Thanks, Joe Pro

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1aIt's tennis time in London, but tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the States. In theory, I should be able to use this space to write an appropriately thankful post saluting someone from my tennis past. I’ve done it on a couple of occasions here before, and when you’ve reached my lofty status as a niche-sport blogger, you have a lot of people to thank. This year, though, as I get ready to leave New York for a few days to visit my parents and my sister’s family in Pennsylvania, I’ve been thinking of something more basic to my experience with the sport: the public courts in each of those places. No, I’m not going to say a prayer of thanks this weekend for those slabs of asphalt and their rectangular white lines. But as darkness begins to descend at 5:00, temperatures drop into the 40s in the Northeast, and the nets see their last rays of sun before being folded up for the winter, let me acknowledge the existence of three sets of those courts. Two still exist; the other disappeared years ago.

***

The vanished courts were situated on a hillside in a leafy, middle-class residential section of Williamsport, Pa., my hometown in the central part of the state. They were owned by Lycoming College, a small school in town, but along with the college’s football field they had been built a dozen or so blocks from the campus. In reality, the courts belonged to the city, not to the school. I don’t think I ever saw a player from the college use them; I wasn’t sure if they even had a team. So maybe it’s not surprising that the courts were eventually removed to give the football players more room to roam.

In the 1970s and early 80s, the Lycoming courts had been the bustling center of a Williamsport tennis scene that seems almost preposterously thriving by today’s standards. There were 8 or 10 courts, painted green inside the lines and red outside, which made for an appealing contrast when you stood on the tree-lined street above and looked over them. Court time was at such a premium that a small, red, wooden shed was erected nearby so someone could take your reservation and, when things got too busy, arrange for singles players to form themselves into doubles teams. This is the way it’s still done in New York, where there seem to be about 100,000 people for every court. But it’s unimaginable at most small-town public facilities today.

This is where the city’s best players had their matches, and where’s its biggest summer men’s tournament was held. When I was 11 or so, I sat in the bleachers next to the football field with a fellow six-grader, Sean, and his girlfriend, Heather—or what passes for a girlfriend at that age; after 15 weeks, Heather was still patiently waiting for Sean to kiss her for the first time. That day I got up and walked toward the tennis courts. The idea, understood by all three of us, was that it was time for Sean to make his move. He never did, of course; they sat alone in those gigantic bleachers for hours that afternoon, talking about whatever 11-years-olds talk about. At one point, when I looked back from a distance, I saw Sean, a floppy-haired professor’s son, holding up a brightly colored square object. He was showing Heather how he had solved the Rubik’s Cube.

In the meantime, I wandered over to the tennis courts, where the annual open men’s event was being played. A 14-year-old local kid name Greg was entered that year. I’d heard that he was a great tennis player, though I’d never seen him. I’d yet to give up baseball and basketball and commit full time to the sport; that wouldn’t happen for another two years. It seemed amazing to me that Greg, with his newfangled Western grip and heavy topspin, could hold his own with grown men. We’d eventually become teammates in high school and spend hundreds of hours practicing together on these courts. Looking back, it’s not surprising that I ended up with a grip and a topspin stroke almost as extreme as Greg’s.

I would eventually play with most of the guys who were in that tournament as well. They were solid athletes who had gravitated to tennis during its boom years, when the area’s indoor racquet club was built and new public courts were still springing up. By my mid-teens, I had reached their skill level, and I joined them at 6:00 each weekday after school and work on the Lycoming courts. It felt good to be part of their club, to take over the courts with them and show the town’s assorted hackers and slackers how the sport was played. Most memorable, though, were my matches with Joe, a bodybuilder who was slightly below, or outside of, Williamsport’s tennis elite. He’d fashioned his rough-edged game without the benefit of lessons, and his stiff strokes were little more than extended bunts. But he was fast and fit and eternally tan, a fact that he made obvious to everyone by never wearing a shirt. Joe had no serve, but winning a baseline game to 21 against him was an arduous task. The times when he would beat me, he’d sit back on the sideline bench at the Lycoming courts—the hot wood must have burned against his skin on summer days, but he never showed it—fold his hands behind his head with a satisfied smile, and say, “You can’t touch me, lad, you don’t have it.” Afterward, he’d drive me home in his white sports car. He’d put on his sunglasses and pop in a tape, and while we glided downhill he'd sing along in a deep country crooner’s voice to his favorite song, Gary Stewart’s “People Out There Turning Music into Gold.”

