I was learning how to play tennis for about the 15th time in my life. After several sweaty minutes of chasing down elusive tennis balls, of trying to keep my racket back, of trying to keep my wrist loose and my eyes on the ball, I took a break. It was hot. It was humid. The air was so heavy it actually hurt to breathe deeply. It was summer in Maryland.
Everybody else in my tennis class had brought along plastic bottles, the kind that professional athletes sip from to restore their precious bodily fluids and to renew their inner strength.
As I stood on the edge of the court, my lungs aching and sweat dripping from my forehead, I knew what I needed. I needed one of those bottles. And I needed it filled with lime barley water, the stuff they drink at Wimbledon. Once I replaced all the bodily fluids that I had lost chasing balls around the court, my game would elevate. Or so the theory goes. If lime barley water rehydrates Wimbledon players, I was willing to give it a try.
A fellow named Kevin Graham had told me that the whole-grain water is what the smart set quaffs at Wimbledon. The players drink it during breaks between games when they sit on chairs next to the umpire, he said. The spectators buy bottles of it from vendors and drink it in the stands.
Wimbledon is, of course, the center of the tennis world. A place where a few players may perspire but nobody sweats. A place where every player strokes the ball with grace and confidence. The secret to such play, I figured, has to be in the water.
Graham is a native of England, so he knows about Wimbledon. He now operates a restaurant, Graham's, in New Orleans, so he knows about heat and humidity.
Graham first told me about the wonders of barley water when he was passing through Maryland on what amounted to a whirlwind tour of the state to promote his book, "Grains, Rice, and Beans" (Artisan, $30). I saw him for five minutes. He was supposed to stay longer, but the person in New York arranging his book tour was confused about the geography of the mid-Atlantic region, and thought Springfield, Va., was a 10-minute drive, not a 60-minute trip, from Baltimore. One minute Graham was right in front of me, then in the twinkling of an eye, he was gone. The same kind of thing happens to me on the tennis court. One minute the ball is in front me, the next minute it is past me.
By the time I located Graham again he was whirlwinding in California. During a telephone interview we talked about ways to improve my tennis game. Graham, who does not play tennis, focused on how to improve the liquids I drink on the sidelines. I was willing to try any liquid to restore my bodily fluids to their proper level, as long as it was more exciting than plain old water.
First, he said, I could try the lime barley water. "It is very English," he said, and told me how to make it. He said I should fill a large pot with 4 1/2 cups of water and 3 tablespoons of pearl barley. Pearl barley, Graham said, is a type of polished barley found in health-food and gourmet stores. Next, he said, I should bring this mixture to boil, then keep it cooking on high until the liquid is reduced by about half of its original volume.
Next I should stir in 4 tablespoons of fresh lime juice. Some people, Graham said, substitute lemon juice. Finally I should stir in 3 tablespoons of sugar or honey. This mixture, he said, makes enough for two servings, and should be served well chilled.
If the barley water doesn't make me a champ, then maybe, Graham said, I should try filling my tennis bottle with beet tea. This is a beverage made from beets, the root vegetables most of us had to eat, as punishment, when we were kids. "Beet tea is a trip," Graham said.
No one has claimed that beet tea was ever drunk at Wimbledon. But so far as I know, no one has checked what Andre Agassi, the punk rocker of professional tennis, puts in his drink bottles.
Graham said that once people get past their initial reluctance to drink beet tea, they are surprised by its natural sweetness. The same, I guess, could be said of Agassi. Once you get beyond his 26 earrings, he is, some say, a surprisingly sweet guy.
To make a quart of beet tea, Graham said, I should add 4 peeled and shredded beets, 1/2 cup of honey and the juice of 2 lemons to a quart of boiling water. After letting this mixture return to a boil, I should remove it from the heat, let it steep for 20 minutes, then strain it. It should be chilled and served with ice.
When beet tea is served in a glass, you can add a sprig of mint. But if I put was planning on putting my beet tea in a plastic bottle and taking swigs of it in the middle of a tennis match, I should, Graham said, lose the mint sprig.
Speaking of mint, another tennis tonic can be created, Graham said, by dropping handfuls of mint, basil and dill into a quart of boiling water, stirring in 1/2 cup of sugar, bringing the mixture to a boil, then removing it from the heat, letting it steep, straining it and serving it well chilled, over ice.
Finally, if Wimbledon's barley waters, beet tea's magenta tones, and the mint potion fail to improve my tennis game, Graham had one more suggestion.
"Take up badminton," he said. "It is quite a good game."