September 23, 2021 by The Citron Review
by Gary Fincke
At Griffith Park a few weeks ago, while I tried to convince my granddaughter that hitting a backhand wasn’t difficult, she told me that Emma Stone played tennis for a Battle of the Sexes scene on a nearby Los Angeles court where her friend takes lessons. “Down by the fountain,” she said, meaning the Riverside courts a half mile from where she lives. “The director,” she explained, “needed an old-fashioned surface, something that looks like it’s in the 70s.”
She’d played four times by then, three of them with me, beginning with balls so pressureless they seemed to hover in the air. I told her I was seventeen years older than Bobby Riggs was when he lost to Billie Jean King in the Astrodome, a year younger than Billie Jean was in the present where I was teaching her despite my ruined knees and spinal stenosis and a one-handed backhand that puzzled her.
She wanted to know how hard it was for me to play with a wooden racket, a thing so strange and heavy, its small sweet spot that must have made tennis more difficult. When I said I’d once used a Jack Kramer model, she told me he was the movie’s sexist bad guy.
She loved tennis now, planned to use her own money to buy a vintage outfit like the one Emma Stone wears to play Steve Carrell’s version of Bobby Riggs.
Better yet, she was ready to turn her shoulders early and prepare to swing like Emma Stone, who, like her, had never played until starring in that movie made her learn how Billie Jean King had bounced a ball before serving and how she had held her wooden racket, switching from a forehand to backhand grip.
We were practicing because my daughter had told her I’d coached a college team and spent a few summers as a teaching pro at a country club where successful men, during those 70s, had hired me to teach their wives not to be liabilities in the business of mixed doubles, berating them, sometimes, like minor-league versions of the Jack Kramer she had so much disliked when she’d watched the film.
The court we were using is built into a landscape of rugged, low mountains, a twenty-minute uphill walk from where my wife and I stayed for the month of January. Six times we made that trek, and every time we talked the whole way up and down, most of the time about her current life as a fourteen-year-old.
Two miles above those courts is the observatory where James Dean faced off with the “hoods” in Rebel Without a Cause. Two miles below them is the high school James Dean and Natalie Wood, as alienated teenagers, attended in that movie. She is a freshman there, and doesn’t imagine herself in the 50s.
My daughter drove me to the Riverside courts a few days later. We stood on the court where Emma Stone pretended to be Billie Jean King winning a tournament held in San Diego. Less than 100 yards away a row of power lines towered up from where they follow US 5 and the roar of heavy Los Angeles traffic.
My granddaughter could walk to that court in ten minutes and play in the footsteps of Emma Stone. She has a forehand now, sometimes a backhand, and less often an accurate serve.
What I kept to myself were the secrets of the once deadly slice of Bobby Riggs, who was born the same year as my father, who, on courts far from Hollywood, taught me what he could from his repertoire of homemade strokes until he handed me to a stranger who changed everything but my backhand, the stroke he said was “a natural.”
On the last night of our stay, my granddaughter and I watched Battle of the Sexes together, sitting side by side on the couch. She concentrated as if she hadn’t already seen it. At last, she said, “Look, there it is, the court,” and we watched Emma Stone run across the 70s court, swing her wooden racket, and deliver the illusion of a winning forehand. Before we said a half hour of goodbyes, we hugged three times, she cried, and I almost did myself.
Gary Fincke’s latest collection of essays, The Darkness Call, won the Robert C. Jones Prize (Pleiades Press, 2018). His essays have been published by The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, Arts & Letters, Brevity, Quarterly West, and others. His essay “After the Three-Moon Era” was reprinted in Best American Essays 2020.