts and reinforce positive ones. For example, each time we pick up balls between points, we can remind ourselves of one or two things that we know how to do well.
During these “reset” moments, she says we shouldn’t think about the score, or whether we’ll win the match. Just focus on doing our best in the present point. “If you have specific, realistic goals during the match, you should be happy afterward because you reached them. Even if you’re losing, you feel in control the whole time.”
Also, “in tennis, you have to accept that sometimes you will play badly,” she says, adding something obvious but reassuring, “You always have the chance to win the point.”
Back on the court, Nanette looks me in the eye and asks, “How was men-TAL?”
I decide to stop thinking about things I can’t control: that the others are better, and that they might resent having to hit with me. Instead, I tell myself to focus on being fully present for each shot, and just play the best tennis I can.
Suddenly, my returns are stronger, and I notice that even the Guadeloupean woman has weaknesses. (One is that when she loses a point to me, she’s infuriated.)
I’m also struck by how everyone is working relentlessly to improve the same few strokes, and by their sheer exertion. When the urologist races forward to reach a drop shot, then returns it with a crosscourt winner, he uses a force that seems almost animal. He looks gratified and astonished: Tennis has brought out a whole new part of him.
Nanette pairs me with him for a doubles game. While I’m at the net, we play some fast rallies in which I pounce on the ball and win a series of points for our side. Crucially, I don’t have time to think about what’s happening. It’s the most energized I’ve been in months. I’m hot and tired, but I feel as if I could keep playing indefinitely.
Nanette is thrilled. “When you’re really in the game you’re not thinking about how good you are, you’re not thinking about yourself,” she says.
“And you’re really American, pom pom pom,” she says, imitating my volleys like she’s pounding on a door. “Even if you didn’t know what you were doing, you were just going forward.”
“My philosophy is to always work on your strongest points, because your weakest points will always be weaker,” Nanette adds. “If you have confidence, you’ll understand that your weakness is OK.”
It’s as if she’s describing my off-court problems, too: I dwell on my limitations and mistakes, then lose my nerve to keep trying. Instead, I need to just keep moving forward, concentrating on a few things that I know how to do. There are better, smarter, younger writers out there; all I can do is my best.
I’d like to say that from that moment on I terrify the Guadeloupean woman with the “lift” on my backhands. I’m improving but, maddeningly, she and the others are too. By the fourth afternoon, my legs are so sore I can barely move around the court. Still, I stay and keep hitting.
On our last day, the British government says residents must quickly return from France or face a mandatory quarantine. There’s been a surge of new infections here. Several British campers decide to make a run for the ferry in Calais right after lunch. We all revel in the last hours of our “parenthèse” before we head back into the pandemic.
I fly home to Paris, where I’m now nursing what I’m pretty sure is tendinitis. It will be a while before I can go to tennis camp again. But I have no regrets. For the first time in a long time, I’m ready to face whatever comes at me.
Pamela Druckerman is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story.”
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