Each time I play tennis lately, as I did this morning and do every day that weather and an aging body permit me, I think of the man who gave me the love of the game.
I never knew his name. He'd be in his 90s now, if he's still alive.
It was a long, long time ago, on the public courts in a river town in the midwest. Two kids about 12 -- my best friend and I -- were batting a ball around, trying to do the few basic things they'd been taught about the game.
We hadn't seen him approach, weren't aware he'd been watching, for however long. Long enough to make some observations.
"You've got to change your grip on the backhand," he said. "Somebody told us to hold it this way," I replied, showing the shake-hands forehand grip we'd been taught. "Someone" was a recreation department summer employee, who coached softball and baseball mostly, but occasionally dropped by the tennis courts because his tasks also included organizing the annual city tournament for junior players.
"That's the standard forehand grip," our new acquaintance said. Then he moved our hands the quarter-turn for a proper backhand stroke. "With this grip you can hit the ball flat for a backhand drive, brush up for topspin, or open the face for slice. The way you've been doing it, all you can hit is slice -- floating slice, at that. Hard to control. Give it a try."
For an hour he tossed balls to us -- forehand, backhand; forehand, backhand. After the first half hour, we were comfortable with the grip change, using the bevels on the handle as a tactile guide.
"Come here often?" he asked when we broke for water. "Almost every day in the summer," we said. "OK, " he said, "tomorrow we'll work on the serve."
That was the day I fell in love with tennis. The sound of the ball coming off the strings when he demonstrated serving technique thrilled me to the bone. The serve came naturally to me, and with the tips he gave me on positioning my feet, "lifting" the toss high to get full extension, and snapping my wrist, it became a weapon. Sometimes, when I really popped one on the sweet spot, I imagined I heard that same awesome "thwack" I heard when he served.
He was, in the parlance of the day, a "tennis bum." Kramer, Gonzales, Sedgwick, Vines -- these were the guys who competed for championships. They were "amateurs," there was no professional tennis, but they took money under the table. Sometimes, when a player or two were needed to fill out a draw, the tournament officials would tap into the pool of tennis bums who followed the tour, hoping for a chance. The bums would hustle matches for money with the pretty good local yokels, tanking the first set and then offering to double the bet for a "chance to get even." Sometimes racquet manufacturers would give them day work teaching at clinics at tournament venues. It was barely a living -- thumbing was the usual transportation between tournament sites. He was good, but not good enough to play the tour regularly, and he knew it. "Some day," he told us, "I hope to find a rich widow who will support me in the manner to which I want to become accustomed."
For two weeks, he drilled us, taught us, gave us tips for competition. ("If you play a guy with a big serve you can't return, don't move back, move up inside the baseline. Way, way up. You might block back a few lucky ones. More than likely, the big hitter will get upset by the dare, start over-hitting, and start double faulting. You'll be inside his head then. He'll be putty in your hands.")
One day he simply didn't turn up at the courts. He had moved on to the next tournament venue, looking for suckers to hustle.
But he'd given us the game. By summer's end our play had improved so much that the recreation guy ordered us to "play up" into an older group for the city tournament because we were too good for our peers. My friend Mel upset the No. 4 seed, 6-4. 6-4. I drew the No. 1 seed, but I only lost by a single break in each set. "Toughest serve I've faced in a long time," he told me at the net after the match. "Where'd you learn it?"
"Oh," I said, as cavalierly as a 12-year-old can be, "a friend who plays the tour taught me."
I like to think he found that rich widow. What he gave me was priceless: a lifetime of exercise, friendships and fun.