Inspired by some great tennis at the US Open (sorry again Andy R.) I got out my antique Prince Titanium Longbody and whacked a half hour worth of tennis balls against a good section of wall down the street. It sure is comforting to know I can still put serves where I want to and crank a two-handed backhand with that good topspin, and just maybe I'll try hitting with a real person in the near future. Tennis, like cycling, is a life sport I really enjoy, even if its by myself.
One thing for sure, I expect the gentlemen who will be strutting what they still have during the Breezeplay Championships at The Palisades Sept. 24-27 will be a little more worth catching in person. Pete Sampras will be attending this year, and as a volunteer I've had an excellent time watching a lot of good tennis at this seniors event, tucked away on the border of North-South Carolina near Lake Wylie and a decent chunk of driving from Charlotte. My Good Time judging criteria is "Would I pay for this if I wasn't working?" and yes, despite the somewhat inconvenient location, the Tim Wilkinson Signature Sports Complex has provided terrific socializing and entertaining clay court tennis. The crowds don't seem to have been deterred by the distance, even when there was that ghastly gas crunch and rain year three, and thats all Jim Currier, who organized this Outback supported seniors tour, could ask for.
While its not the intensity of a US Open or Wimbledon, this tournament provides an intimate showcase for why people still like to attend live events, even if there's no instant replay and the bathrooms are in a trailer (a very nice trailer though). Stadium seating makes every seat (approx. 3000) a good one, allowing for player interaction with the crowd and each other to be heard and enjoyed. Anyone who saw John McEnroe hold up proceedings over a bad service call knows these guys aren't just going through the motions either. I drove Mac's long time agent from the airport the first year, and he said Mr. McEnroe still cares about things being done right; if you saw John, shirt tail out and still wearing long pants, hitting serves to Djocovic on Labor Day, you get the idea he still stays sharp. On that particular service point, John was rightfully insistent that, after the umpire finally agreed a ball mark was long, it shouldn't be "play the point over" (Mac had blocked the ball into the net, expecting a long call), it should be 2nd serve. Yes, the man cares.
Two particular moments about volunteering there really bring the focus in sharp. Driving an ailing but game Aaron Krickstein back to the hotel, I got both an analysis of my game ("If you hit your strokes with depth and consistency like you say, have a pretty strong serve and move it around, you're probably a 4.0; being able to hit 12-15 in a row, that might be the difference from being a 3.5") and the chance to ask a real sportswriters question I'd had for about 20 years.
"This young man, should he some day be at Centre Court at Wimbledon, will never have as much pressure on him as he's facing right now," was a TV commentator's acutely honest assessment of a seemingly out of control situation, a Davis Cup match with drumming and blood-curdling screaming between points being a central and significant fact. When I asked Aaron about it, he just nodded and said, "Paraguay, 1987."
"Brutal situation" was the believable introduction to Krickstein's recollection. "There's no doubt those guys were cheating like hell during the entire tie. Don't get me wrong, they played some good tennis, like (a player) who was ranked like #156 and played his ASS off, and Jaime Yzaga was tough on clay, but it was an unreal atmosphere. Lots of s**t was going on, judges were calling foot faults like nothing you've seen, and the Swedish officiating crew sure wasn't going to do anything about protesting calls.
"Jimmy Arias had lost his reverse singles earlier, so it was 2-2, mine would be the Davis Cup deciding match. I knew we were in trouble early on when one of my shots goes wide and a line judge jumped in the air yelling HOORAY! There are like six Americans in the stands, including my Dad and the trainer, and EVERY POINT the place goes physically nuts." His bottom line memory: "It wasn't actually the worst thing in the world to have lost and gotten out of there, safely on the bus, and back to our hotel." Listening to the pride he has in his tennis school business-family life, then hearing straight-up how one particularly intense semi-shared situation actually felt for a top-caliber athlete, that's an unpaid benefit to helping out on interesting events.
The second moment came as an usher. After catching a terrific overtime match with Serge Brugerra and Jim Currier, I saw Pat Cash (who is scheduled to play this year too) and McEnroe play a superb match, primarily because, after getting waxed in the first set, Cash started chasing down everything thrown at him, serving well, being a pro who cared about his play-reputation.
I'd seated a girl-brother down close, 2nd row behind Cash's bench, because nobody had come for the seats through the earlier match, so why not give impressionable youngsters the best possible experience, right? At the end of his second set comeback, after chasing McEnroe's shot cross-court and running out of bounds, Cash grabs a headband from his bag and throws it right at the girl's face. She instinctively ducked, the guy behind her got a high quality souvenir, but post-match they were thankful, personally thrilled with the near miss. That, the two guys who wanted to give me a $5 handshake (I declined) after putting them in the first section instead of the packed bleachers so they got an A-1 view of that Brugerra-Currier match, and talking to the young family in the first row of those bleachers, the little girl staying calm if tired through a late match while the boy scored a signed ball from Cash, those are quality moments. Such experiences cost nothing and are the central reason I'll continue volunteering for this tournament.
So far, InsideOut Sports and Entertainment (Currier's organization) has slugged nothing but winners here in Charlotte, and while I may have wasted Krickstein's analysis by not getting into a league where I could work on that consistency, I *do* have an intro with an on-line date who is a tennis instructor, so just maybe I can give up pounding that wall soon.