The Joy of Balls:From “A Dog’s Life”
Peter Mayle, best known for his tantalizing stories revolving around food, wine and culture in the South of France, explores the dog’s version of ‘the good life.’ Although a vintage Bordeaux sipped on a late summer’s night in Provence is replaced with a fine (championship quality) tennis ball, man and dog can equally appreciate the epicurean pleasures.
A friend of the family who descends on us from time to time is one of the few people I know who shares my habit of relaxing under the dining table. Not for him the stiff formality of the chair and polite social intercourse. On occasion, once he has eaten, he has been known to slide gently down to join me, and we bond. You may find this hard to believe, but there are photographs in existence to prove it. He maintains that it helps his digestion, although I feel it has more to do with a longing for quiet and serene company after all the conversational cut-and-thrust that takes place on the top deck. In any event, he is a kindred spirit.
It happens that he is also some kind of eminence in the world of British tennis-head ball boy at the Queen’s Club, it may be, or possibly a senior catering executive, I’m not sure. Whatever it is, his position gives him access to the highest levels of the annual Queen’s Tournament. He rubs shoulders with players and royalty and is permitted to use the VIP toilet facilities, which apparently is an honor reserved for the fortunate few. All this, I learned in the course of a long session under the table after lunch one day.
As I may have mentioned, I do like to have something to chew when the mood takes me, live preferably, but that involves catching it first, and for some reason it’s not too popular with the management. And so, faute de mieux, I usually have to make do with an inanimate object such as a stick, the Labrador’s blanket, or a guest’s shoe. Dull pickings, for the most part, although I did manage to get hold of a child’s teddy bear once. It didn’t put up much of a fight, I have to say, and there were tearful recriminations over the remains, much wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by solitary confinement for the winner. The stuffing gave me a bilious attack, too. Everything these days are man-made fibers, which I can tell you are highly indigestible. If you’ve ever eaten a squid in a cheap Italian restaurant, you’ll know what I mean.
It was shortly after the teddy bear incident that I was given my first tennis ball, and I took to it immediately. Round, springy, and small enough to carry in one side of the mouth while barking from the other, it was my constant companion for weeks. You can
imagine my hurt feelings, therefore, when the refugee from Queen’s arrived one day, took a look at my ball, and sneered. “Not up to championship standards,” he said. “Furthermore, it’s bald, soiled, and out of shape.” Well, you could say the same about quite a few of the guests who I’ve seen come and go, but I’m not one for the gratuitous insult. Goodwill to all men is my rule in life as long as they make themselves useful with the biscuits.
I had more or less recovered from the disparaging remarks about my recreational equipment when what should arrive at the house but a large box, addressed to me. This was unusual enough for the postman to come in and deliver it by hand, together with some facetious and quite unnecessary comments about my inability to sign for it. While he was congratulating himself on his feeble witticism, I took the opportunity to go and lift my leg on a sackful of undelivered mail that he’d left outside the door. Revenge is damp.
I came back to find the box open and the management studying a letter that described the pedigree of the contents. These were tennis balls, dozens of them, barely marked and with full heads of bright yellow fur. But they were not just everyday balls. According to the letter, they were balls of tremendous importance and fame, having appeared on television. They had been used in the men’s finals of the Queen’s Tournament and collected, still warm from their exertions, by our man on the spot and sent over for my personal use.
I was sorting through the balls before selecting my playmate for the day when I was struck by an interesting difference in the messages they were sending to the nose. If you’ve ever watched tennis-I’m sure some people do when they have nothing better to amuse themselves-you will have noticed that the contestants always keep a couple of spare balls in the pocket of their shorts. In this dark, overheated space, some kind of osmosis occurs, and, and the balls take on the character of the athletic and perspiring thigh. And if you happen to possess, as I do, a sensitive and highly tuned sense of smell, it’s possible to identify the thigh’s owner-not by name, of course, but by place of origin.
