Fall means football for most folks. But for me and many of my friends, autumn also marks the annual kickoff of another one of my favorite pastimes: league tennis.

Here in Newport-Mesa, tennis is serious business.

Blessed as we are with a climate that allows outdoor play year-round, and immersed in a culture that worships fitness and competition, it is almost obligatory to have a passing knowledge of the game. No one bats an eye at fellow shoppers or diners who haven't bothered to change out of their tennis clothes. Parents, dreaming of their kids' success in tournament play, make heavy investments in lessons and gear. Tennis is no doubt a significant contributor to the local economy.

And no one works harder at keeping the tennis economy kicking than the hordes of hopelessly mediocre but unfailingly enthusiastic women of a certain age that take over the courts most weekdays while the kids are still in school and office workers are chained to their desks.

That's the kind of tennis player I am.

I took up tennis several years ago, just after I'd left my full-time reporting job and had begun working through my list of things I'd always wanted to do but previously hadn't found time for. I joined a local club and signed up for lessons.

As I walked on the court that first day, I quickly realized my first mistake. I was wearing a hideous oversized T-shirt and plaid shorts with a tacky high elastic waist. So unfashionably frumpy was I that I hardly remember anything the patient pro tried to teach me.

By my second lesson, I had invested in a stylish skirt-and-top ensemble. Although I'm well aware the reality was far different, my pert outfit made me feel like I could bounce featherlight around the court, zinging backhands down the line and powering overheads beyond opponents' reaches.

I was hooked. How could I not love a sport with such fashion sense?

More lessons and friendly matches followed until one day I was asked to join a team. Several years on, I'm still with the same team; some members have come and gone, but the essential core remains. This month we began yet another season playing in a doubles league with one of the lowest rankings possible for league competition.

I don't give a slice about ratings or rankings, and I couldn't tell you my win-loss ratio. I'll never be particularly good — one friend once told me her husband facetiously accused her of an affair because after spending so much time "working on her game," she never improved — but that's not why I play.

Over the years, my little tennis group has been my ticket to sanity when I'm feeling stressed and, most important, a source of lifelong friendships. Most days when I show up to play, the tennis feels secondary to my anticipation over seeing my pals and chatting about our favorite topics: kids, husbands, crazy relatives, books, movies, travel plans, you name it. My teammates are my therapists, role models and confidants.

We're a pretty easy-going group and we like to keep our priorities straight. We operate on the theory that looking good is half the battle, so when it comes to league play, the most important factor by far is choosing our team uniform. This can be a highly complex, greatly debated matter, taking up scores of conversations, emails, Internet shopping and mall expeditions.

The effort is well worth it because, win or lose, we take great pride in always having the cutest outfits.

In our league we follow our weekly matches with lunches provided by the home team. It's a highly civilized but slightly weird custom, since it forces us to make awkward nice talk with the women we just tried to thrash — or were thrashed by — on the court. It also gets in the way of another time-honored tennis tradition: gossiping about the other players.

Yet we manage to salve our sometimes wounded pride by assuring ourselves that we also serve the best lunches in the league. Indeed, we believe there's no loss that a gourmet sandwich-salad-cookie combo can't absolve.

Like many teams, we have our inside jokes, rituals and quirks. Our captain is a marvel of organization, a quick wit who somehow keeps one eye on her own game while continuously scanning to see what's happening on other courts. Another longtime teammate is so kindhearted that she often checks her line calls with her opponents. We're not exactly a team of killers.

My own longtime partner is one of the most amazing women I know, a first stop for advice and comfort when I need it. There have been times we've become so absorbed in conversation we've gotten lost en route to away matches.

Now a new season has begun and we again drag our aging bodies on the court despite our aching backs, sore knees, screaming elbows and uncooperative shoulders. We stockpile anti-inflammatory drugs, medicated patches, braces and bandages; some of us keep our doctors' numbers on speed dial.

But oh, how it's worth it, happy as we are to be together, running around in our adorable little skirts. I expect most of us will keep it up until we drop.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.