You won’t remember me unless you’re a trivia freak with a stack of Tennis back issues, but that’s cool. Hardly anyone, even in the industry, follows the game well enough to know anyone but the men’s and women’s winners at Wimbledon, plus a few other genuine American heroes. Right now it goes like this: Roger Federer, that Ukrainian chick, Serena and Venus, Agassi, Anna Kournikova, Sampras sort of, and McEnroe, because who can forget McEnroe if he won’t go away. A few more people know who Hingis is, and Graf, maybe Becker, and some people might remember Navratilova–she still plays some, pretty well for an old broad–or they might think she’s the girl who nailed her dismount in the Olympics with the broken ankle. But if they played before new wave or they had a funny accent, forget it. You say Laver, Ashe, King, Evert, Connors, and Borg, people think it’s a law firm. I mean, ask any high school player, “Who’s a tennis legend?” and they’ll say that punk Andy Roddick. And who watches the finals of any tournament when it’s a Dutchman versus a Dane–aren’t they from the same country anyway? We only remember the names of the foreigners for the duration of the match in which they play an American. And doubles? Name one great doubles team. See? But I’m getting away from my point, which is to say, you don’t remember me, which is cool. I’m not bitter about it.
In this part of the application for Riverhill Country Club tennis pro I’m supposed to explain my qualifications and say why I’m the best person for the position. Now, because I went to college–Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo (yes, it has a tennis team)–I understand that the best way to illustrate a point is to make use of specific examples. (I transferred to UC Davis after someone noticed I was better at the drop shot than at irregular logarithms and they made me take English.) So following are several points that . . . whatever. I’ll bet you’ve never had someone who was ranked in the top 400 apply before.
I never won anything important, but I won a lot when I was starting out. When you’re a kid it’s easy, if you’ve had a couple of lessons. You know enough to make the guy run back and forth, or you hit every shot to his backhand because he only has a forehand. Or you get lucky and the other kid throws up because he ate a banana split on the hottest day of the year. It’s not too tough in high school, either. There are a few power-stroking, crew-cut Nazis out there, but there are also a lot of undisciplined flakes who make truckloads of unforced errors. After all, they’re fucking teenagers.
Even as an amateur, or a low-ranked pro, you’ll win some shit, but that’s where it starts to get hard. That’s because once the other guys get to a certain level, they’re not obligated to play all the dinky events in bumblefuck towns and they can rest up and train for fucking ever. Look, I’m not mad at the system. I’m not even going to go into it, I’m just explaining. When you’re ranked–that is to say, among the top 400 players in the world, which is no small achievement–but not endorsed and not in the top 20, you’re going to play a lot of games where you barely pay for your hotel room and plane ticket. You can be a professional athlete and make less than the assistant manager of a Red Lobster. Of course, you love the game and all that, so I’m not saying it’s as bad as being the assistant manager of a Red Lobster. But show me another line of work where you can be one of the 400 best in the world and you still have to hustle for jobs and don’t have insurance.
They used to call me “The Warhead.” I liked it pretty well, I guess. Sounds powerful, rhymes with my last name. I’m six-three, used to weigh about 200, and I’ve got long arms. Longer than most guys’, and when I extended for a full swing, especially on serves, I made the ball flatten out like a missile. And this was before graphite, before oversized rackets–high tech was Connors playing with that crappy Wilson T2000. I always played with wood, myself. Of course, being a big guy I wasn’t super fast, so I hated to serve and volley, but I could play the net if I had to. It’s hard to hit a passing shot against a guy with a wingspan like a 747. That’s what a TV announcer said about me in my first televised match, which went five sets. But my game has always been about power. People talk about power baseline like it was invented in the 90s, or maybe the late 80s, but I’m here to tell you I was playing it in the 70s. I know some people say it’s nothing to be proud of, that it’s changed tennis from a “game of finesse” to a “war of strength,” but a tennis player doesn’t decide what kind of player he is, he just plays the game his natural strengths and instincts tell him to play.
People didn’t radar serves like they do now, but I’m guessing I’d hit 120, 130 miles per hour. I know the girls do that now, but tennis, like all sports, is a lot different than it was 30 years ago. Not just equipment but training, performance-enhancing drugs, computer modeling. A lot of us didn’t go to a private tennis academy, or have Vic Braden coaching us when we were ten. We just played on school teams, and some of us were lucky enough to have what it takes.
I don’t know if writers really count their words–it seems like a pain–but I think I might be getting close to 500, so I guess I’d better explain Wimbledon to you. This is probably a mistake because you probably haven’t heard about it, but if you have heard about it then I want to explain so you’re not prejudiced against me.
I was having a sweet year, no doubt about it. The year before I’d peaked out at 381 in the rankings, 398 the year before, and the year before that I was unranked, straight out of college. I’m not ashamed of those numbers. Businesses kill themselves to be in the Fortune 500. And how many people get to be ranked in anything? There’s no top list of dentists. But I still hadn’t been playing up to what I thought was my best. And I was slowly going broke. But that year, 1977, wow. First I qualified for the Australian Open. I was creamed in the first round, 6-2, 6-7, 6-2, 6-0, but still, I’d played in a Slam. And you know who beat me? Freakin’ Jimmy Connors and his tin racket. And I took a set from him. For the first time ever, the reporters asked me a couple of questions on my way out.
