Looking back on life, I realize there have been a few turning points. Among them, my decision to come to America tops the list. Turning 50 was
also another memorable turning point. In Japan, 50 is called 知命(chimei) taken from the Analects of Confucius. Here in America, it’s called the Big Five O.
I don’t know how it came to me that I wanted to do ‘something’ when I turned 50. But when Iactually turned 50, I didn’t know what. I juggled with many ideas. Painting? Singing? Or something more physical? I had never been good at any of them but gradually I decided to dosomething physical that I would not be able to do later in life. It took another 6 months
before tennis was the winner. Questions arose. How? Where? With whom? I had never been good at sports and I was old.
My worries ended on 22 July 2000. My diary note for that day
reads, ‘Went to the park. Someone let me use his racket. Oh,
that was fun!’ Since then, tennis has always been a part of
my life and has become one of the best things I have ever
My tennis ‘career’ started with 1 day a weekend and
quickly became a whole weekend activity. Within a year, I
started playing local amateur tournaments and even went
on to a tournament in Canada. No matter what the result,
playing in tournaments gave me a great feeling I had never
One day, I got email from the United States Tennis
Association (USTA) asking whether I was interested in
becoming a captain in its Senior League. The USTA
League is the country’s largest recreational tennis league
and is organized as competitive match play with a national
championship. Teams are made up of a minimum of five
to eight players. A captain organizes and manages a team
in competing against other teams. I hesitated at first but
eventually decided to take on this new adventure. The job
description includes assembling players for the required
matches, coordinating dates and venues with the captain
of the opponent team and deciding play orders and pairing
doubles. I did it for 3 years. Although my team wasn’t
successful, I can say that I gave it my best.
Flushing Meadow, the site of the US Open Tennis
Tournament, is less than a 1-hour subway ride from where I
live. In the mid-90s, something dramatic started happening
in Japanese tennis, especially the women’s side. As Kimiko
Date’s photos appeared in the New York Times, many in
New York’s Japanese community were drawn to Flushing
Meadow. I was no exception although I was not yet playing
tennis. Years later, after I had started, another Japanese
sensation attracted the attention of the tennis world. In 2008,
Kei Nishikori won his first ATP Tour tournament and reached
the fourth round at the US Open. Early this year, he was
named ATP’s ‘Newcomer of the Year.’
Speaking of Nishikori, believe it or not, I watched a match
at the Open sitting next to him. If I remember right, it was
September 2005 when he came to play the Junior US Open.
I had no idea who he was. The second time I saw him was
August 2007 at the first round of the Open preliminary. He
looked very different. The shy boy in white was gone and he
was quite hip with fashionable hair and attire.
Unlike swimming, which I also enjoy, tennis is definitely
a social sport. I play ‘pickup play,’ which is a way of finding
a partner. When I don’t have a partner, I just go and find
whoever is available at the court. As a result, I have had the
pleasure of playing people from 5 to 70 years old.
I met Zouheir as a ‘pick up.’ When I arrived at the courts,
I saw a young man sitting straight on a bench. We agreed
to play and went to a court where he confessed that he had
never played tennis. Many people don’t like to play beginners
because it is no fun. It could have been just a one-time deal
but I kept playing him after that. Unlike many others, he was
very reliable and respectful. It is said that the joy of tennis
comes from playing someone who is slightly better than you
are. By playing him, I came to realize this is not necessarily
true. Joy can come not only from the skills and techniques
but also from the person himself despite his skill. I learned
the joy of tennis as a social sport through this young Muslim
Zouheir is very religious. He goes to a mosque regularly
and follows its teachings. I came to learn a little about his
religion through him. Among them is Ramadan. It is an Islamic
religious observance that takes place during the ninth month
of the Islamic calendar. The most prominent part of this
month is the fasting, in which participating Muslims do not
eat or drink anything from dawn until sunset. The meal they
have after sunset is called breakfast (= break fast). Zouheir
and Sanae, his wife, invited me for this breakfast. It started at
19:00 sharp with a Koran reading as the ‘go’ sign. Among the
dishes, a soup called harira is very important according to
Zouheir. I guessed it was gentle on the empty stomach. Other
dishes included jujube, msaman, and small sandwiches. My
favourite was msaman, which was like Japanese yakimochi
(grilled rice cakes).
They had also invited me to dinner before Ramadan. I
once mentioned that I liked couscous and Zouheir wanted to
show me home-made couscous. On that occasion, I made
an unforgettable mistake of bringing beer as a gift. Zouheir
took that ‘small something’ and put it in the fridge. He didn’t
say anything but I suddenly realized that Muslims don’t drink
alcohol. Needless to say, I was completely embarrassed.
During my vacations to a small seaside town in New
Jersey, I carry my racket with me so I can join a tennis
gathering there. Players are as ‘young’ as in their 40s and as
‘old’ as in their 70s. You hook your racket on the fence and
players rotate in the order of the rackets. People are very nice
and welcoming, the beach is wonderful, and so is the tennis.
I had never realized that starting tennis was this easy.
As far as I was concerned, tennis was always a sport for the
privileged. Then, why was it so easy? I think it’s because I
started it in America.
There are many differences between playing tennis in
Tokyo and New York. In terms of facilities, there are 211
courts at 62 locations in Tokyo. Suna-iri jinko-shiba (artificial
grass with sand) is the typical surface in Japan and totals
159 courts. In New York, there are 601 courts at 81 locations.
Almost all surfaces are hard except for 37 clay courts.
In reserving a court, Tokyoites need a lot of patience
because the process is unbelievably long and complex. This
alone shows why there is no ‘pickup play’ in Tokyo. The fee
is $13 to $18 an hour. In New York, court use is very simple.
First, you get an ID card called a Permit and simply visit a
facility and sign in. A Permit costs $100 for an adult, $20
for over 62 and $10 under 17. It allows the bearer to play
throughout the season (8 months) at any city-owned court.
There is also a 1-hour ticket that costs $7.
How about the price of rackets? From the Internet, a
racket that costs $360 in Japan is $190 in the US.
How about the amateur tournaments? In New York, the
main draw is played as the best of three sets. On the other
hand, in Tokyo, I was told that 8-game pro-sets were the
norm due to the difficulty in reserving courts and 4-game
pro-sets are played at times in the worst scenario.
I am sure both systems have advantages and
disadvantages, but I would say that my joy of tennis has
definitely been enhanced by the low cost and easy
convenience in New York.
Tennis is an injury-prone sport. I have had various injuries
such as knee tendinitis, a bad wrist sprain, golfer’s elbow,
and now tennis elbow. It has also become a barometer of my
physical well-being. In my early 50s when I started, I could
run for hours and recovery was not bad either. Recently, I
have been feeling a slow slight decline and someday I will
have to stop playing. However, there wouldn’t be an end
without a beginning and I have had tremendous joy and
gained a lot of confidence from the sport. For this, I would
like to thank tennis while praising myself for the decision I
made at 50.