The Tennis Teacher’s Decline
A written fable based on three works selected by the author from the collection of Documents d’artistes Documents d'artistes Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.
In the early afternoon, on a clay court freshly raked by a zealous employee in charge of the upkeep of the facilities, a tennis teacher, racket held straight in front of him, showed two young beginners the way the wind was blowing. His fair fringe of hair, lifted backwards at regular intervals, underscored his lesson.
“If the wind is behind you, it’ll boost the power of your strokes, but it may cause mistakes in terms of length”, said the teacher. “And if you play into the wind, the risk is to want to hit the ball very hard and lose accuracy and control of the ball.”
The two pupils nodded in agreement in unison, each one trying to attract to themselves the periwinkle blue eye hemmed with dark lashes in perfect harmony with everything that was below it, to wit an aquiline nose—just aquiline enough—and a mouth with delicate outlines. The tennis teacher was stunningly handsome. Which did not help his pupils to concentrate.
“You could explain to us the position of the hips during a forehand shot”, said the first pupil who was in fact a female player, wearing a lemon-yellow mini-skirt which whirled every time she moved.
“And the shoulders, too”, chimed in the second player wrapped in white shorts with vertical red stripes which made him look like a squeeze of toothpaste ready to be used.
The teacher smiled, arranged his fringe on the right side, before looking at his watch and then shaking his head. It was too late, the next pupil was waiting his turn behind the metal fence. A little further away, you could see the next two warming up on either side of a bench. Three others were lacing their shoes near the changing rooms. They were all abuzz at the idea of spending 45 minutes with the teacher.
The tennis club cafeteria had a large terrace that looked out onto the number one court, the court reserved for the most senior members. There they would demonstrate their talents of an evening after leaving their office, and at weekends too, around the cocktail hour. Playing on the number one court was like going on stage and reciting your lines in front of a sun-tanned audience, sipping fresh fruit juice in cocktail glasses while patting the nape of their neck with a damp towel. There was much talk of lifted volleys, going to the net, baseline tactics, passing shots backing up returns to backhands, sliced balls, offensive lob techniques, but also of sprained calves, tendinitis in the wrist, epicondylitis and torn rotator cuff muscles. Everyone would get out their sun cream or anti-mosquito spray and smother themselves in one or the other while commenting on the legwork in the foreground. Every day, a few yards away, half hidden by a tarpaulin bearing the colours of a mortgage company, a teenager would hit balls against the training wall, with the regularity of a pneumatic drill. The whole scene created a rhythmic flow of sound, mingling with birdsong in the background.
Now and then the shrill voice of the waitress would interrupt the flow with a strident: “Who are the three Denmark coupes for?” That was the cafeteria’s speciality. The manager was called Olaf and he boasted being able to make a melted chocolate dish that never froze on contact with the ice cream. People came from far and wide to check it out, even those who had never touched a tennis racket in their life.
The tennis teacher had his special table at the end of the terrace, under a parasol. That was where he wrote down the names of his pupils with a ballpoint pen in a large diary, before underlining them with a Stabilo Boss, indicating their skill level: yellow for beginners, green when they started to know what they were doing, blue for good players.
“Couldn’t we add some pink for keen students?” The question was asked one day by the wife of a wealthy Italian car dealer who took lessons four times a week.
At the end of the day, when the teacher shut his diary and walked the whole length of the terrace to take his empty bottles of mineral water back to the bar, heads turned one after the other as he passed, like sunflowers panicked by a sun that was in too much of a hurry.
Since his involvement with the club, not a week had gone by without the teacher receiving a present. A sports bag, an opera ticket, an electric blanket, a silk tie, an alpaca poncho, non-slip shoes, a car-seat cover made of small wooden balls; his admirers had imagination and a wallet that went with it. One day he received a lunch box warmer that could plug into a cigarette lighter, a gift from one of his pupils who was worried by seeing him eating triangular sandwiches between two tournaments. And that was without counting the notes regularly slipped into his locker.
But the most surprising present of all was placed anonymously on his table, one Saturday in June, early in the morning, even before Olaf had opened the terrace. A large parcel covered in brown wrapping paper, on which was written, with a thick-nibbed felt-tip, and in capital letters:
TO OUR DEAR AND HANDSOME TEACHER
KING OF THE COURTS AND EMPEROR OF THE CHANGING ROOMS,
WHO REALLY DOES HAVE EVERYTHING
When he arrived at 8.30 in the morning, as was his wont, the teacher was puzzled by the parcel. King of the courts, okay, yes. But Emperor of the changing rooms, no, he did not understand. And then that ‘really’ which added an insidious note at the end of the sentence, what did that mean? He tried to guess what was inside the parcel, prodding at the paper. It was too hard to be a new sports bag, too heavy to be an umpteenth electric blanket, not rectangular enough to be a case of wine. He slowly undid the package.
