This past Thursday I mentioned that Abraham Verghese’s book Cutting for Stone is on Barack Obama’s summer reading list. In addition to being a fine writer, Verghese is a remarkable doctor and also (what is relevant to today’s post) a tennis player. With the U.S. Open about the start, I am posting a passage from his autobiographical work The Tennis Partner.
The passage is about the tightly strung rackets of Swedish great Bjorn Borg. Born, incidentally, was never able to win the U.S. Open although he did win five Wimbledons and six French Opens before his early retirement. The passage is about more than tennis trivia, however. It serves as a metaphor for the tension Verghese’s marriage is under as a result of his workaholism.
So if you find yourself under intense stress, you can think of yourself as one of Borg’s rackets. Verghese’s book will assure you that you can survive.
Veghese imagines the drama from the vantage point of Borg’s coach:
It is three in the morning. The coach is awake and cold and shivering. He has heard a sharp sound, like the report of a rifle.
He knows what it is: one of the thirty Donnay rackets he carries for his player and that are stacked in the clothes closet has imploded, collapsed in on itself from the tremendous tension of the strings. It is a familiar sound, but still, each time it startles him, makes his heart race, more so when it wakes him from sleep. He looks around the room, as if the sound still echoes in the corners.
He had asked other coaches whether this ever happened to them and they had looked at him strangely. It is only his boy—he still thinks of him as a boy—who wants his rackets strung at such an extraordinary tension, twice that of McEnroe. Ninety pounds means they are dancing on the edge of the tolerance of the wooden frame. It is difficult to find a stringer willing to work with such tension, to risk having it explode, sending projectiles of wood splinters and gut in his face. There is only one man in Sweden whom they trust.
Ninety pounds of tension makes the racket feel as stiff as a skillet, but it is what the boy wants. It suits his big, looping ground strokes, gives him a control and precision that no one in the world can match.
On several occasions, the rifle-crack sound has shattered the calm of a first-class cabin at thirty thousand feed, causing flight attendants to scream, drinks to be spilled, looks of panic to come over the faces of passengers. The boy never flinches or blinks when this happens. He sits, observing quietly, while the coach explains, pacifies, pulls out the frame from the bag and cuts out the strings before they warp the frame. If the frame is warped, they give it away as a souvenir.
Once the implosion happened in the customs lounge in Milan and instantly the machine-gun-bearing carabinieri surrounded them, muzzles raised. And the previous year in Britain, just before they stepped out of the locker room for a quarterfinal, the coach was double-checking the tension, holding the racket in one hand and slapping the heel of his other hand against the strings. The racket shattered and gut and wood wrapped around his wrist like a handcuff. “It must have been more than ninety pounds,” the boy said, walking away, even as the coach tried to free himself.
Verghese’s description alludes to one fascinating contrast: while Borg’s rackets may have been strung tight, he himself could be almost a Zen-like presence on the courts. There’s a famous instance in a tournament final where he calmed down an exploding John McEnroe, putting his arm around him and telling him that they were playing a great match and he should just relax. McEnroe describes the moment as a turning point in his life. So there’s an image for life: be super intense and super calm at the same time and you’ll accomplish great things.
Now that rackets are made out of graphite or other composite materials, exploding rackets are no longer an issue, even at 90. That being said, most players have their rackets strung between 30 and 50. Pete Sampras was at the outer edges at 75. Interestingly, the effect of string tension is counterintuitive: a tighter strung racket means more control, a more loosely strung racket means more power.
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