This weekend, I probably won’t have a reason to drive past the spot where the Lycoming courts were. I used to jog down that street until I was chased by a neighborhood dog, which made me give up jogging in Williamsport forever. Now a sand field of some sort is there, a practice space either for the football or baseball team. From what I can tell, the center of the town’s tennis scene has moved to the local private outdoor club, whose four Har-Tru courts sit at the city’s far eastern edge. The sport has left its central location and retreated toward its traditional confines. With no tennis tournament to watch on the Lycoming courts, what do 11-year-olds do during their wingman gigs on the football-field bleachers? Instead of being becoming tennis player, they all must know how to solve the Rubik’s Cube instead.

***

In the 90s, I took my game from the courts of Central Pennsylvania to the courts in Manhattan’s Central Park; it was a big step up in profile, and an even bigger step up in inconvenience. Suddenly I had to get up before work to make a reservation, and each hour a loud bell rang to let us know when our time was up and we better clear out double-quick. There was no time to waste during matches, and no time to sit back afterward and listen to my opponent say “lad, you just don't have it.”

Not that any of my opponents in those first months could have said that. I put my name on a bulletin board at the Park under the word “Advanced,” but I couldn’t find anyone who fit that description. On more than one occasion I was motivated to beat an opponent as badly as I could just so they would never call me to play again. After a year, I stopped lugging my racquets from my apartment downtown up to the Park.

Still, I liked the courts too much to give them up entirely. The setting, between Central Park West and the famous Reservoir, under a canopy of trees and overlooked by a fine clubhouse, is hard to beat—up there, you can feel like you're in a J.D. Salinger story and a Wes Anderson movie at the same time. On either side of the clubhouse, there’s a long series of benches that run behind four or five courts. Even if I had no desire to play, I was still drawn to the sport, to be around it, to hear it, to see it out of the corner of my eye. I found that it made excellent background noise for reading. One summer, maybe in ’94 or ’95, I spent many hot weekend afternoons—I had neither the means nor the money to get to a beach in those days—reading Remembrance of Things Past. I almost hate to admit it because it sounds absurdly pretentious, but I can’t go back in time and put a James Patterson novel in my hand. Plus, the Central Park courts will always be tied up in my mind with the huge, heavy, 1,000-page silver editions of Proust that I carried there. And their dense rectangles of text—you could go for 15 minutes without coming to a new paragraph—will forever be linked with the sound of tennis balls popping off racquets on green humid Manhattan days. I would read Proust’s series of novels off and on for years, on beaches, in backyards, under lamps at 3:00 A.M. When I finally got to the last page a decade later, my fingers started to shake; it felt like an historic event. But I never loved it as much as I did at the Central Park tennis courts.

***

In the mid-90s, I moved to Brooklyn and forgot about those afternoons with Marcel. It wasn’t until this summer that I rediscovered the pleasures of hanging out and reading within sight and sound of public tennis courts. My girlfriend Julie and I got into the habit of walking to the park in the Ft. Greene neighborhood on weekends. The south side of the park is dominated by 10 or so green hard courts surrounded by handsome black fencing. If the quality of play here leaves something to be desired—I’ve never seen people play tennis in shoes before—there’s also a sense of camaraderie among the regulars. In a big city, tennis provides a social niche without the enforced exclusivity of a club. The courts are one public place where you know you’ll see a few familiar faces on a Saturday afternoon.

The biggest diehard in Ft. Greene this year was a guy in his 20s with long blonde hair and a roosterish strut. He was a Rafa fan all the way. He sported the sleeveless shirt, the white bandana, and the Babolat; though the white socks pulled halfway up his lower leg was his addition. He was a big guy and he walked on court with his chest out. But despite his protracted, herky-jerky windup, he had a shockingly tame serve. I thought he was going to blast the ball over the court, but he played careful, short-stroke tennis. And he loved doing it.

Julie and I nicknamed him Joe Pro and speculated on what his unseen wife, Jane Pro, might wear to the courts. If he wasn’t already there when we arrived, we waited impatiently for that sidewinding strut to appear over the top of the hill at the far end of the park—he looked he couldn’t wait to see what was going on at the courts. One day we saw the strut in the distance, but Joe Pro was in his street clothes. He roostered his way over to his buddies, who asked him why he wasn’t in his Rafa gear. “I’m taking the day off,” he said, “but I wanted to check it out over here anyway.”

A guy who doesn’t just like to play tennis, but who likes being around tennis courts even when he's not playing. Thanks, Joe, for letting me know I’m not alone.

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