By Scott Barclay
Crumbs had fallen, patterning down my chest, a peppery twist of biscuity brown popping against the navy blue dark of my school uniform jumper as they raced each other down folds and creases that were crying out to be ironed flat.
There I was sprawled, a young boy returned from battle having walked through the combative minefield of double afternoon first year mathematics, fingers aching from thumbing calculator buttons in the search for answers that screamed to be found amongst layers of hieroglyphic-like workings out.
Maths was not, is still not, and likely never will be, my forte, and so as my eyes flitted with every flickering passing of every TV channel skipped through, my brain lay dormant, debating – in the rather overdramatic fashion only really capable of 11 year olds – if life were altogether worth living if it required us all to understand the hidden language of numerological whisperings.
A screen of green suddenly caught my gaze, dragging my mind from the pits of desperate yearnings for a day devoid of school the next day and up to breath amidst an air of a curiosity that tickled at my thoughts.
My engagement with tennis until that point had been a sporadic mix of bored backyard plastic bats-and-nets pasted over with a dreary array of tarmaced local public courts often puddled and flooded-up with seemingly endless Scottish damp, long-faded-yellow tennis balls abandoned in muddy corners left over from some time long ago and painfully rubber-stamping the severe lack of general club usage.
Now, sullenly sinking myself through a packet of chocolate digestives masterfully snatched from the biscuit cupboard while my mum was looking the other way, I sat up slightly to take some notice.
For who was this spindle-legged youth, wearing a shirt and shorts a size or two too big, cap wrapped around curls spilling out sweat and framing a face that growled in its movement at points ending regardless of won or lost, celebration or devastation, almost claustrophobic in its intensity that gripped camera lens edges and engulfed the match coverage with unfamiliar bubbling-over temperament?!
A fist-clenching, teeth-gnawing display of watercolour emotion followed, that clouded and drifted untamed but was spiralled through with potential, unburdened yet by expectation that would soon building-block its way across his shoulders and pressurise him steadily full of impatiently waiting childish hopes and dreams of a nation, all of it hand-crafted through years of yearning desperation.
This was a boy and his love for a sport, intertwined so closely in the heat of competition that it sometimes looked like he hated it all, screams of words that hung in the air around his head like angry red stamps of parental over-protective disapproval that would go on to attach themselves to him in the form of unshakable criticism throughout the early stages of his career.
They would dog him consistently and bark at his victories, baring teeth that dripped saliva wet with tut-tuttings reserved only for those that they felt didn’t represent good-and-proper, something they’d held dear throughout the Henman-era before.
Back then though, I knew not what was to come drifting through the future night, only what was playing out in front of me on the grass of the here and now, and what I saw grappled me still, hooking my skin and rooting me there, a biscuit forgotten and powdering into pieces as they were ground into the cushions on the sofa beneath my hand as I leant slightly forwards.
And forwards and forwards, I did fall, right into being a fan of Andy Murray and all the unpredictable that came with it.
From that point onwards, I began watching tennis regularly, expanding out from that singular moment to become something of an obsessive, letting my enjoyment of the sport guide me through the rest of my school years.
Indeed, tennis followed me as I went to college in search of something. It was there as my heart broke and I embarrassed myself on the dance-floors of nightclubs of uni nightlife. It comforted me during many a morning-after-the-evening-before, easing the dullard ache of the one-too-many. It was there as I took a risk and went to London driven only by a willingness to keep chasing failure in hopes of stumbling somehow someway on success. It’s outlived friendships and family members, attending the funerals of those who passed away, standing at the back of church halls in all-black, its hair done up real nice, its hands clasped in front, head bowed in a solemn show of unseen-by-all-but-myself respect. There it was, condensationing against my windscreen, trailing little rivers through the trials and tribulations that seemed to consume my whole world in the moment but looking back, were the very definition of the absolute nothing much. And it’s here with me nowadays, through the job rejections on job rejections frustrations, watching my face fold with ugly tears endless in their ability to grip my whole body and shake me silly with repetitive angst.
I’ve co-founded a podcast and recorded near 50 episodes made of much madness and laughter. I’ve watched my favourite player win Majors thrice over, become world number 1 and string Olympic golds around his neck. I’ve been lucky enough to attend Wimbledon, the Davis Cup and numerous exhibition events, losing my voice to noise levels intense. I’ve written match previews and racket reviews and transcribed interviews. I’ve coached the game to young Autistic adults at summer camps in America, sat back and watched them outperform their own expectations of how great they could be. I’ve tuned into tournaments in other time-zones until the sun rose, light catching itself between the blinds of my window and casting shadows across my face, highlighting bags beneath my eyes darkened with the delirious. I’ve been late to work and had my boss sigh with knowing understanding, a “tennis again?” worn only by the partly-amused. I’ve met some of the very best people, all of us fortunate enough to find this sport and hold it close. I’ve been eye-rolled by loved ones who don’t quite get it but always at least try to anyway and for that, I only thank them. They know who they are.
When things get hard, I climb into tennis and shut the lid above my head because it’s easy and always, the calendar of the season stretching wildly longer than many others. It’s there consistently regardless, it’s simplistic rhythmic back-and-fourth standing solid in its place amongst all of the ever-changing.
And so once in a while, I try and write about it and I’ll be the first to admit that I find doing so tiring at times, trying to put it down on page, trying to fit it all in, wrestling with my use of language in order to try start something, try spark something, giving up often and leaving things in drafts to gather nothing but dust, dammit, words crunching against each other on pages in ways that don’t quite work.
But let me tell you, it’s worth it for those moments of the few-and-the-far-between, where you look at the completed, the finished, the something you’ve written about the something you love, the final sentence of the final chapter of the final version of your work and allow yourself to smile if only a little
At 28, I haven’t yet got to the point where I truly believe that what I write about tennis is worthwhile but I hope to one day get to the point where I do.
And I hope Popcorn Tennis – and those who are helping shape it – can be a part of that process for me.