A Review of Scarlett Thomas’ 41-Love
March 17, 2022 § Leave a comment
By Kelsey Cleveland
I deflated as if a service ace had whizzed past me when I discovered Scarlett Thomas (Oligarchy) had written a memoir about her return to her childhood love of tennis as a 41-year-old. An essay on the same topic awaited my edits in my drafts folder. Then I rushed to get a copy of 41-Love: On Addictions, Tennis and Refusing to Grow Up to read how the experience of the British novelist compared to mine in the United States.
By the second page of the Prologue, I couldn’t put down the addictive read. At first, Thomas’ experience mirrored my return to the tennis courts in many ways, including her technique:
I have no idea how much is wrong with the way I hit the ball. My whole technique is modeled on the way the cool older guys used to play at the local hard courts in Chelmsford when I was a kid. Flat, low, skimming the net.
I felt as if Thomas witnessed my first lesson in over two decades played when she described her session standing far behind the baseline, hitting groundstrokes with Coach Dan. “I am just pleased I can hit the ball at all, that I can keep a rally going with this coach.” Like me, she left her lesson at the local leisure centre “…happy and complete in some way I haven’t experienced for a long time, aching to play again as soon as possible but with various muscles beginning to go into spasm.”
Thomas throws herself into the sport playing every day and improving her technique and fitness with coaching sessions. She also joins the local tennis league. The highly competitive woman soon wins a singles trophy of the first amateur tournament she entered. Again, her experience reminded me of my own. Thomas and I preferred playing singles over doubles, a rarity in women over 40 in England and the United States. We both couldn’t imagine playing in a league when we started playing tennis again and won the singles title of the first amateur tournament we entered.
Soon after her win, Thomas met her literary agent in a busy London pub. I laughed out loud when her agent, David Miller, didn’t recognize her in the newspaper photo of her tennis tournament win. Thomas shared her plan to write a tennis book during her sabbatical, which gave her an excuse to devote more time to her hobby. “I’m going to spend 2014 playing tennis and I’m going to see how far I can get. In a year. As a forty-one-year-old.” He asked if she could potentially enter Wimbledon. As a writer, I agreed that would make a great narrative arc, but I didn’t think it was possible as a tennis player.
Despite the book’s subtitle having the word addiction in it, I thought this book would be an upbeat sports memoir told from the perspective of an amateur pursuing the sport rather than the reflections of a famous athlete. I imagined the protagonist would face challenges, and then the book would end with a major win on or off of the tennis court. In a New York Times interview, Thomas went into the project thinking the same thing.
Scarlett Thomas’ interest in the sport turned into a time-consuming and expensive obsession. Between coaching sessions, hitting sessions, and matches, she spent four to five hours a day playing tennis. Plus, she had sessions with a personal trainer, time on the rowing machines in the gym, Pilates, and yoga classes. She also traveled the country to play in tournaments, stay in hotels, and get massages to recover. When Thomas arrived on court, she wore the latest designer tennis outfit by Stella McCartney for Adidas and Asics shoes to face either fellow middle-aged players or sometimes teenage opponents with mothers her age in the stands.
I rooted for Thomas as her quest took her from the Indoor Tennis Centre near her seaside home in Kent to the storied grass courts of the All England Club. Along the way, Thomas deftly wove in scenes about her childhood, the death of a beloved pet, and her parents as she did almost everything possible in her desperate desire to win. At the start, she had no Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) ranking as an over 40 player in Kent. Her meteoric rise in four months took her to second in her county, sixth in Great Britain, and 131 in the world for her age bracket.
My heart thumped with excitement as she arrived for the Seniors’ Wimbledon tournament. “I go through a door that says PLAYER’S ENTRANCE and feel impossibly excited. I’m a player! At Wimbledon!” She continued, “I feel like I am not just being allowed to go backstage, but actually to be part of the production.”
The sports memoir turned into a dark one about mental health challenges as readers witness in real-time as Thomas loses in the semifinal and then suffers a nervous breakdown when she returns home. Her obsession came with a cost, which led to her disastrous fall.
Soon after Wimbledon, she wrote:
I am rubbish. I will soon officially enter the national top ten in my age group, but I feel as if I can barely play the game. I’m stupid, pathetic, a loser. I must now give up tennis, this ridiculous passion. I’m too old, too inexperienced, too prone to psychological collapse.
In the postscript, Thomas writes, “I have now pretty much made peace with the fact that I was a bit of an idiot in 2014, but I still don’t know what actually ‘happened’ to me.”
Her tennis adventure ended when she quit the sport. I highly recommend 41-Love to fellow tennis fans, sports fans, or anyone dealing with the challenges of the middle-aged body or mental health issues.
Kelsey Cleveland is a writer, who after studying Japanese at Smith College and Nanzan University, spent eight years living in Kobe, Japan. Her personal essay “Listen to the Waves” received honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 86th Annual Writing Competition. Several of her tiny truths have won Creative Nonfiction’s micro-essay contests and been published in In Case You Missed It Monthly. Cleveland’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Press Pause, Monologging, Hippocampus Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, and the Sankei Shimbun (in Japanese). She is currently working on Waving Hello, Bowing Goodbye: A Dual Love Story with Japan and a Man, a travel memoir about navigating conflicting desires to pursue a childhood dream to live in Japan. She lives with her husband and teenage son outside of Portland, Oregon, where she works as Cultural Programs Manager at Portland Japanese Garden. Find her at kelseycleveland.com or connect with her on Twitter @kerushi_san.