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Jay Busbee is a novelist and journalist living in Atlanta. Click the links below and at right for more information on his novels, articles, and comics.


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Fuzzy Yellow Bloodlust: The Psychosis of ALTA

Atlanta Magazine, June 2005

 

Tennis. 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 donut?”

            --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 futile.

            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.”

The 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.

Most 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.

ALTA’s 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 sleeves!)

            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.

“I 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.

 

 

 

All contents copyright © 2005 James Busbee. All Rights Reserved.
 

CURRENT ARTICLES

-Tom Cruise Breaks Out His 'A' Games, ESPN.com, July 2005

-Dream Another Dream (Hoop Dreams DVD review), Chicago Sports Review July 2005

-Rollin' On The River (Feature on the late, lamented Chattahoochee Raft Race in Atlanta), Atlanta, June 2005

-Fuzzy Yellow Bloodlust (column on my tennis temper), Atlanta, June 2005

For earlier works, click here.


CURRENT BOOKS

 

Sundown #3

Sundown: Arizona #3
Published by Arcana Studio
Art by Jason Ossman and Stefani Rennee, cover by Ryan Bodenheim

October 2005

Sundown #2

Sundown: Arizona #2
Published by Arcana Studio
Art by Jason Ossman and Stefani Rennee, cover by Ryan Bodenheim

September 2005

Sundown: Arizona #1
Published by Arcana Studio
Art by Ryan Bodenheim and Stefani Rennee

July 2005

Digital Webbing #23
Featuring "Fight Junkies"
Art by Reilly Brown
Published by Digital Webbing

Western Tales of Terror #1
Featuring "The Deserter"
Art by Jared Bivens

Published by Hoarse & Buggy

The Face of the River:
the debut novel
Click here for more info