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The Tennis Wall - A perfect practice partner who just can`t miss

On a bright Montana morning in the summer of 1999, I had just watched Andre Agassi on TV as he came from two-sets-to-love down to capture the French Open and complete the rare feat of winning all four majors, known as a career Grand Slam.


‘Now,’ I thought, ‘it’s my turn.’


I raced into the kitchen to slip on my tennis shoes, then bolted out the back door, up our walkway into the garage, and clicked the Open button and watched as the door climbed up slowly to reveal my very own, personalized Court Philippe Chatrier: the paved alley behind our house.


The wall looming over the alleyway – that perfect wall – was where I played countless hours of tennis growing up, winning multiple (imaginary) French Opens, Wimbledons and every other tennis tournament you can name, serving as player (well, actually both players), commentator, crowd and chair umpire. When I think about it, I don’t think I will ever play as much on a real court as I did against that wall, from about age six or seven until I was 17.


I even used it for my warm-up routine on match days while in high school.


As the Covid-19 pandemic has rippled around the globe, and tennis’ governing bodies advised for players – from those on the pro tour right down to club and public parks regulars – to halt playing tennis on public and private tennis courts, tennis walls took on an importance we hadn’t seen in years. They had been standing firm all this time, with the quiet confidence of a foe who never, ever seems to miss: ‘You’ll be back. I know you will. 


And we were, in droves.


‘I love tennis backboards,’ says coach Marc Lucero, a former Division I college player in the US who now works full time on the ATP and WTA tours. ‘I grew up hitting the ball against the garage door because I could never get enough tennis. There is something about the repetition – you can get lost in your work because the ball keeps coming back and you have to have such a high level of focus in order to keep it going.’


Having been sent home from the pro tour in mid-March when Indian Wells was canceled, Lucero returned to where he lives in Southern California and – while the USTA advised on-court tennis to be halted – found himself hitting against the wall again, one that he had found in his neighborhood. From there, he was one of many in the professional realm to post videos of his me-against-the-wall drills in the coming weeks and months.


‘I had really missed the act of just hitting a tennis ball,’ Lucero said. ‘Sometimes we forget that we really love the game. Some neighbors would come by and watch or talk tennis. It was a really fun outlet.’


Walls around the world – deemed for tennis or not – were suddenly the best tennis practice partner you could find. Garage doors, sides of buildings, parking structures. If it had a flat side and open space in front of it, you bet a tennis player utilized it during Covid-19 restrictions.


There was even a video of a woman hitting against an apartment building wall on New York City’s famed 42nd Street in the Broadway district, a neighborhood quieted – like many – by the slowdown from the pandemic.


‘They’re the perfect practice partner,’ said Judy Murray, mother to Jamie and Andy, who is a coach herself and the mind behind several tennis developmental programs in the UK and beyond. ‘In my view, every club and every set of courts at a public park should have a practice wall. Not everybody has someone to play with.’


And in many parts of the world during Covid-19, many were advised not to play with anyone out of safety precautions.


The easing of restrictions doesn’t mean we should step away from the tennis wall. Tennis, long known as one of the more mentally challenging sports, is especially difficult when your opponent is yourself, and your vehicle for practice – or a match, even – is a large slab of can’t-miss concrete, brick, wood or, in my case, plaster.


On that day in 1999 the French Open was fresh in my mind, so I swept together as much dirt in the alley as possible to make it dust up like the clay at Roland-Garros and used sidewalk chalk to draw the lines, though I’m certain all my dimensions were off.


It didn’t matter: I had a racket, a few tennis balls and a wall that couldn’t miss. I’d get lost, playing for hours under the summer sun and only breaking for quick runs in for a glass of water or lemonade.


I was Agassi or John McEnroe (yes, you can serve and volley on a wall) or a fictionalized version of myself, making a deep run at Wimbledon as qualifier, the British press in a frenzy over the kind of tennis I was playing. (Man, those down-the-line backhands I – and the wall – could produce!


One silver lining the pandemic has provided through much pain and loss is the chance to re-connect to simpler things in our lives, including our families, at-home time, calling friends and those long set-aside projects we finally tackled.


To me, tennis’ version of that is the wall. That very thing that helped us all fall in love with the game and allowed us to grow our love even if we couldn’t find someone else to hit with, or just wanted to be alone with our thoughts, our groundstrokes and a few thousands screaming fans (in our heads) when we crafted the perfect shot.


The wall has given us that. And for it, I say, ‘Thanks.’

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