The Tennis Curmudgeon


When I was a kid, I’m not even sure if I was in school yet, an uncle grabbed me off the street and took me to a bar. Now don’t worry, I wasn’t being auctioned off to the highest bidder or made to wash dishes because he was short on his bar tab. He wanted me to shake somebody’s hand.

At the time it was just a crazy uncle doing crazy uncle things. But this time, even at that young age, I knew there was a purpose. It wasn’t that he wanted to show off whatever pool trick he’d taught me. I could tell there was something behind the urgency. He practically dragged me up to this guy. A guy even older than my uncle, if you can believe that.

He was your average ruddy face Irish guy. Well, average for the area we lived in. He didn’t seem like anyone special. I didn’t recognize him from my baseball cards or the post offices wanted posters. Like I said, an old, average guy.

“Shake his hand.” My uncle said in a manner that wasn’t demanding but I knew it’d be better to do what he said. So I held out my tiny hand. The man laconically turned as he took the beer mug from his face. He looked at me with eyes that held many truths. And probably more lies.

He put his beer mug down in a gesture that told of the seriousness of this event. He wiped his right hand on the weathered work shirt and glanced down on me. It was a proud look. I found that odd. I’m just shaking some old guys hand, after all.

“Go on,” my uncle said. “Shake it.”

I don’t know how big he was nor accurately remember how small I was. But I clearly remember that he took my hand forcefully and engulfed it. In my minds eye he swallowed it. A hand shark. And he pumped my hand three, maybe four, but it was surely no more, times. And just as quickly released it.

In a flash he had his right hand back around his beer mug as my uncle pounded me on the back and shoulders.

“There ya go.” He said. “You’ve just shaken the hand of a man who’s shaken the hand of John L. Sullivan.” He turned me away from the bar. “You’ll remember this day forever.”

He ushers me out of the bar and deposits me back in the street. I stand there for a few seconds. Mostly spent looking at my hand. Although I don’t clearly remember it I have to assume I was thinking,

‘What the hell just happened back there?’

It turns out, in some circles, shaking the hand of a man who shook the hand of John L. Sullivan is a big deal. When I actually learned who John L. Sullivan was and heard many times after how monumental what happened that day was I still a little fuzzy on the historical significance.

But my uncle was right about one thing, I have remembered it forever.

The true significance of it didn’t hit me until years later. I got a call asking if I’d play tennis with a guy who was preparing for a tournament. I was often called as a sparring partner so we settled on a price, I was told where I was to be and when.

Arriving at the club I was amazed. This was a big money establishment. I’d been in some pretty fancy tennis clubs by then but this was beyond anything I’d seen to date. To say my friend and I were in the crappiest car in the parking lot was an understatement. We actually parked as far away from everyone as possible. Between us we knew we couldn’t afford to scratch any other car.

Put your idea of the most sumptuous club. Now add hot and cold running gold and serifs floating around passing out aperitifs. Yeah, sort of spectacular. The courts themselves were very well maintained. They were clay courts that looked as if they were swept between points. I go to the court I was told to go to and I wait.

I’m sitting there looking around and the most striking thing to me was the animals. Not in squirrels and chipmunks and robins. I’m talking cows and goats and shit. All perfectly quiet but all roaming around the grounds freely. At first it was sort of odd to have a cow stop by to check out your game. But after awhile I had to admit it was rather cool.

About five minutes later this old guy showed up. I figured he was the guy’s grandfather or something. But he nods to me and gets on the court. I slowly get up wondering what kind of tournament he’s getting ready for. The Methuselah and over?

He tells me what he wants me to do and I do it. He tells me he wants to work on drop shots.

“Run those old bastards to the ground.” He says.

He chips most every shot but they’re too high. We talk for a second and I give him a piece of advice. He takes right to it and he starts to execute flawless low chips.

“Just like when I was young.” He says. And he seems to really believe it.

When our time is over we sit courtside. Out of nowhere some guy arrives and takes our food and drink order. I could get used to this. We start talking about tennis. I let him do most of the talking. Mainly because he kept talking but the things he said fascinated me.

It turns out he’s been a rather accomplished amateur player all his life. Traveled the world. Played with everyone you’ve only seen on black and white. Then he told me some stories about Bill Tilden. You can argue the greatest tennis player of all time (and unless you say Rod Laver you’re wrong) but, no matter what, Tilden’s up there. And the ‘legends’ I’d heard about him this gentleman confirmed.

All in all it was a magical day.

He’s walking me back to the car when something hit me. I told him the shaking hands story and he laughed.

“Now you’ve also played tennis with a man who played tennis with Bill Tilden. Together that’s an even more exclusive club I bet.”

It’s when I realized how important keeping a little piece of the past is.


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