Fuzzy Yellow Bloodlust: The Psychosis of
Atlanta Magazine, June
I’m deep in the third set, a heavyweight brawl turned
nip-and-tuck. Less than a dozen points remain to decide the
match. The crowd is tense with anticipation. Across the net,
my opponent bounces the ball twice, getting his rhythm before
unleashing his serve. I toe at the baseline, twirl my racket
in my hands. Then the ball’s up…the serve’s off his
racket…and as it crosses the net, I hear my daughter’s
voice, ringing out bell-clear across the court—
“Daddy, can I have another
--and the ball skitters off my
racket frame. And as I turn to remind my daughter to stay
quiet during Daddy’s backswing—she’s only five, but
she ain’t gonna see six if she keeps this up—the crowd
laughs at me. Laughs! As my thoughts flutter between homicide
and suicide, I say to myself—this is how I relax?
Welcome to tennis, ALTA-style.
ALTA—the Atlanta Lawn and
Tennis Association—is one of the largest amateur sports
organizations in the country. With nearly eighty freakin’
thousand Atlantans playing, chances are if you’re not in
ALTA, you’re within a hundred yards of someone who is. And
if you’re not playing now, you will be soon. Take it from
one who knows—you start out wondering what fools play tennis
every Saturday morning while you’re on your way to
the Home Depot, and before long you’re out there on the
court flailing away with ‘em. Resistance, as they say, is
It wasn’t until I settled in
suburbia that I discovered exactly how deeply ALTA is woven
into the fabric of our fine city. Soon after I moved in, The
Neighbors asked when I’d be joining the tennis team.
“Hadn’t thought about it,”
I said. “I don’t play tennis.”
Neighbors couldn’t have looked more shocked if I’d eaten a
puppy before their eyes.
Soon enough, I got roped into
playing on the neighborhood team—everybody’s doing it,
it’ll be fun—and I plunged back into tennis like I’d
fallen off the wagon. But the more I played, the more I
realized ALTA’s hidden little secret: it’s all
about competition, baby. Oh, sure, everybody’s buddy-buddy
on the surface…but deep down, ALTA is about fuzzy yellow
bloodlust, pure and simple.
It’s easy to understand why.
ALTA gives us a chance, however briefly, to test ourselves in
an arena where there is no gray area, no room for
interpretation. Blast a serve past an opponent, and you
don’t need market research to affirm its validity. Pound an
overhead smash into the asphalt, and you’ll get cheers from
red- and blue-staters alike. And anything you’re wearing
goes with victory.
players ride the weekly high and finish their matches
perfectly satisfied, some…do not. Me, I’m generally a
pretty low-key guy. I don’t freak out when someone cuts me
off in traffic, or sneaks seventeen items into the express
lane. But I’ve learned that on the tennis court, I’m
suddenly a spoiled-rotten combination of Randy Moss and Neal
Boortz. I’ve hollered at opponents, at myself, even—during
one particularly unfortunate playoff game—my own fans.
And I’m not alone. At any given
ALTA match, there’s a decent chance you’re going to see
someone lose their temper and mouth off. If you’re lucky,
you might witness a racket-tossing fit, or—once in a rare
while—a felonious assault. Unsurprisingly, the more flagrant
displays of temper take place at the higher levels. You
don’t see players at C-8—the lowest level in
ALTA—arguing over calls; they’re generally pleased to get
two straight backhands in bounds. But A-level tennis can
quickly become a symphony of curses, pouting, thrown rackets,
and bashed coolers.
I asked Atlanta-based sports
psychologist Natalie Newton to help me get to the bottom of
this obsessive-amateur dilemma. “Amateurs utilize sports to
feel good about themselves, to massage bruised egos, or to
excel at some area in life when they have been unable to excel
in more traditional areas,” she says, “such as their
careers or personal lives.” Uh-oh. I take a quick
stock of my life—career’s fine; the family likes me, as
long as I get the kids enough donuts—and decide Dr. Newton
must be talking about someone else.
peculiar brand of on-court obsession doesn’t discriminate.
While it’s rare to see a woman hurling her racket or
unleashing a paint-peeling string of epithets, make no
mistake—even demure ladies stage their own version of the
Pacers-Pistons brawl every single match.
Ladies also take
the competition in different directions. Consider, for
instance, the post-match spread. At every ALTA match, the home
team provides drinks and snacks. Unsurprisingly, the men’s
teams tend to skew toward the frat-party aesthetic, laying out
cases of beer, bags of chips, and boxes of Krispy Kremes.
(Napkins? You gotta be kidding. That’s why you’ve got
Ah, but the ladies—the ladies
put us to shame. In ladies’ ALTA, the tennis is secondary to
the heavy ordnance brandished outside the fences. The
battleground is the linen-and-candelabra-topped picnic table;
the weapons, chafing dishes and fruit platters.
Mixed doubles? Forget it. Slap a
cold six-pack down next to a delicate flower arrangement, and
you’ll get an idea of their daytime-talk-show dynamics. I
tried playing—once—and was paralyzed by gender politics
every time a shot came my way: Okay, now, should I volley
it back at the lady? Or would that be bad sportsmanship? But
wait; wouldn’t it be sexist NOT to hit it at her? Hold it,
let me thi—damn. Their point.
used to play mixed doubles, but I stopped because men and
women are just not meant to play sports together,” says
Larry Wachs, late of 96 Rock’s Regular Guys and a devoted
ALTA player. “Someone always gets hurt physically or
emotionally. Sorry, mixed doubles should be against the law on
an amateur level.”
For the victors, ALTA provides
some highly desirable spoils. Division winners earn bag tags,
little plastic chips that are tangible totems of on-court
prowess. Some ALTA players go their whole careers without
winning one of these little gems; others’ bags are more
heavily laden than a janitor’s keyring. When they walk on
the court, the plastic clicking sounds like a Vegas
high-roller lining up his chips. Playoff teams plaster
posterboard-sized aluminum banners around their home fences,
and city champions earn the coveted ALTA plate, a hubcap-sized
pewter slab of victory.
Today, we finish out the marathon match with a win, and
my wife finally exhales. The team wives all know the drill—a
win means yardwork gets done today; a loss means their man
will be stewing on the sofa all afternoon. Members of both
teams unwind and tell lies together; as soon as the games are
over, we’re all brothers in beer. And after a while, we
reluctantly toss our tennis bags into our trunks and prepare
to return to our lives. As I do, I take the day’s last look
out at the empty courts.
I can’t help it. I’m ready to
get out there again.
Jay Busbee has won one plate and half a dozen bag
tags since he started playing ALTA again. He tried lashing the
plate to his racket, but it didn’t have the intimidating
effect he intended.