Harry Eyres on Tennis
What is it that gives mentoring its particular force and makes it different from teaching or training?
I suppose this is, officially speaking, the end of the tennis season. Djokovic and Nadal – a raging bull tamed by a matador of superhuman reflexes and speed – fought out their thunderous final in New York a month ago and our end-of-season party at the club took place not long afterwards. As far as I’m concerned, though, there is no end to the season; I was brought up to play in light snow and some of our most exhilarating battles have been joined on crisp winter evenings with the temperature close to zero.
Perhaps the best moments of my tennis year, so far, came just as the autumn leaves started to strew the courts, just before the nets and posts of the grass courts were taken up for the last time. There were some good late-season games – but even better than the games were flashes of insight, not just into technical aspects of the game but more particularly into the true nature of mentoring.
Our club is a place where people of different generations come regularly and naturally together, from the senior members, a little creaky in the limbs, to very young children just beginning to swing racquets (you hope not in the direction of their brothers and sisters), and that in itself is unusual in a world that is more and more stratified in terms of age – and not just age.
Especially treasurable is the presence of benign elders (whose names I have changed). We have Masud, who is not exactly “the oldest member” who appears in PG Wodehouse’s golf stories, but someone I consider to be the father of the club. He is a kindly, shrewd presence, brilliant at organising the most recalcitrant characters into the complex logistical puzzle known as club night and infinitely wise in his observations of the club’s human dimension. He once told me that he had received so much love as a child that he simply wanted to pass on the store he had to succeeding generations.
If Masud is a sort of life mentor, our tennis mentor is Vishtasp. His knees might be not quite what they were but his strokes are still pure and even more important is his tennis philosophy. This is about as far from Brad Gilbert’s way of “winning ugly” as you could imagine.
Though you might think of our club as a genteel sort of place, there are times of altercation, especially over disputed line calls. At a tense moment in a semi-final of the club championship a ball very close to (if not on) the line was called out and this unleashed a torrent of protest from the caller’s opponent. The incident divided opinion; one member pointed out that especially at tense moments we all have a tendency to see a ball out (or in) if that suits us. Treacherous waters – and not ones I have always navigated well myself.
The answer came from Vishtasp. Practising with me one afternoon, he made two comments whose wisdom was worth more than the annual club membership fee. “My coach always taught us that if there was any doubt about a ball being in or out – if we couldn’t see clear space between the ball and the line – then the ball was in.” In other words, you always give your opponent the benefit of the doubt, a principle that has something in common with the legal standard of evidence – “beyond reasonable doubt” – required to secure a criminal conviction. How much trouble would be avoided if we all – myself included – stuck to this simple, admirable rule.
Vishtasp’s other comment was this. “I love this club,” he began, “but there is one habit I have noticed which I don’t approve of: as juniors we were taught always to support our partners in doubles, and not everyone does that here.” I remembered a time when a particularly sharp-tongued female member, partnering me in doubles, ticked me off for some bungled interceptions at the net – “if you’re going for it, go for it, otherwise leave it alone” – and how the criticism stung for days. But then I have been guilty of the odd raised eyebrow myself.
Vishtasp’s comments have not just stayed with me but I think they have influenced my behaviour. That is obviously one of the tests of mentoring. But what is it that gives mentoring its particular force and makes it different from teaching or training?
I listened to Vishtasp’s words because I have respect for him and look up to him as a good example of how to play tennis and how to conduct oneself on court. His words got through to me because they were delivered informally, in a context of friendship. This crucial aspect of mentoring, which goes back to the origins of the word in the Homeric character of Mentor, wise old adviser to Telemachus as he sets out searching for his father Odysseus, is often forgotten. Mentoring is too important to be institutionalised and turned into a kind of business. Never forget that Mentor was a god in disguise.