Spes phthisica tennis

February 04, 1997|By Gwinn Owens

THE POET, John Keats, would have understood about tennis. When three members of his family had succumbed to tuberculosis, and he feared the same fate, he was spurred to write his greatest works.

This frenzy of creation in the face of extinction is called spes phthisica, pronounced ''space tizica.'' (Spes, Greek for ''anticipation,'' phthisica, for tuberculosis.) Keats even had a premonition (fulfilled, sadly) of his own early demise:

/!

When I have fears that I may

cease to be,

, Before my pen has gleaned my

teeming brain . . .

The phenomenon can be recognized in a much broader context -- in tennis, for example. It explains, I am sure, what I call spes phthisica tennis. All over Baltimore -- and probably all over the world -- thousands of tennis addicts living on social security checks faithfully turn out on the courts weekly, bi-weekly or even tri-weekly to leap, volley, ace, slam, in joyous defiance of mortality.

Well, perhaps not defiance of mortality, but a Keatsian all-too-conscious awareness of it. Play, play and play again while there is yet a spring in the knees (if slightly rusty), a whip in the arm (sort of), for tomorrow may be too late. And thus with every completed game, set, match or season comes a sense of having thumbed one's nose at the grim reaper.

I am a member of two such weekly doubles groups. One has an average age of 76 (from 82 to the baby, a mere 68); the other foursome is practically youthful, with an average age of 71. I have played over the past decade with other comparable groups, having been soundly thrashed one time by a pair 79 and 88.

For reasons that are beyond explanation, tennis yields its fountain of youth in a manner not typical of any other sport. After all, it is a physical game, calling for the attributes of youth -- strength, stamina, coordination and quick reflexes. Certainly, we all know too well that the joints become quirky, and among my two groups there is a plethora of knee, ankle or elbow braces. There is also the predictable quota of hearing aids, bifocals, heart bypasses and, in one notable case, a pacemaker.

But the superannuated human body is amazingly resilient when it applies itself to tennis, in a manner not typical of any other high-speed game. Last month's gimpy knee strangely vanishes in favor of this month's aching shoulder, but neither forces a cessation of combat. (Wounded soldiers are said to fight more fiercely).

If there is one viewpoint that we ancient tennis warriors have in common, it is our contempt for golfers. We were delighted with tennis champ John McEnroe's comment about golf: ''How can you call it a sport when the ball doesn't move until you hit it.''

The secret of the joy

And there perhaps, is the secret of the joy of tennis. No matter how old the player, he knows the game is heroic in the traditional sense, calling for the determination to run, leap, swivel, stretch and pound the ball back and forth, sometimes to glorious exhaustion. A tennis player who gives it up for golf has surrendered his heroic pretensions in favor of a long walk in the country with corpulent friends.

Tennis doesn't just stop the clock, it appears to reverse it. I have been a mediocre player for most of my life (some of my past partners might use a less forgiving adjective than ''mediocre''), but if my 25-year-old self, could be re- created to challenge my current 75-year-old self, the latter would thrash that upstart that I was half a century ago.

Psychologists and gerontologists who study the aging process may insist that we are a befuddled lot, living with gross old-age fantasies that we are just a notch short of Pete Sampras, when in fact we are paradigms of delusory ineptitude. If that's their opinion, let them challenge us on the court, and beware of our spes phthisica.

But, if they don't mind, the match had better be soon.

Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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