I applied the deductive faculties and was able to divide the balls into two groups. On the left was the Old World-complex, mature, with a long Teutonic finish and a hint of alcohol-free beer. On the right, a clear signal from the Dark Continent, hot and dusty, with a refreshing tang of the high veldt. Now, as I said, I can’t give you names, but if you go back over the records, I think you’ll find the finalists for that year were German and South African. Advantage, moi. Fascinating, isn’t it.
And that, in my considered opinion, is one of the few interesting aspects of tennis. As in much of what passes for sport, a basic principle has been misunderstood. The essence of any game, it seems to me, is to gain possession of the ball and find a quiet corner where one can destroy it in peace. But what do we see these highly paid and luridly dressed people doing with the ball? They hit it, kick it, throw it, bounce it, put it in a net, put it in a hole, and generally play the fool with it. Then they either kiss each other and slap hands or have a tantrum and go and mope in the corner. Adult men and women they are too, although you’d never guess it. I’ve known five-year-olds with a better grip on themselves.
But I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m completely devoid of sporting instincts. My own version of fetch the ball, for example, provides me with hours of harmless enjoyment and keeps participating adults away from the bar and out of mischief. I always win, too, which is as it should be.
First, I choose an elevated spot. It could be the top of a flight of stairs, a wall, the raised edge of the swimming pool-anywhere that gives me a height advantage. Stairs are best, because of the added cardiovascular benefits, but I shall come to that in a minute.
I take up my position, ball in mouth, and lurk with lowered head in the manner of the vulture contemplating the imminent death of his breakfast. Sooner or later, this motionless and rather extraordinary pose attracts attention. “What is Boy doing?” they say. Or, “Is he going to be sick?” With the eyes of the assembled spectators upon me, I slowly open my mouth and let the ball bounce free. Down the steps, off the wall, or into the deep end it goes. I remain completely still, the unblinking eye fixed on the ball below me. It’s a tense and focused moment.
The tension lasts until someone has the common sense to grasp the purpose of the game, which is to retrieve the ball and return it to me. If the spectators are particularly dense-and I’ve known a few, believe me, who didn’t seem to know whether it was lunchtime or Tuesday-I might have to give a short bark to indicate start of play. The ball is fetched, brought back and presented to me. I give the players a minute or two to settle down and get over the excitement, and then I repeat the process.
I mentioned stairs earlier. These have the double attraction of noise and healthy physical exertion, in contrast to the visitors’ usual program of elbow bending and free-weight training with knife and fork. The falling ball provides multiple bouncing sounds, and the retriever has to climb up the stairs to give it back to me. As any doctor will tell you, this is very beneficial for the legs and lungs.
I’ll admit, though, that there have been days when I’ve been off form with the long game. Balls take unlucky bounces, as we all know, and sometimes get in the rough. Or, more often, the spectators have been too preoccupied with refreshments to pay attention. And here, I think, is an inspirational example of dedication and the will to win coming through against all odds.
It was one of those evenings when nothing I could do impinged on the happy hour. I lurked, I dropped, I barked, and still the merriment continued. I even suffered the ignominy of having to fetch the ball myself-which, as any of those tennis people will tell you, is a fate worse than having to pay for your own rackets. But instead of bursting into tears and calling for the manager, as most of them do, I brought out my short game.
The assembled guests-there must have been eight or ten of them in varying stages of incoherence-were all seated around a low table, bleating away about the hardships of life as they punished the hors d’oeuvres and held out their empty glasses for more of the same. None of them noticed me as I slipped, wraith-like, through the forest of legs and arms to the table.
Then-overhead smash!-I dropped the ball into a bowl of tapenade, which, as you may know, is a dark, oily dip made from olives. It splatters in a most satisfying way, and those in the immediate vicinity came out in a black rash.
You could have heard a jaw drop. It was well worth the retribution that followed, and to this day, whenever I pick up my ball of choice, and I regarded with the wary respect befitting a champion. Incidentally, if you’ve never tried tapenade-flavored tennis ball, I can recommend it. Recipe upon request.