What emerged from it left him speechless. It was a cylinder about three to four inches in diameter and twenty in length, brown in colour with a rough texture, into which, at regular intervals, had been pushed yellow tennis balls. The teacher took a close look at it and wondered if it had some use. Perhaps as a doorstop. Otherwise he failed to see what it was for. He was thinking about who he might be able to offload this cumbersome present on when Olaf, who was busy putting up the parasols nearby, abruptly stopped and cried ecstatically:
“Fantastik! Denne julelog! A Yule log !”
The teacher raised an eyebrow and examined the object again, from the manager’s angle: yes, with a bit of imagination it might possibly look like a huge Yule log, with a chocolate filling and decorated with lemon preserves. Why not.
“Here, it’s for you!” said the teacher, holding the cylinder at arm’s length as if it were a lamb about to be sacrificed. Olaf held his big hands out flat to receive the log, then exclaimed in his native tongue—conveying something deeply felt:
“Åh tak, virkelig tak! Du er for god til mig!”1
“Think nothing of it”, said the teacher, hurrying to the changing room before the manager changed his mind.
In no time the log became the cafeteria’s mascot. Using plasterboard, Olaf built a niche by the bar to show it off. Then, on the wall above it, in some gilded finely crafted frames, he affixed a series of portraits of tennis players who had helped to write the history of tennis. A Swede looking like a panda under his bandanna, a stocky Romanian with a brazen forelock, a terribly skinny Czech with a horsey face, a tanned Argentinian playboy, an American with his hair shaped like a cumulonimbus cloud, clenching his fists in a fury. Just one woman, in a tiny photo cut out from a magazine, presented horizontally. To get a good look at her you had to squeeze your head into the niche. Wearing a full pleated skirt, in mid-air about three feet above the ground, the female tennis player was running in the air like those cartoon characters above precipices.
Over the years, the niche became a sort of pagan altar. A stuffed toy Snoopy with a racket leant against the left side of the log. A tuft of grass, allegedly cut at Wimbledon, found its rightful place on the log’s right side. Last of all, every manner of knick-knack, made of moulded plastic, engraved glass and beaten metal, gradually invaded every little nook.
Rumours started to circulate. Players who touched the log before their matches got better rankings. The miracle also seemed to work in other areas. The janitor found his dwarf rabbit which had escaped from his balcony for weeks. A female player had become pregnant, when her doctor had told her she would never be able to have children. A couple on the verge of divorcing offered themselves a lovers’ Ayurvedic cure. The waitress had recovered from a bout of eczema on her eyelids which had been bothering her for years. The wife of the Italian car dealer had managed to get the teacher to buy a pink Stabilo Boss specially for her.
Olaf looked after the log with the same devotion as a vestal virgin. At Christmas, he decorated it with fairy lights. For Easter, he surrounded it with hand-painted chick figurines. And every week he painstakingly dusted it with a leather duster, rubbing each one of the balls with a toothbrush to get rid of the slightest speck of dust from its felt lid. The log was worshipped like a saint’s relic in a cathedral.
The tennis teacher observed all this with a dubious look. He had not forgotten the words written on the brown wrapping paper. Somebody bore him a grudge, and nobody apart from him knew it. Not even Olaf. This made him sad. He did not want to join in that log worship, even if in the end he was at the origin of everything. He stayed more and more on the sidelines, eating his triangular sandwiches alone at the end of the bar. He sensed that a mysterious phenomenon was taking place. After much reflection, he came to this conclusion: on the principles of connecting vessels, his magnetism had moved into the log. From now on, it was the log that attracted all eyes.
As the seasons passed, the club members began to find the teacher more and more depressed, then nothing less than depressing. People felt that something was gnawing away inside him. The lock of hair that used to make him a bit mysterious now made him look like a tired pony. The gifts became less frequent. All people offered him now was key-rings and tombola tickets. Only the Italian car dealer’s wife went on quivering every time she saw him, which was four times a week.
As the game of tennis became more available and democratic, the club welcomed more and more new members. They had to build six new courts to meet the demand. And take on two new teachers. They were less handsome, but younger and more energetic. One of them was the teenager who used to hit balls at the wall a few years earlier. His muscles had developed at the same speed as his hair had fallen out. He had climbed all the rungs in the different rankings with a doggedness that demanded admiration. And all this without having even once touched the log, whose aura started to wane, slowly but surely, without anyone knowing precisely why.
When new members walked into the cafeteria for the first time, they now looked at the niche with a giggle at best, at worst with a sigh.
“It would be better to use that space to set up a good wi-fi system, there’s no reception here!”, a young woman in a fluorescent T-shirt had one day grumbled, holding her telephone at arm’s length to try and get a better signal.
But the final blow came during a regional tournament, when a player from a rival club came out of the toilet and stopped for a moment in front of the log, before exclaiming to everybody present: Not bad this huge piece of shit! Behind the bar, an indignant Olaf dropped his teaspoon.
