The Mighty Fellowship of Tennis Partners

Advantage-everybody: Two men of different generations explain why court friends are forever

April 22, 2024 6:13 am
An illustration of two tennis players fist-bumping. We discuss why tennis friends are so great for your longevity.
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Danica Killelea

During the month of April, we’re publishing a series of interviews, essays, advice columns and reported features about the male friendship crisis in the U.S., a particularly troubling slice of the country’s larger loneliness epidemic. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so we’re breaking it down from all angles in The Male Friendship Equation.

In late April, without fail, the bubble comes down at North Brooklyn’s McCarren Park. For the six months thereafter, there is tennis from dawn to twilight, every single day. Fuzzy neon and fist pumps and “fucks!” I pass this scene at least five times a week, during runs or coffee walks or phone calls, and typically feel a mix of euphoria and envy. On the one hand, it fills me with a powerful sense of conviction, with neighborly pride, to see adults playing outside; and on the other, I always feel a bit left out, equal parts salty and guilty that I’m not out there with them.

Why not? Playing tennis in New York City is hard. You have to pay registration fees to Parks and Rec, show up at unlikely times to wrestle courts from the horde, and most importantly, have at least one friend dedicated enough to consistently navigate that labyrinth with you — a partner willing to pay membership fees in the winter, when the courts are briefly domed and privatized, a partner willing to answer texts, join tournaments or summon substitutes.

It helps to be really good at tennis, too. Among my circle of friends, the best tennis player I know is Beau Dealy. I’ve played with him on a few masochistic occasions. (If the name sounds familiar, he’s also, fittingly, InsideHook’s racquet correspondent.) He also happens to be one of those McCarren tennis players I pass so often.

When I started thinking about this piece — this vague, yet presumable hypothesis that tennis partnerships were important — I reached out to him and asked about for details. Who do you play with? Is it singles? Doubles? How often do you play? Is everyone around the same talent level? Do the sessions ever extend past the court? Or, in other words: have these partnerships morphed into friendships?

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According to Beau, the crew includes him, his brother Sam, Brian (Beau’s girlfriend’s friend from acting school) and George (Sam met him at a party in San Francisco in 2021). Got all that?

The key detail among this group is that Beau’s played tennis with all three for three years. When George first moved to New York, he was looking for tennis partners. He ended up finding groomsmen: Beau and Sam will head to George’s wedding in July. There is a group chat (it’s called “Chillers who regularly play tennis in NYC”), there have been on-theme field trips (Beau, Sam, George and their significant others traveled to watch the Miami Open in March) and there is constant angling (in the warmer months, especially) to play more. More, more, more.

“It’s never enough,” Beau says to me. “We play for about an hour each time, because that’s all the time we can get. About enough time for one set. It’s really annoying.”

There is no set day or time: George and Brian might play on Tuesday, Beau might match up against Brian on Thursday, Sam and Brian go for Sunday. It’s whoever’s available, wherever’s available. (Though they favor McCarren, they’ll also play at Cooper Park in Brooklyn or the USTA Center in Flushing.)

If you’re sensing a preponderance of Brian, Beau reckons this is by design: “I do suspect there’s some backchanneling — everyone wants to play with [him].”

I ask why. “Well, he’s our god,” Beau says. “No one can beat Brian. No one has beaten Brian. Closest I got was 7-5. He’s just amazing. Very controlled backhand, strong and precise forehand; he wins points by running you around the baseline, by waiting for a moment to hit a strong approach shot, then he finishes at the net. He has no flaws. Oh and he’s humble. Always with the crisp Asics. Keeps his two Yonex racquets in a cool tote bag. He is the standard-bearer.”

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How about the other guys? Sam, whom Beau can no longer play anymore (“Our fraternal rivalry gets too heated”), is a grinder. He pulls unforced errors out of opponents by keeping the ball in play. His groundstrokes are solid and he’ll whip out a brilliant passing shot here and there; he’s gotten a lot better in the last three years, Beau reports. Same for George, who’s long, lanky and a nightmare at the net. He’ll get to balls he shouldn’t, and put a nice topspin on his forehand. He has the ability to make an amazing play at any time.

As for Beau himself? “My game is power, wild,” he says. “I’ll hit the ill-advised drop shot. But my backhand…I’m never super confident in. I smash my racquet against the ground sometimes. I’ll scream ‘Fuck!’ then say sorry, middle of the day in McCarren Park. Whoops. The game brings every emotion out of me. But my friends — that’s what we are, ‘tennis friends’ — they know that. They accept that.”

After Beau shared these details with me, he sent me a screenshot of one user’s response to a Reddit post, titled “Can you be a world class tennis player if you start at 16?” The conclusion — after a long ramble in which the responder systematically explains why this is impossible — is beautifully gentle and shockingly sincere, especially considering the subreddit setting.

“So no, you will never be a world class tennis player,” they write. “But wanting to be a world class tennis player is also kind of a silly goal. You have picked up tennis which is a lifelong joy to watch and play. And truly, lifelong. You can join a league in any town and play until you’re 80. You’ll have rival buddies that you’ll challenge for life. Man, you’ve got it so good. You love the best sport on earth and have a lifetime ahead to play it. Enjoy it!”

They nailed it. They’re absolutely right. How would I know? Because I’ve seen it up close — my dad has been playing for decades with a group of friends, in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey.

My dad was the one who taught me to play tennis. He’s good. He’s been playing since the 1970s, still remembers matches and teammates from his high school days in the Boston suburbs. Whenever I play with him, he runs me around. He does what he wants to the ball.

That he has continued playing the game for so long is remarkable, considering his résumé of injuries from six decades of active living: SLAP tear in the shoulder, frozen shoulder, hip impingement, arthritis in knees from a prior ACL surgery, spinal stenosis in back and neck, tennis elbow. The other guys are banged up, too. But it’s all worth it. And besides, that’s why they play doubles. There are six of them, rotating in and out of foursomes, every Monday night from September through May.

“We keep track of each individual games but never sets,” my dad explains. “No one takes it too seriously and I have never heard anyone in 20 years argue a line call. In fact, I feel bad if my serve is really on and no one gets a racquet on it. We’re all making a lot of high-percentage shots to keep the ball in play and have a good rally. You break a minor sweat but I don’t think I have ever brought a water bottle, since it’s not hot inside the club.”

Less competitive than the 30-ish Brooklynites, then. And there isn’t a dryly-named group chat. But ultimately it’s sort of the same thing, isn’t it? It’s right there in the guarantee: one night of the week for the rest of your life.

“The social aspect is huge,” Dad confirms. “We always spend 10 to 15 mins in the parking lot after the hour to chat — life, sports, family. We get in some golf once tennis winds town. We’ll meet to play tennis outside once our contract months are up. And every couple months, or right before the holidays, we’ll meet at the bar after tennis for a couple beers. We support each other when someone is dealing with an injury or loss.”

An oft-cited, 25-year project published by the Copenhagen City Heart Study (CCHS) found that of all the sports out there, racquet ones are most positively associated with life expectancy. You can run, cycle and swim on a weekly basis, but tennis gives you the best chance of tacking years onto your life. The researchers found that it adds nearly a decade — 9.7 years on average.

You might chalk this correlation up to the sport’s rotation steps and serves. But clearly, there’s something else going on. Something deeper, something tied to our lifelong need for belonging. Tennis partners are the lucky ones, armed not only with more years to live, but with better ones, too, it sounds like — ones spent with people they know. Foes on the court, friends again in time for the parking lot.

“We got a lifetime of playing,” Beau says. “We love this beautiful game.”

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