Text and Polaroids by Andrea Petkovic
Racquet and Longreads | July 2018 | 16 minutes (4,000 words)
This story is produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When I exit the plane in Albuquerque, the first thing I see is space. So much space and so few people. I’ve come from New York, and the minute I step onto New Mexican soil everything feels like it’s in slow motion. I speak slower, my steps are grander, my breath deeper. The desert landscape is a stark contrast to the crowds that I have become accustomed to in the city, and the landscape resembles nothing we have at home in Germany.
I’m on my way to Sister Bar, where Tennis will be playing. Tennis, in this instance, is a band, and I will be touring New Mexico, Arizona, and California with them. In a bus. I am wearing a wide-brimmed black hat and a faux leopard fur coat, despite the 90-degree heat. Perhaps I’ve overthought my Rock Tour Ensemble because I’m feeling uncharacteristically self-aware about being thrown into this alternate reality. In my real life, I am a tennis player. Full-time. How should I know what’s cool these days?
We will be traveling in a bus, from venue to venue, waking up early, seeking out breakfast burritos, eating too many, sitting on the bus, driving through the desert, six hours, seven hours, arriving at the theater. Cities and states and landscapes become one, unloading the gear, sound-checking, eating dinner, waiting for the show, the show, THE SHOW, the adrenaline-fueled banter after the concert, one beer, two beers, whiskey then vocal rest for Alaina, the lead singer, too little sleep, too little time for basic hygiene but it’s okay because the others have forsaken theirs too, then waking up early and doing it all again.
I’ve decided to do this because I have a hunger for throwing myself into the art world, the music world, the TV and movie world. I’m obsessed with contemporary culture in the widest sense. Are we tennis players part of it? Does experiencing an extraordinary intensity of emotion in your day-to-day job place you outside of conventional reality? And if it does, why do I try to understand it, why can’t I just accept it as it is? That’s why I’m here.
SOUND CHECK, ALBUQUERQUE, NOVEMBER 13
For me, the tour starts with a closed door. I’m standing in front of a dirty, white garage door guarded by two homeless-looking people who are offering me drugs. I can see shadows moving behind the little horizontal window and I knock and knock but nothing happens. I feel stupid and out of place standing in front of a bar in a city I don’t know. The two homeless guys are even ignoring me, which somehow makes it all worse.
It takes a solid half hour before somebody notices me and lets me in. I mumble, “I’m with the band,” for the first but definitely not last time on this trip, and a sentiment close to exhilaration hits my nerves for a fraction of a second and makes up for the half hour of looking down, heartsick, at the concrete. The venue manager just stares at me from the top of his mustache, and I can see myself standing there, painfully aware of how I must look to him. Every piece of clothing I wear is wrong. I feel exposed, naked, as if this random guy can see through me and the facade I’m trying to project.
I find myself wondering why I’m here, why I’ve decided to do this, and if there are any lessons—or at least a perspective—I can take back to my life as an athlete. I’ve always been a bit conflicted about my role as a professional tennis player. It’s a strange feeling for me to be part of a community, standing in the middle of it with both feet firmly on the ground, but always feeling like a bit of an outsider because of the experiences specific to my life, a life that, unlike those of so many other tennis players, was on the verge of going in a direction away from professional sports so many times. I can never quite relate to what my civilian friends tell me about their lives, and my friends can never quite relate to my life, either. Perhaps that is why I search for people who can understand this life I’m leading, or at least give me some perspective. Do I do things like go on a rock tour to feel less alone? Maybe so. In the end it is all about finding community, finding solace in knowing there are other people out there who surrender their overall well-being to the ultimate experience of extremes, just in different ways than I have.
I can never quite relate to what my civilian friends tell me about their lives, and my friends can never quite relate to my life, either. Perhaps that is why I search for people who can understand this life I’m leading, or at least give me some perspective.
The band is already sound-checking when I arrive. I see Patrick, the guitarist, a young Boris Becker look-alike with a Beatle bowl haircut and tennis shoes. The similarity to Boris is so striking that for a moment I question the realness of all of this. Alaina, his wife, who is the singer and lyricist of the band, greets me with a warm hug. She is tiny but immediately appears bigger, not just because of her enviable Afro, but because of the aura she gives off. She demands space. The moment she walks on stage to join the sound check she takes control, articulating in succinct and clear ways what she wants. I’m impressed.
As tennis players, we are always caught up in the conflict of interest of having to pay our coaches, basically to be in charge of us, while expecting them to perform some kind of authoritarian take on our careers and practice schedules. Watching Alaina take charge so effortlessly makes me want to articulate my needs toward my coaches in more decisive ways. I can’t help but admire Patrick’s calm presence beside her, his seemingly endless patience with everybody, a steady rock in any kind of weather. Not even five minutes into this and I’ve already lost the reporter’s objectivity I had planned to maintain. Great.