Because the cafeteria was no longer managing to accommodate all the new members, the terrace was enlarged to include a bioclimatic pergola. This made it possible to play host to lots of people, even in winter. They made the most of the change to freshen up the walls and floors throughout the building. The niche was completely emptied during the works. When they were finished, five weeks later, the club committee met one afternoon to discuss the niche’s new function. In a jolly tone of voice, the chairman suggesting installing an aquarium in it, or a cage with a pair of parrots. Why not a mynah bird? He had seen an absolutely amazing specimen in a pet shop near his home. Enthusiasm was very low. Who would look after the animals? Clean the cage? Change the water in the aquarium? Coyly, the young woman in the lemon yellow mini-skirt, who, in the meantime, had become the committee secretary and now wore sea-green shorts made of breathable fabric, raised her hand and said:
“Don’t you think it would be the ideal place for a micro-wave? People in the picnic area could warm up their Tupperware without having to walk to the other end of the room. That would solve the crowding problems around the bar.”
Her pragmatism managed to persuade the most reluctant members and her suggestion was unanimously agreed to. Except for Olaf, already sorely disappointed by the recent turn of events, who objected to their decision and handed in his resignation on the spot.
A new manager hailing from Macedonia, with a wife and children, took over the job. His first name was Dzvezdan. He fleshed out the menu, offered children’s meals, and got rid of the Denmark coupes on the dessert menu. His speciality was mushrooms. Mushroom pastries, mushroom omelettes, mushroom risotto, mushroom gratin, mushroom tart, mushroom fricassee, mushroom salad, mushroom fondue, he knew how to prepare them every which way. His love for mycology stemmed from the forests of Maleševo, the mountainous region where he was born in a log cabin, in which boletus mushrooms grew in abundance behind every fir tree. So he asked one of his nieces, freshly graduated from an art school, to make something for him on that theme. The idea was to fill the empty area above the micro-wave-cum-grill and spit, which had just been installed, precisely where those tennis stars had previously reigned in their gilded frames.
The oven, as well as the niece’s work—a wooden sculpture on a board adjusted to the dimensions of the oven—were enthusiastically welcomed by people using the cafeteria. You could warm up your pasta gratin while at the same time admiring the curve of a boletus and the refinement of an amanita, both engraved on a scale of 2:1, twice life-size.
During the works, the tennis teacher went through a phase of remission, which bolstered his theory of connecting vessels: covered in bubble-wrap and stored beside the watering equipment in the back of a storehouse, the log had lost all its magnetic potential, which had in turn re-galvanized his own. The respite was short-lived. Informed by Olaf just before his departure, the wife of the Italian car dealer slipped a few bills into the janitor’s pocket before discreetly retrieving the log. Before long, the object found its place on an occasional table in a silk-lined bedroom, at the foot of a canopied bed. The dealer’s wife touched it every morning before doing her yoga exercises, to start the day off well.
“That object gives me sensations which I can’t explain”, said the wife to her husband, who was sceptical about the object’s magic powers, but enjoyed indulging his spouse’s numerous whims.
The log had found its place.
The club underwent a new wave of enlargement. The tennis courts were complemented by a fitness centre, four saunas, two jacuzzis, a climbing wall and an outdoor pool with a wave machine. Buoyed by her first success, the erstwhile yellow mini-skirted woman who had become the committee secretary had gone from strength to strength. Over the years, and by dint of sheer hard work, she acquired the joint function of Chairwoman of the Management Committee and General Director. She managed the new SPA multisports complex with an iron hand, but no longer had time to set foot on a tennis court. In winter, she wore tailor-made trouser suits of micro-herring-bone crepe, and in summer odd outfits made of linen and silk.
During this time, the tennis teacher went downhill. He no longer gave lessons, but continued to hit balls against the training wall. Old members greeted him with a brief sign of the hand when they crossed paths with him. New members wondered who he was. From time to time he would sit on a bench behind the fence surrounding the number one court. Because his head made no to-and-fro movement during the exchanges on court, people deduced that he was no longer following the matches being played. If you passed close by him, you could sometimes hear him murmur Really. When a cloud sprinkled rain on the court, refreshing players and scattering spectators, he remained impassive. Beneath his grey lock which served as an awning, his eyes rivetted on the lozenge-shaped mesh of the metal fence, he would follow the movement of a drop of water, trying to guess what direction it would choose, once it had reached the spot where the two wires crossed before veering off perpendicularly, each on their own side.
Moral: it is harder for a teacher to escape his fate than for his pupils to realize their plans.
Translation : Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods
1. Oh thanks, really, thanks! You’re too good to me!
A written fable based on three works selected by the author from the collection of Documents d’artistes Documents d'artistes Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes :
Nicolas Momein, Sculpture par exemple « aux balles jaunes », 2012, boiled cardboard, tennis balls, 25 x 25 x 47 cm
Émilie Perotto, My heart belongs to daddy, 2008, MDF, micro-wave oven, neon, electric plug, 159 x 35 x 60 cm, collection Fonds communal d’art contemporain de la Ville de Marseille [view of the exhibition Retour de Visite Ma Tente, SMP, Marseille, 2008]
Linda Sanchez, Sans titre, 2016, tubes, 250 m of fencing, water [system activated every day]; installation on the site of the Institut Médico Éducatif Lostanges at Castres