indoortennisAs a child of the exercise-obsessed ’80s, however, I didn’t manage to lead an entirely sedentary lifestyle after high school. I grudgingly signed up for aerobics classes (please, God, just let this 45 minutes end soon) and even joined a health club. For me, though, physical activity retained that phys-ed taint: ’tain’t no fun, and I’d rather be doing just about anything else. I’m reminded of a friend who once told me she was celibate – on and off. I’m active – on and off I know the benefits of exercise, but it’s always been more like work than fun. Until I found tennis.

It started at the gym: to get from the locker-room to the workout area at Toronto’s Mayfair Lakeshore Racquet Club, you have to pass the indoor tennis courts. My inclination was to make a beeline for the showers, since my post-exercise look (the splotchy red face often sported by heart attack victims on TV shows about trauma centres) isn’t my most flattering. I’d just as soon avoid human contact until I’m, well, human again.

But I couldn’t help slowing down as I passed the courts. Not all of the players looked like the jocks of my sports-averse high school days. They were old and young, tall and short, thick and thin. And it just looked like so much fun, thwacking the ball back and forth.

Then my friend Laura called from Ottawa. She, her sisters Nancy and Linda and friend Cindy Moriarty had taken up tennis again. Cindy and the Pollon sisters are all athletic. Laura even teaches phys ed. But they aren’t stereotypical gym bunnies (OK, well, Cindy could pass for one, but we don’t hold it against her). We’ve probably spent as much time together complaining about ugly plus-size clothing and the evils of the diet industry as discussing any other topics.

Laura told me they were having a blast playing tennis. In fact, they’d become kind of fanatical about it, playing on weekends and in the evenings, even joining their club’s house league. And since Laura, Cindy and I were to spend two weeks at a rented cottage that summer, I knew what my choices were: learn to play tennis or spend two weeks as a ball girl. Sports might scare me, but subservience is not even remotely in my nature. Clearly, it was time to pick up a racket.

About a month later, I was learning to serve – as in tennis serve, not “Here, let me get that for you.” Steve Taylor, our instructor, had just demonstrated, with long-limbed grace, how easy it was. Now, four beginners stood at the baseline, trying to follow his example.

Yeah, right. It was like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach – while juggling. First, my left hand – the one holding the ball – has led a remarkably lazy life. Outside of some typing, occasional carrying and random reaching, lefty’s had it pretty easy. In fact, after a couple of particularly inept tosses, I was beginning to think that lefty had vacated the premises entirely, was maybe out consulting a labour lawyer to see if I could really make her do this.

The ball goes up – too high. I swing and miss. The ball goes up and over to the side – not a chance of hitting it, although the student next to me might have had a shot at it. The ball goes up, I swing and connect – and the ball goes wildly over the net as I whack myself on the shin with the racket. I’d laugh if I weren’t already wincing in pain. OK, I’m going to laugh anyway because I look like an idiot.

Then I notice that we all look like idiots. Most of us appear to be victims of drugs with powerful spasmodic side-effects. Steve should get danger pay just for sharing a court with us.

At the end of each lesson, we play a short game. I am truly awful at this: my eyes don’t seem to work. I don’t see the ball until it’s on top of me. Later, a friend tells me about tracking: the eyes’ ability to find and track a moving object. It’s a skill you actually have to develop. I’d thought it was just my hands that were lazy. Apparently, my eyes were goofing off as well.

By all objective measures, I should be having a lousy time. I can’t count the number of times I hit myself with the racket. I trip over my own feet. And I’m losing – a lot.

But moving, even as ineptly as I am, is invigorating. The connection with the other players – the laughter, shared jokes and encouragement – is something you just don’t get with a solitary exercise routine. And learning tennis techniques is much more interesting than figuring out the intricacies of a treadmill or listening to some steel-bunned aerobo-bot in a step class exhort me to “push it into the home stretch.” (I know exactly where I’d like to push it, thank you very much.) Strangest of all, though, playing tennis motivates me to spend more time exercising than I ever have: strong arms and lungs can only improve my game.

After each lesson, I smile all the way home. Hey, wanna play a game of tennis? Yeah, when my friends and I were playing tennis. . . . The words roll through my head and off my tongue: I’m no longer a nonathlete. I am a tennis player.

It’s mid-April, and I’m playing on the indoor courts of Le Chateau Montebello in Montebello, Que. It’s Nancy’s birthday weekend surprise getaway and she, Laura, Cindy, Linda and her husband, Kent, and I are trying to see how much tennis we can play in two days before our arms drop off and the paramedics are called.

We’re crazed, it’s true. I’ve been playing for about a year now and I don’t think Martina Hingis needs to worry about me yet. In fact, my friends assure me she doesn’t, though they do agree my game is much better than last summer. I have yet to beat any of them but I’m trying, and victory – when it finally arrives – will be very sweet.

I love being on the court and I can’t count the lessons I’ve learned there. Call it All I Ever Needed to Learn About Life I Learned on the Tennis Court. First, returning a shot that’s headed out of bounds anyway is a waste of energy. When hitting the ball, power is pointless if it isn’t accompanied by finesse. You can’t play well if you don’t laugh heartily. You can’t keep your eye on the ball if your brain’s on your troubles. At some point, everyone looks goofy on the court.

And, oh yeah: competition is good for the soul – especially when everyone knows the rules and honour is more important than winning.