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Hitting with Friends: Nathan Taylor Pemberton and Sam Stewart

Tennis as a sport and pastime has always been defined by a certain sense of solitude — we are forever alone, entirely on our own, out there on court. There’s no one to save us from the potential abyss of our own thoughts or an off-day backhand, except for ourselves.

But at the same time, we're never truly alone; there’s always someone out there with us, moving about right across the net, going through similar thoughts and emotions of joy, distress, relief, excitement and wonder. And more often than not, that person is someone that we’ve played against many times before, be they friends, family or hitting partner.

As part of our desire to explore this dynamic, we’re excited to introduce the third edition of Hitting With Friends, starring friends writer and editor Nathan Pemberton and artist Sam Stewart. Follow Nathan here and Sam here.

Photography by Matt Genovese.

What initially got you into tennis?

Sam: My 80-year old grandmother. She had already outlived her friends/doubles partners but still wanted to play — so she handed a racquet to 12-year old me and I was hooked.

Nathan: Competitive curiosity became a seasonal habit and ultimately a compulsion. While this all happened well past my physical and mental peak, I’m still anticipating my professional debut sometime in the coming months. 

How did you end up playing tennis with one another?

Sam: Through mutual friends. I had already hung out with Nathan a few times prior to hitting the courts with him.

Nathan: Rumor had it that Sam was a southern gent with an elegant two-hander that would leave a man twisted. As a Floridian with no manners and a crumpled one-hander, I instinctively knew we’d make for a good pairing on the court. 

How often do you play tennis?

Sam: Trying to do 2 times a week for an hour , but sadly I’m often only hitting once a week.

Nathan: Whenever I can coerce Sam to abandon his professional responsibilities, which is less frequent in this red-hot economic moment, we meet at a neutral site outside of Manhattan (RIP Brian Watkins Tennis Center).

What do you feel that playing tennis with one another adds to your friendship?

Sam: I think there is a kind of nonverbal communication when you’re playing tennis or a sport with a friend that adds depth to your understanding of who the person is across the net. Kind of knowing what someone is going to do without knowing. I work with my hands for a living and I have noticed a similar intuitive connection when working alongside someone, but not necessarily verbally communicating.

Nathan: Vulnerability, frustration, angst, pleasure, responsibility, radical honesty, a sense of possibility, and a perma-dialogue that always shields us from the daily cultural discourse (a claustrophobic mist set loose by infirm dilettantes).

What's the best and worst thing about the other's playing style on court?

Sam: Best is their creativity and improvisational skills, worst is the consistency or focus at times.

Nathan: The knowledge that real friendship, and respect, means a total commitment to obliterating your brother across the aisle. 

Why do you like playing tennis together? 

Sam: Because it’s someone I like to grab a beer with after hitting and discuss things besides tennis.

Nathan: Sam hits the ball back with pace, accuracy, a little wit, a lot of grace, and, above all, he always shows up on time. 

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