So in spite of a sore arm and wrist, my frequent tennis playing has improved my performance. I am still frustrated with poor shots, but there are now many more better ones. And by watching the lessons on the Tennis Channel—which finally arrived in my little rural town that was the very last one in the state to have cable offered at all—my serve has become more powerful and directed as well.

This is not just my opinion. In the last 10 days, four different people from much better doubles games have asked me to sub for them or someone in their group. This is a big deal. Only a month ago, when I heard that a member of one strong game was going to Florida for the winter, and I offered to fill in, I was told that “We’re not sure.” “I’m not in charge.” Etc, etc. It was polite evasion that really meant: “You’re not good enough for us. We want to find a better substitute.”

Now that same diplomat is asking me to play for him. And I feel honored. This is a breakthrough. Other people at the courts are getting the same impression, and suddenly a number of more advanced players are approaching me. I have made a certain cut. I am now “good enough” to try out with these guys. And some are already inviting me back for additional substitutions.

I told a friend how pleased I was that I was improving. He said that he was in the decline phase of his performance. He has been playing sports so vigorously for so many decades that although under 60, his body is wearing out, he hurts when he plays, and his tennis game is now getting worse. And knowing that he can’t improve, he feels his cavorting on the court is over. He’s turned to golf, where he can learn a new sport and enjoy progress and satisfaction. At tennis, he experiences decline, frustration and disappointment. It’s too upsetting to not be able to hit like he used to, place a shot where he wants it to go, make serves that are whammers instead of wussers.

I understand where my friend is at. Life is fragile. So are our bodies. This can be the exceptional case in which “if you use ’em, you may lose ’em.” A 74-year-old was walking around the court yesterday to warm up before our doubles game started. (I jog around the court twice to loosen my joints.) He said after the match that his aching Achilles heel prevented him from chasing after some balls. Later I received a phone call informing me that the pain intensified, and he will be out of action for months.

It’s obvious that if you leave the couch potato sofa and shake your booty a bit, you have a bigger chance of injury…though a lesser chance of heart attack from poor circulation. And the older you are, the longer it takes for any hurt parts to heal. A teenager with a bone break is back on the athletic field in weeks. I sprained my ankle, and it took me months to play without pain.

It’s the usual tradeoff. Life is a risk and also a compromise. For years past, I was so busy making a living that I had no time to play sports like most other guys in my culture. Unable to play sports, I missed out on lots of good times. That was my loss. But my body parts did not wear away, down and out. That was an offsetting benefit. The guys who played sports those years had a lot more fun. Some of them are now too achy or infirm to keep up with my new activities. That’s bad luck. Others are on the courts weekly, avoided—or recovered from—any injuries, and are much much better than I am and perhaps will ever be.

The really blessed folk are those in their 70’s thru 90’s who are still playing sports after decades of activity. All that fun, camaraderie, and so few injuries that they can still keep enjoying and challenging themselves.

Years ago I scorned people who “wasted” so much time playing tennis. Now I admire their skill, frequent cardio, and ability to just hit the ball over the net. How our perspectives change as we age. But that is another conversation…

LATE NIGHT UPDATE: After writing the words above, I played more singles yesterday afternoon with a man I’ve never beaten. Although he called after I had already played three hours of doubles and singles in the morning, his challenge was too tempting. I lost 1-6, then 3-6, just like months before. But then I relaxed, thought positively, and miracle of miracles, WON FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, 6-0. UNBELIEVABLE! The fourth set I lost 1-6. But I may have been a little tired. Don’t you think? After five hours of play, of which 3 1/2 was singles? All this on six hours sleep.

Now I am going to crash…and dream of hitting better ground strokes.