The Tennis Curmudgeon

The Week


I glanced at my watch while pressing the ball hopper onto a few tennis balls. Five more minutes until I was done for the day. Not enough time to hit any more balls to this corpulent bag of moisture I’d been spoon-feeding balls to for the last hour. But by the looks of him you’d think I’d been doing cross-court suicide drills with a bazooka for the last hour.

“Just remember,” I say when we’re standing at the net. Him leaning on it causing it to crescent. “Don’t try to muscle your first serve in. Let your kinetic motion do the work.” I say slowly and gently mimicking a service motion. “That way you’ll put less stress on your elbow and it’ll increase your first serve percentage.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

“What’s your point? Triskaidekaphobia is easy for me to say.” I drop my racket into the ball hopper. “I’m telling you, if you do what I say and concentrate on placement instead of pace you’ll win more points off your serve.” I put my hand on his shoulder immediately regretting it. “Without having to exert yourself.”

“I like that idea.” I smile taking my wet hand off his shoulder.

“I knew that you would.” I pick up the few remaining balls he scooted to the net by kicking them. He stands up seemingly catapulted the way the net sprung back.

“Are you coming back here any time this year?” I’m sitting at the comfy court side chairs, the kind of chair so cushy it makes your back hurt until it fully engulfs you, tossing random things into my racket bag.

“I know I’m here quarterly but I’d have to check my schedule to see exactly when.” He sits in the chair next to me and I don’t know if it was he or the chair that groaned loudest.

“I come here a couple times a year.” He opens the top loading refrigerator sitting between us and pulls out two beers. He doesn’t offer me either. “Just getting away, you understand.” Not really. I guess if I had enough money to pay some second tier tour pro a hundred and fifty dollars an hour, pardon, pay a resort a hundred and fifty dollars an hour (I’m lucky to get half) to hit balls with a tour pro they pretend to have heard of.

Maybe some day. But right now I spend my time ‘getting away from it’ traveling to resorts and hotels to be their ‘resident touring pro’ (of the week. Next week I think my pal Don is here) giving lessons to guests who often think I’ll be able to magically transform their game. I’d need a year and a time machine to accomplish anything.

“Yeah,” I say lifting my bag to zip shut. “I totally understand.” I drop the bag on the ground before opening the refrigerator to get myself my own beer.

“I was wondering if you ever make special trips. You know, for private lessons and such.” This I did know. He was really hoping for the ‘and such.’ And such meant being his ringer (usually. You don’t want to know the other version. Well, maybe you do but that’s for another time). That’s one of the good things about being a second tier pro. Fat old rich guys would pay me to visit as their third cousin from Colorado and just happen to get into a match with a couple of guys who’d been handing him his dick for a decade without the courtesy of wiping it off first.

“What did you have in mind?”

I don’t know why I ask. It’s always the same. They’ll look around conspiratorially, as if anyone gives a shit what we’re talking about, and lay out the plan they’ve just hatched. It’s amusing how gleeful these guys become. It’s as if they think they’re the first person to ever think of hustling a tennis match. Hell, how do you think I made my scratch to get on the tour?

I was kind of a scrawny puke as a kid. Not that I’m Mr. Olympia now. But it sort of helped because I looked like an easy target. There were some courts smack dab in the middle of the downtown business district where tennis playing movers and shakers would congregate and play for money. These guys loved the action as long as they felt it was on the up and up. If someone thought you were hustling them word got around fast and the money train stopped.

My back story was that I worked in the shipping department of a local office products store because my father wanted me to see how the other half lives. Get a little taste of physical labor, a taste of the other side, if you will, before I jumped into the family commercial real estate business. It was actually the story of a twenty three year old I knew who’s father made him stop following jam bands one summer and work for a friend of his before getting his corner office in the family business. The only things I changed was I wasn’t bitter about it and was actually pretty adept at pulling inventory and stocking shelves.

It could also easily explain how I could get away with two-hour lunches as a sixteen-year-old stock boy. Everyone knew it was a lark so what were they going to do? Fire me?

The guys got a big chuckle over that one. I also made sure never to be there more than two hours, never more than two matches. Even as a ‘trust fund baby’ there was only so far I knew to push it. I also wouldn’t show up ever day. As hard as it was to pass up the loot I knew instinctively I shouldn’t press my luck. I’d tell them I’d be back the next day so someone could get their revenge then not show up.

When I came back I’d tell them it was tough being the low man on the totem pole, sometimes the bigger fish had to go all snapper on your ass. They also found that quite amusing.

Some of these guys were actually pretty good. Some were college players, more high school, some still played the occasional weekend tournament. But I had a few advantages over them. For some reason I was a natural. From the first time I picked up a racket I could compete and, soon enough, beat anyone around.

That’s not to say I was a guaranteed top ten player but I’ve made more than one cocky highly seeded player blow snot bubbles. But my biggest advantages were the ability to read someone’s game so thoroughly you’d have thought I built it and the fact that only one of us was in on the con.

They all thought they could size up any opponent but how difficult do you think that is when the guy you’re sizing up is dragging his feet. Literally. That’s the biggest difference between playing levels, foot speed.

I learned at an early age, again, thanks to a mentor in the hustling art, that there was only so much you could do to hide a great stroke. You could slow it down or change it a bit but that could easily lead to a tell. But what is more difficult to notice is the feet. You’d have to be very astute to tell if someone planted their feet for an extra second or two before moving to the ball.