I observe the sound check closely, in all its detail. Everything is more technologically complex than I thought it would be. There is a lot of cable to be arranged, cut, and connected, and an abundant usage of duct tape. Josh the sound tech is running back and forth between the stage and the mixing console. Everybody is focused only on themselves, playing random music on their instruments. Alaina is warming up her voice amid a cacophony of noises that would render me crazy on a tennis court; none of the musicians seem to mind. And then out of nothing they string it together, singular melodies finding their cousins, grasping hands, collaborating, and out comes beautiful pop music that’s melodic, harmonic, and heartwarming. I think of the countless warm-ups I’ve had before my matches where I slowly wake up every part of my body, initially feeling stiff and not ready for any sort of exercise but gradually getting into the groove and then, all of a sudden, never knowing when it will happen, stringing it all together and seeing the ball, guiding it to where it needs to go, the plop in my ear, the feel in my hand, which is also harmonic, and sometimes even heartwarming, too.
After the sound check I meet the rest of the band and the crew. There’s bass player Ryan Tullock, who lives in Nashville and is one half of a comedic duo with drummer Steve Voss, who has also directed Tennis’ music videos. Both are constantly bouncing jokes off each other and bantering away the long hours. I heard that Josh, the diligent but fidgety sound guy, once got his hand bitten by a venue employee because they disagreed over the sound quality, so he’s clearly ready to shed blood for this. Taciturn Randy’s responsible for lighting and onstage visuals, and young Josiah, Alaina’s brother, sells merch night after night.
CONCERT, SISTER BAR, NOVEMBER 13
Just before the show starts, the greenroom turns into a boiling cauldron, the tension rising as if somebody cranked up the heat backstage. Ryan and Steve are cracking more jokes than ever, nervously, their speaking patterns accelerating while Steve hits his thighs in imaginary and real rhythms, as quirky as literally every drummer I’ve ever known has been. Patrick is the only one seemingly unconcerned, whereas Alaina’s anxiety is the most palpable. She is the frontwoman, she is the singer, she is balancing over the abyss in a way the others aren’t, her stakes the highest. I had felt a strong kinship toward her from the first moment we met, and at this particular moment it becomes a weird symbiosis of souls. I’ve lived through her feelings so many times in my own career that they twist and turn into something highly contagious. The boys group-hug and take the stage; Alaina waits a few more minutes and then does the same.
The first show runs smoothly, from what I can gather as a nonmusician. Tennis’ songs are cleverly crafted pop tunes with a twist. They would jump out at you on a commercial radio station for their subtle quirkiness, which you can’t really put a finger on. Alaina uses a strong female voice in her lyrics, talking about her role as a woman in the music industry, writing love songs for Patrick, but she’s not afraid of tackling more personal issues, either, like with “I Miss That Feeling”—my favorite Tennis song—in which she talks about her anxiety and the panic attacks she used to experience before going on stage.
Yours Conditionally—the album they are touring—is their fourth record, and their first self-produced one. Patrick and Alaina met in a philosophy class at the University of Colorado, and Patrick, who was a good tennis player, took Alaina to play his favorite sport on one of their first dates. Soon after, they went alone on a sailing trip that lasted eight months in the smallest sailing boat I’ve ever seen (they showed me pictures), and instead of killing and eating each other, they decided to form a band. They wrote their first album about their shared experience on the boat. I love the diversity of their fans. There are two teenage girls next to me gossiping and giggling throughout the whole set, and I can see an elderly couple singing along to all the lyrics, while on my right-hand side two jocks dance the night away.
Everything seems to be running smoothly from where I stand, right next to Josh and Randy, who are behind the mixing desk. It’s the best place to experience the sound system, I’ve been told, and I have a great view of the stage, too. You can’t tell that Alaina’s nervous—her voice sounds great. The stage is perfectly lit, and Patrick moves around it like the tides. I make a few friends in the audience. I am wearing a backstage pass, after all, which makes me way more interesting than any book I’ve ever forced myself to read (I’m looking at you, Infinite Jest).
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The conversations in the greenroom after the show are more relieved than euphoric. It was the band’s first show in two months and everybody was jittery about being on stage again. The absence of sex AND drugs does not bother me at this point—rock & roll is plenty. I’m exhausted, and I can only imagine how the band must feel. Also, the idea of any sex falls flat because everybody is married and, more important, the hygiene thing. The rock & roll part we carry in our hearts, but Tennis are more of an indie-pop band, actually. And drugs—well, I really can’t take drugs because, remember, I’m still a tennis player and under the regulations of an international anti-doping program. I begin to realize that apart from all this, an irresponsible lifestyle at this point simply is not sustainable considering the strict schedule the band, like professional athletes, has to keep up with.
