Tennis and Eternity

We sit under the glorious elms in Yarrawonga. The heat can’t quite pierce the heavy shade, though it finds its way in on the back of the gentle northerly breeze. We wander in and out of our little bungalows. The tennis is always on even if no one is in the room. If we go in for lunch, or a drink of water, or just to have one of those delightfully heavy holiday naps, we might glance up at the TV to see who is playing. We might do nothing more than glance. Or we might become sucked into the contest and sit for an hour or two. This happened to me a few years back. Nadal and Fernando Verdasco were in the midst of one of the most brutal tennis contests I’ve ever seen. I strolled into the room to have a two-minute drink of water and stayed for three hours.


We sit under the glorious elms in Yarrawonga and we discuss the tennis. We write players off with a flurry of our hands, like we’re dismissing an annoying fly.


“No good,” we say, ignoring the countless hours of training and torment that every player on the tennis circuit must endure. We are cruel.


“No back hand,” we say, ignoring the fact that the player in question has probably been hitting back hands since they were five years old.


We debate the game’s greats like we’re flicking through old footy cards. Laver v Federer, Court V Williams, McEnroe V Rosewall, Newk V Connors. Who is better? Better at what? Who are we to judge as we sip on a most agreeable cold beverage?


We sit under the glorious elms and we discuss music. Who is on “the list” we ask? ( The list” is our catalogue of the all-time worst rock and pop stars).


Cat Stevens? Yep

Billy Idol? Wayyyy yep.

Neil Diamond? Yep

Neil Young? Yep. No!! No way!

Bay City Rollers. YES!


This conversation might go on for an hour. Then someone will go into their bungalow and disappear. Must be a big game on. We go and look. Two players are putting it all on the line. They sweat, they struggle. They leave themselves open to us; the critics. We lounge on a couch or slouch in a doorway. The still evening envelopes us. The mozzies bite. I look out across the water and see the white moon’s reflection on its glassy top. A fish leaps out and disturbs the perfect stillness. There is stillness above but under the surface there are countless battles for survival. Hunter and prey spend the night hours trying to outsmart each other. Murray Cod V freshwater yabbie.


“No good,” we say as a player hits one into the net. “Should never have played that shot.”


But we are not in the heat of the moment. We are not suffering from a lactic acid build up or a mental fatigue that goes along with striving. We are selective in our outrage just as the players are selective in their shots. The difference is that we are sitting under the glorious elms in Yarrawonga and the players are being streamed across the globe. My language has been loose and frivolous and flighty. But I’m on holiday. My mood is light. The beer is cold. I’m almost untouchable.


Then I got a text message informing me that one of my uncles had died. Just like that. “Ting!”. The message lit up my phone in the darkness of a summer’s sweet evening and stabbed me in the guts.


It’s hard to have favourites, but he was right up there. Loved Collingwood. Loved his golf. Loved his tennis. When I was a kid I used to marvel at his ability to roll a cigarette with one hand whilst engaged in a deep conversation; paper on his knee, tobacco out of the Drum pack placed carefully on the paper, rolled and rolled, up to the lips, a quick lick to seal it, flick of a match, puff. And he always had time to “sit and have a beer with the young blokes”. The things we remember.


So, I sat under the glorious elms in Yarrawonga one morning a week ago. I thought about the scents and sounds and conversations that make up a holiday. I prefer to recall those things rather than the monuments and sights. And I thought about my uncle’s passing. It didn’t fit into the holiday vibe at all. The gloss went off my tennis viewing. It sneaks up on you, this dying thing. Shakespeare wrote that life is but a walking shadow. True. Perhaps it’s also like a backhand winner down the line; exquisite, risky and brief.


I think I am now starting to understand what being over middle aged means. I think it represents that point in your life when there are fewer people in your broader family who are older than you, than younger than you. It’s not mathematical. One generation is passing. My generation is next!


The finals of the Australian Open were both poetic. Grand masters in both, playing for greatness; a greatness that is immediately immense, but will have the lifespan of a moth.


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About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Neil Anderson says

    The first play I ever wrote was about the brief life-span of moths. It was called ‘Grumpy Old Moths’. Two old moths ( 10 weeks ) reflecting on their short miserable lives on the night they were due to cark it,, based on their average life-span.
    I was just over the hump of middle-age ready to hurtle towards old- age when I wrote it so you don’t have to be Freud or a psychologist to see where my thoughts were coming from.
    I heard someone aged 65 referred to as elderly recently so I’ve gone beyond that title now and not surprisingly, I am really coming to grips even more so with the brevity of life. Probably like you I think about my immediate family, especially my son and hope to God I’ve done enough to ensure he will be OK.
    In the meantime, all we can do is try and keep as healthy as possible to be around as long as possible for our loved ones. I’m also a strong believer in keeping mentally fit by reading and writing and to continue the learning process.

  2. Very true Neil.

    What a great idea for a play – the life of a moth!! Was it a success for you?

  3. Poignant,perfect and so true,Dips all sport in particular ( I admit you can put my knowledge of music on the back of a postage stamp) we are quick to decide who can and can’t play ignoring re who is giving there best although thank goodness we see thru frauds like Krygios and Tomic.i totally get you re the aging process and where we fit in thanks Dips

  4. Neil Anderson says

    Thanks Dips
    ‘Grumpy Old Moths’ received third place in the National Playwright Competition in 2005. The best part was seeing the play performed by the community-theatre group in Melbourne. It was also picked up by a theatre-company in Warrnambool with performances there and Port Fairy.
    The idea for the play came to me when I reached that stage where my life-expectancy was being discussed by others. Men with charts in superannuation offices and insurance offices were deciding how long I was going to live and how much money would be allocated to me accordingly.
    It was a short leap to wonder what a moth with a life-span of ten weeks would be thinking, knowing his time was up the following day. My aim now is to prove the actuaries wrong by lasting several more years.
    To have success with my first play gave me the impetus to keep writing which I did over the next ten years with a further six awards.

  5. Peter Warrington says

    just had a birthday so feeling it. and the knee locked up. skin cancer check up (all clear). think my mane might be thinning – boo!

    I started a mental thing on the recent hot nights trying to remember what i could remember about each specific year of my life. obviously it’s hazy early on, but if you try you can remember lots. i think i will sketch it out for distribution at my funeral (in 50 years time). made me feel sad in a great half-full way.

    (with you on the Neil Young btw. Never got it.)

    Neil, can you send us a link to the play/post it here? sounds superb, and definitely better than that git who played Keats I think waffling on about the life of a butterfly in that awful trailer for that awful period romance a few years back that i didn’t see.

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