All they’d see is I was barely getting to the ball so was forced to make a last ditch effort. The truth is, even dogging it, I was there in plenty of time to still control how and where I was going to place my shot. Another mentor, this one in the con game who happened to be my dear old dad, taught me long ago that a con is only successful if it lasts. Anyone can nickel and dime a mark. That’s not a skill. But it’s when you get your hooks in them, make it so they’re begging to go again, when the real payoff comes alive.

It’s the only thing he taught me. We didn’t hear from him often. But cash kept showing up at the house, a nice house in a nice, upper middle class neighborhood. We’d probably moved a dozen times since I was a baby. When things were good they were very good. But just as often we’d be living on top of one another. He didn’t understand my tennis playing. It wasn’t until he found out I was hustling people that he even asked about it. He figured I was honing skills for a long con. He couldn’t grasp that, sure I may have spent more time than I probably should have hustling matches, but I really loved the game.

Nothing beats the heat under your feet as you fly around the court defying laws of nature and geometry. If you were to tell me a person could race cross court, spread their legs so far apart you think they’ll split it half, then flick a gentle cross court drop shot that falls at an unholy angle for a winner I’d call you quite mad. But I witnessed such unlawfulness on a daily basis.

It started slow in the early spring at those downtown courts. The spring brings in new players, some people get promoted, fired, get turned to dust on the grinding wheel, so it was easy for me to step in. Most times people wouldn’t have a hitting partner so they’d hope to find someone compatible. At first few people wanted to play with me. They figured I was a kid so wouldn’t be able to buy myself in. So I brought down a guy I knew, a guy shaped like most of the other guys, and let him run me through my paces.

We set it up so he was a loud, obnoxious (for tennis), braggart. He’d cheer my errors louder than his winners. If he made a mistake (which I tried hard to make sure he didn’t. Trust me, that was the hardest part of the afternoon) he’d call me lucky. And he made sure to remind me during each change game that I was one game closer to owing him,

“A crisp, new one hundred dollar bill. I don’t care if run to the bank and cash in all your pennies. It has to be a crisp, new one hundred dollar bill.”

I’ve got to say, by the middle of the first set he was starting to really get on my nerves. But I had to stay the course and keep playing and keep the match close.

That’s another thing about hustling tennis. No matter how fast you want to get off the court you have to take your time. You have to keep it close. Nothing loses potential future earnings than beating someone love and love. And once word gets out it’s best that you move on because this well has just about run dry. So you’ve got to make the matches close, have them make the errors, have them hit seemingly impossible winners. You’ve already hooked them so now you have to slowly reeling them into the boat: The SS Cash Flow.

At the end of the match he’s cheering for himself and patting me a little too aggressively on the back. I wanted to walk away and tell him to fuck off but I knew this was the real payoff. I could see that every other match had stopped. They wanted to see how I’d handle it. They were sure (and some probably made bets) that I was going to run. There’s no way in hell the guy could stop me, they figured.

“So, where’s my crisp, new one hundred dollar bill.”

We get court side and I reach for my bag. I start unzipping it while saying,

“I’m going to have go to the bank unless you’re willing to take twenties.” Getting deeper into the character the guy shook his head which caused his body to shiver bellowing,

“Oh no, little man, you heard what I said. I said. . .”

“. . .yeah, yeah, yeah. A hundred dollar bill.” The guy wagged his finger in my face.

“Oh no, no, no. I said a crisp, new. . .”

“. . .yeah, I got it.” Finishing putting the balls and racket in my bag I zip it up. “I’ll go get it.” I could see the guys who’d bet I’d bolt smirk and poke the other player. Just then the guy reached out and grabbed the strap of my bag.

“This stays here.” I looked at him as if he were mad.

“No shit.” I say holding the bag out to him. “What’d you think? I was going to run or something?” I let go of the bag and it dangles at his leg. “Be right back.” I jogged out of the courts and out of the park without looking back once. Once inside the bank I stand at the window to see what’s going on over there. Just as I predicted, no one is playing. They’ve circled around my guy talking. I smile pulling a crisp, new, hundred dollar bill out of a plastic bag I’d had in my pocket.

“This is going to work out just fine.”

I get back, let the guy needle me for my sloppy play then sit against the fence as if I’m upset. I started to wonder when the first guy would approach and start talking. Almost less time than it took for me to have that thought.

“Good match. I bet you’ll take him next time.’ Said an bank assistant manager from above me.

“I don’t know. His game was very deceptive.”

“So,’ the banker said crossing over to stand above me. “What brings you down here?” That’s when I unleashed the story. Loud enough for anyone standing near to hear. “Sounds good, sounds good.” The banker said looking over me toward the other players who figured I’d be a cash machine to them.

They were half right. I was going to open up my own ATM right here on these very premises. I’d be Accumulating The Money right here on these fine courts. Hey, cut me some slack. I was only sixteen and thought that was the funniest phrase ever invented.

“So,” the banker begins his sentence many times like that I would come to learn. “You want to play tomorrow?”

And I’m in.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Love it! Looking forward to future posts.

Comment by Denver Reader

You mean you can’t magically transform my game???

Comment by pinkunderbelly

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