The Tennis Curmudgeon


The Week – Part Two

“What do you have in mind?” I ask the still sweating resort monkey.

“Well, it just occurred to me, and I don’t even know if it’s something you’d be interested in, but. . .” They all think they’re pretty slick putting in that little ‘get out of being a dirt bag free’ codicil. As if I’d have some moral dilemma or there’s an ethos among tennis professionals not to gouge people.

Dude, I just made seventy five dollars for doing little more than making sure you didn’t move more than a step to hit a tennis ball for an hour. If that’s not the definition of a whore I don’t know what is. Actually, I do know what the definition is and resort tennis pro definitely falls within that dominion.

I listen half-heartedly while he unfolds his tale. I’ve heard similar stories three times already this week. It’s funny how it’s always coated with a veneer of pedagogy to it. As if they’re not doing it for spite. They’re out there doing the world good by showing this guy the error of his ways. I actually charge less when they tell me they just want to kick somebody’s ass.

“”I get two grand per day, one match, all expenses paid, first class air fare. . .”

“. . .I’ll send our corporate jet.”

“Even better. Great accommodations.”

“We have a guest house you can use.”

“That’ll work.” I know it seems like a lot but, as a salve for the weakened soul, it’s a bargain. I once had a guy in Akron, Ohio rent a very nice apartment for a year (which I only saw that weekend) so I fulfilled the residential requirements to play in a local tournament.

For these guys it’s not about the money. As odd as it seems, that’s secondary at best. They’ll spend ten thousand to make one as long as everyone knows so and so got his ass handed to him. “When and where?”

“We play the third Thursday of every month and it’s in Silver Spring, Maryland. He’s just been such. . .”

“. . .I don’t need the story.” I finish my beer, set it down, pick up my bag and extend my hand. “Nothing personal. I’m just your cousin in for a visit. I shouldn’t know shit about this guy.” The pursy guy waddles himself to an upright position.

“You’re right, you’re right.”  On his way up he grabs his bag and fumbles around for his wallet. “My sisters kid in town to see DC.”

“Then I’d be your nephew.” Seriously, I have no idea how some of these guys got to where they are. Most of them are as dense as a sack of sugar. “Your sisters kid you’re likely to mention. Cousins? Not so much.”

“You’re right, you’re right.” He takes out a wad of bills. I have no idea how much but, if they’re twenties, my experience tells me there’s a few thousand dollars there. He offers it to me and, at first, I reject the offer.

I explain that I’m more than compensated to pass on my vast tennis knowledge by the resort. But he, of course, insists and, once again, just like it was scripted, adds a few more bills to the fold.

“If you insist.” I stick the bills in my bags with the other gratuities gathered over the week. I hand him my card. “Call me with the details and I’ll see if I can squeeze it in.” He’s ever so effusive in this gratitude. “So, two weeks, right?” He nods and his neck fat causes his ears to flap. “I’ll be in Columbus at a tournament that week so I probably won’t know until the last minute if I can make it.”

While he’s busying himself with the fantasy that I may have to beg off at the last minute because I could be in the quarterfinals of a professional tennis tournament I’m trying to assess if he’ll send a plane on Monday night after my inevitable first round loss.

I’m in the middle of my first year on the tour and it’s hellish. I can hit with anyone but it’s like starting all over. Each time you move up a level there’s a learning curve. It’s like all the big fish in all the big ponds all over the world combined. Then some evil bastard threw in a few dozen barracudas. You have to first endure the humiliations of spirit tearing defeats over and over. Then you have to adapt to the constant travel living in a bubble of strangers you need to survive and familiar faces who, not so deep down, hate you. Then you have to figure out a way to scrape by. Just like in the real world there’s a huge disparity in money between the top twenty and everyone else.

But being out there, just standing on a professional tennis court hearing your name over a PA with the soft murmur of the crowd surrounding you, knowing it’s possible at that moment that you are the best tennis player on any court in the entire world is inspiring. So each day you fight to get better, battle to win one more point, one more game, one more set so that, eventually, there’s a slight chance you won’t hear, “Well, I’ve never heard of you.”

We’re the agate line players. If you look at a web site or, much less frequently now, newspapers we’re the people whose name frequently begins with def. As in Vlademir Zevonovitch def. Todd Shydner. We’re cannon fodder.

It’s a cruel fact at every tournament half the work force is gone by Tuesday. It’s weird, especially for someone not used to it, to walk around a location on Wednesday. It like a ghost town. Just yesterday you had to search for a locker room attendant to find sunscreen. The next day you have your own personal guy.

It’s weird for a low-level player to have five drinking buddies on Monday then end up at the same table alone Wednesday. Think about it. Imagine if you started your workweek normally. Monday you pass the same herd then by Friday it’s you and seven others scattered throughout the building. It’s not the game that gets to you. It’s not having it.

The only time everything feels right is when you’re out on the court. And it’s for such a small segment of your day. The rest of your time you see people you may even be friendly with but there’s always that air of discontent. A petulant undercurrent like the kid who counts his siblings presents at Christmas only to find he’s one short. You may start out as friends but it changes. One of you will inevitably rise in the rankings. One of you will get a tournament the other couldn’t. One of you will dismantle their now ex-friend in a match. It’s not personal though many can’t see that.

I played a friend in the quarters of a small satellite tournament when I was testing the waters of professional tennis. We’d known each other since we were twelve. In the second set he started to cramp. Not jiggly cramps. I’m talking granite calf. He spent more time falling on the court than running on it. I was concerned, I’ve been there. Standing at the net I asked if he wanted to pack it in. He looked up at me, I can still see the anguish on his face, and said,

“Fuck you.”

I spent the next two games making him run, or should I say scuffle, across the court retrieving high arching balls corner to corner until he’d fall. I would have kept him out there all night if I could have. And that’s how quickly you lose friendships in tennis. I, genuinely, offered him a way out to avoid further injury. But he took at as my trying to take advantage. The worst part is we were sharing a hotel room.

Good thing one of us had to leave that night.

That makes everything in tennis fluid. Friendships, success, jealousy. Sure, you try to be happy when someone you know, someone you’ve beaten more often than not, breaks through in prime time at the US Open and pulls off a stunning upset. But it’s hard. You know it was the luck of the draw. You know if you had his path that could be you. But no. You got the second seed in the first round so was out of Flushing before Bud Collins woke up.

I don’t know if it’s human nature but I know it’s tennis nature.

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