My first night on tour goes by dreamless, in a chain hotel near the airport in Albuquerque.
THE ROAD, NOVEMBER 14
For a second, when my alarm rings at 6 a.m. the next morning, I don’t know where I am—nor who I am. Just a few days ago I was a tennis player on vacation in Mexico, and now I’m a writer on tour with a band, carrying a Polaroid camera with me wherever we go, holding it up and in their faces in their most vulnerable moments, hoping to get something, hoping to see something real, something graspable, something explainable, something worth writing down.
I’m sitting on the tour bus now, which is cramped with stuff: The band members’ suitcases, my bag, Patrick and Alaina’s stage outfits (Alaina’s stage shoes, including her David Bowie-esque glitter platform boots, deserve a bus of their own), all their instruments, and the rest of the gear are stowed away in meticulous order to save any space we can gather. We are listening to Patti Smith’s Just Kids read by Patti herself. Patrick is driving, Alaina seated next to him. I love to just watch them and their dynamic, the balancing act of having to work together—countless talks about the venues, the number of tickets already sold, scheduling conflicts, logistics with hotel and traveling—interrupted by conversations a normal married couple would have, discussing books and films and music and society and politics.
We’re traveling in an RV with exactly as many seats as there are members of the band (plus one for me). There is always one guy sleeping in the back while we others sit in a four-person booth, facing one another, the guys hiding behind their laptops, me hiding behind my copy of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Ryan and Steve are driving in another smaller van with the gear that didn’t fit in the RV.
Sitting on the bus is like being cut off from reality, pushed out into an unknown layer of experience. The landscape just multiplies the feeling of detachment. When we’re driving through the desert in its vastness, no end in sight, for hours at a time, something shifts and it’s never quite clear if it’s in your own head or if it’s time itself stopping for you. And time—time is a funny thing on tour. You seem to have so much of it, and yet it’s constantly slipping through your fingers. It seems different from the usual time experience I have on the tennis tour, which feels more linear, methodical, and only remarkable during the actual matches. Each and every one of us is experiencing the same thing at the same time, making it universal. Getting off the bus, though, is not getting back to reality; it’s as though we’re headed to another exceptional state of mind, a moment of hyperreality, because being on stage, experiencing the highest possible intensity of emotion while hundreds of people watch you, is not reality either. We’re moving back and forth between feelings of not belonging, trancelike feelings, surreal feelings—from being strangers to the world to being the only people who matter, literally elevated on stage (or, in my case, in a tennis stadium), an intensity of living unlike any other.
CONCERT, 191 TOOLE, NOVEMBER 14
We’ve arrived in Tucson, Arizona. The placement of the stage in this venue is very similar to the one in Albuquerque, and in my mind they blur into one. I can suddenly understand artists failing to remember the city’s name they are playing that night. The essential purpose of a concert venue is to be filled with people, but right now all I can see are blue walls, bleak and sad, an empty room, the stage capturing solitude more than any kind of glory.
I help unload the gear this time, feeling more comfortable in this new world, more part of it than the day before, and it looks like I’ve been promoted from resident journalist to roadie in the blink of an eye. It’s good to feel useful.
The second show comes and goes, a short trip of an hour and change if you count the encore, the highlight passing by so quickly it seems as if somebody slowed down the clocks during the day just to speed them up and make up for all the lost time during the concert. Seeing the same show a few days in a row is a strange experience for me as a music fan. All of a sudden I start to notice subtle differences; I can see on their faces and in their behavior when they mess up or when something goes wrong. This is something I never noticed in shows before, apart from the occasional “Oh, I think the lead singer had a couple beers too many.” The routine is a warmly welcomed friend in an already stressful setting, just like in tennis when you string together a couple of wins and the stress starts to fade or you get used to it and can’t tell the difference anymore.
The routine is a warmly welcomed friend in an already stressful setting, just like in tennis when you string together a couple of wins and the stress starts to fade or you get used to it and can’t tell the difference anymore.
Tennis are a solid band; they never really mess up, and if they do, nobody notices. They are perfectionists. Alaina especially tries to push her boundaries whenever she can, a cough drop in her mouth throughout the whole show every night—a superstition, something she holds on to—rarely letting any visible enjoyment take over the show, sacrificing pleasure in favor of some form of control.
Another night in another hotel. This time I force myself to shower, keeping a last sense of human decency alive.
