We’ve lived next to tennis courts for five years, but it has never occurred to me to play. Until now

After two months of no chat and no people and no fun, the sound of racket on string sounds almost as beautiful as music.

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Something has changed in the park. We arrive for our daily exercise session to find the place abuzz with activity. Usually, everyone is loafing around looking pale and stressed, making a desultory pretence of doing press-ups to keep the police at bay. But today there is a new air of purpose. People are striding about looking like they are actually going somewhere.

“Look, Mum!” cries Moe. “The tennis courts are open!”

Jubilation! Due to the government’s decision to relax the lockdown rules – hotly debated in some quarters, welcomed with unfettered joy in ours – we all are officially allowed to play tennis. In the Before Times, as in, when things were actually normal, rather than the New Normal, I never particularly noticed the pock-pock noise of tennis matches going on in the background. I was too busy chatting with my friends as the boys played football after school. But now, after two months of eerie, haunting silence, two months of locked-up courts, two months of no chat and no people and no fun, the sound of racket on string sounds almost as beautiful as music. The music of human activity! The music of people playing together! 

We have lived next to these tennis courts for more than five years, and never in that time has it even remotely occurred to me to play tennis. I would walk past on a sunny day and admire, in an abstract kind of way, the sporty types racing around in their shorts and caps. But after two months of absolutely zero entertainment, it’s imperative: we must all play tennis, immediately. The boys and I rush home and dig out the tennis rackets, dusty and covered in cobwebs, from the deepest depths of the hoover cupboard. I book us a court for that afternoon.

Clearly everyone has had the same thought: when we arrive all the other courts are occupied. On the one next to ours, two young men are smashing a ball gleefully back and forth.

“God, isn’t it so good,” one shouts to the other, “to be playing tennis?”

“I never want to do an online workout again in my life,” his friend replies.

Over the fence in Court Five, Larry’s friend Archie is playing with his mum. We wave a cheery hello.

“Isn’t tennis just the best?” she calls. “I’ve booked us a court every day this week!”

And they are all spot on – tennis is great. The sky is blue, the birds are singing, the elder trees are holding out vast plates of blossom, and we are running around a tennis court, a real, flat tennis court, with a proper net. It’s so satisfying, when the ball meets the racket. It’s so good to play a real game, rather than kicking a football around the same old tree. More than anything, it’s so good to see everyone else enjoying themselves. None of us is dead yet; we are all playing tennis. Yippee!

Moe hits a crazy backhand and the ball goes sailing over the fence and into the bushes. I start getting inappropriately competitive, which is always a sign that I’m having fun. Larry is getting the hang of it, even putting a bit of spin on his forehands. The men on the next court are getting more and more audacious, racing around doing volleys and chops. I had thought that people might get crazy and hysterical coming out of lockdown, drink and party themselves silly. Perhaps all that is to come, but that’s not the vibe at all now; it’s a kind of quiet, concentrated joy.

“Can we book another court for tomorrow?” Larry asks on the way home. “Perhaps I can play with Archie.”

“And me,” says Moe. “I want to play tennis with Harry.”

“Of course,” I tell them. “We’ll book two courts. You can play with Archie and Harry, and I can play with Archie’s mum.”

In fact, I can’t wait to ring all my friends and tell them how great tennis is. We’d better get in as much as possible now, while we still can, before the second spike. 

Alice O'Keeffe's novel On The Up is published by Coronet. She is a literary critic and former arts editor of the New Statesman. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe, or on Instagram as @aliceokeeffebooks.

This article appears in the 29 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak

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