THE ROAD, NOVEMBER 15
The next day Patrick and I manage to squeeze in some quality time. After another grueling six-hour drive through the desert, the landscape slowly changes to more greenish colors as we approach San Diego, Patrick’s parents’ hometown. Patrick and I grab some tennis racquets and balls and head to the public courts to get in a little workout. It’s our day off and Patrick is a good player, I can hit with him easily through the middle without holding back. I didn’t really bring tennis stuff with me on tour so I’m playing in jean shorts, like a young Andre Agassi. I’m wearing Patrick’s mom’s tennis shoes and using her racquet, too, looking like an amateur, playing like a pro. Isn’t it usually the other way around? At least that’s how I felt when I showed up for this tour. We’re kind of a hit at the public courts, a reincarnation of Boris Becker and a real pro battling it out on Wimbledon Centre Court circa 1985.
On the way back to the hotel, Patrick asks a few questions about the tennis world and the psychology of tennis players in general. Both he and Alaina were philosophy majors and take every conversation deeper than the topic would initially suggest, so we quickly end up talking about the selfishness this sport requires, the egocentricity each player, including myself, is cursed or blessed with in equal measures. Then Patrick says a very interesting thing: He mentions how musicians, too, have big egos, which I find hard to believe after my observations these past few days, and I tell him, “But Patrick, you guys work together as a team much more, you actually talk to each other. We tennis players just command.” And he says, “Yes, Andrea, yes, but playing tennis or being a musician—to do something so outrageous—you have to believe that you deserve to be there, on Centre Court, or up on stage. You really have to believe you belong.”
CONCERT, THE FONDA THEATRE, NOVEMBER 16
The last show for me on this trip will be in Los Angeles, the city of broken dreams. The Fonda Theatre is a beautiful concert venue located right on Hollywood Boulevard, and though slightly dilapidated, it still oozes sublime charm with its red curtain covering the stage and the gallery seating. A fitting space for the most prestigious show the band will play so far. The guest list is full of fellow musicians and showbiz people. It’s rumored that James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, will make an appearance, and the band is rightfully nervous. After just these few days in such a compressed space—in containment, basically—I’ve developed a sense of their nerves, like a measuring instrument for their state of mind. The sound check takes longer than ever today, and Josh especially has his hands full, this venue being way more challenging in terms of sound than the other two smaller venues were.
Behind the stage the atmosphere is frisky. There are so many more people in the greenroom than at the previous shows—media people, friends. The opening band is there too, and they brought their friends. Everybody wants to be part of something in L.A. All this talking and chattering, drummers drumming their thighs, singers warming up their voices, bottles clinking, laughing. Bands just seem so much more relaxed with background noise than us tennis players. I can’t imagine even one of us getting ready in these surroundings without completely losing our mind and sending everybody out and away forever, or at least passive-aggressively staring at people.
This is the first time I get to watch the show from the sidelines, not mingling with the audience, because it is too packed. While the sound is not great from where I stand, it does increase the feeling of being part of the band as opposed to being part of the audience. It happened naturally, organically, without me really noticing, but when I look back at the first show and how being stared at because of my backstage pass made me feel uncomfortable and just plain wrong, standing on the side now feels okay, like I belong there. I can see myself assuming a facial expression that has the exact right amount of being partly bored because I’ve seen the show so many times already and partly cocky because I’m part of the band. But if you looked very closely and took the time you would also find a trace of pride, that strange kind of pride you get from working yourself into a previously closed circle.
I searched for kinship and I found it in this band. I hoped to find a clue to understanding my motives a little better, and that I did not find.
Did I find what I was hoping to find on tour? In some ways I think I did. I searched for kinship and I found it in this band. I hoped to find a clue to understanding my motives a little better, and that I did not find. The temporary union of spirits will have to do for now, and that’s not nothing.
When I think back now, from within the grind of the (sporting) tennis season, the images that stay with me are sometimes random, sometimes touching, sometimes bizarre. I see the Mexican bakery we visited in Albuquerque my first morning with the band, where we waited an hour for breakfast burritos while children played behind the counter and Mexican construction workers heaped masses of colorful pan dulces on their trays. I see the sun rise in Tucson at 6 a.m., flooding the landscape with the most tender kind of light. I can see myself sitting on the bus watching the desert fly by for hours at a time in all its grandeur and solitude. I can see Patrick in his improvised tennis outfit, an expression of earnest concentration on his face, trying to hit his backhand crosscourt. I can see Alaina, atop the stage, a rose in her left hand, the mic in her right, singing, a halo of pinkish light covering her from head to toe. But most of all I see them hugging, Patrick and Alaina, Tennis, the band, hugging during sound check, a spontaneous gesture, presumably unwatched, but that’s what I was there for.
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Andrea Petkovic is a professional tennis player.