Even though I’d made it into a Slam, it was back to business as usual right after that. I kept playing, week in and week out, trying to make it to the quarters of the small tournaments, just trying to qualify for the big ones. It’s exhausting, but there’s no other way to do it. Only the rock stars get seeded, giving them time to fucking lie around the beach in France with topless models. Fiftieth best in the whole world? You gotta qualify. And I was a long way from fiftieth. But, when you’re young, you have the desire and the energy, and I felt like any day I was going to start blowing ’em away. I still hadn’t won shit, but I was finishing better and better.
Even though I got knocked out in the first round in Australia, my confidence was up, and I was thinking I had a chance to qualify at Wimbledon, too. And I did! In the first round I drew a skinny Italian guy, Giovanni Testarossa or something, and annihilated his country’s hopes in straight sets. My serve was locked in and I was hitting the sweet spot on every stroke.
Things looked pretty good in the second round, too. I lucked into playing the weakest player, a Russian named Nikolai Evgenyev. He was tall like me, but skinny like a stork. A serve-and-volleyer all the way, he’d rush the net waving his racket like he was conducting a symphony during one of the really loud parts. He wasn’t bad, but he had these skinny little wrists and no power to speak of. There’s no question in my mind that the guy was a better player than I was–he was ranked 83–but I also thought I could probably just overpower him. I was doing this positive visualization thing back then, so I kept working on this image where he was trying to return one of my serves and his wrist just snapped backward and broke. During the actual game, I put a lot of mustard on every serve, every forehand, every two-handed grunt-and-swing backhand. It worked pretty well, and I took the first set 6-4.
Second set, I’ve already broken his serve and I’m up 3-2, serving to make it 4-2. It’s 40-15, game point. I’m so confident now, I just feel like every serve is going to be an ace. I’m not tired, I’m breathing good, I’m on that kind of autopilot that you dream about, when your body finally just takes over and shows your mind it knows what it’s doing. And the crowd is with me, too. Tennis crowds love their big stars, but they really love the underdogs. Plus, I’m playing this Russian dude, and let’s just say that communists are underrepresented in the stands of Court Two at the moment. So, with all confidence, I toss the ball up–I’ve always had a really high service toss, and some people think there’s no way I’m going to locate it and I’m going to miss it like a Texas leaguer–and uncock my arm and just fucking mash the ball forward.
Have you ever watched an accident happen? You’re sitting at some sidewalk cafe and two cars crash, and you know it’s going to happen because you see it developing–one car is turning and the other one didn’t stop–but in the time it would take for you to stand up out of your chair and yell it would already have happened. There’s nothing you can do. But there’s a reason Hollywood uses slow motion to show the most intense scenes, and it’s not just to show you how much money they spent on the special effects. Well, it partly is, but slow motion also really gives you that feeling of watching it happen and knowing you can’t stop it. I remember every detail like a movie. The fuzzy, yellow green ball against the pale blue English sky as I tossed it. Then I hit it and it took off in a blur. It was traveling fast, probably my hardest serve of the day, maybe the hardest serve of my life, going straight with no spin, but too low and way too far to the right. In the net for sure.
The ball boy, the little prick, wasn’t paying attention–they’re supposed to put their heads behind the net exactly to avoid this sort of thing. He was just spacing out, looking who knows where, with his head on my side of the net. And the ball was flattened out, barely rotating at all, going right at his left cheek.
There was this POK! when it hit him. His head banged into the post and he wobbled, tried to stand up, and then fell forward onto the court. For a few seconds nobody moved or said anything. I guess nobody knew what to say or do. I mean, I was as surprised as everybody else, but I was also pissed, because I already knew that my rhythm was shot. I knew there’d be a fuss, there’d be delay–15 minutes minimum. I didn’t want to stop. Ask anyone who’s ever been in the zone–you don’t want to get out of the zone.
Anyway, I glared at the paramedic. He was kind of fumbling for his bag like, oh shit, I thought I just got to watch the game from courtside for free. The kid was just lying there in the grass. He’d pulled one hand up to his head, but that was it, he was barely moving. I could tell you what you want to hear, that, oh yeah, I was so worried about this kid and how he would look in his graduation picture. But the reality, all I could think was, this is Wimbledon. Don’t get psyched out. So I turned and took a few steps away, then stared up at the sky, just trying to stay focused on winning the game. I didn’t want to think about hitting the ball boy–when you make a bad serve, you’ve got to forget it immediately. But flashbulbs were popping like it was the Tet Offensive. I assumed they were taking pictures of the kid, but they were taking pictures of me, too. I didn’t know how to react, so I shook my head, then rolled my eyes, then grinned. I just ran through a few things, figuring they could sort through and pick out the ones they wanted.
It was still really quiet, even for Wimbledon. I turned around and they were putting the kid on a stretcher. When they hustled him off, you could barely see his head under the ice packs. But after a while they got a new ball boy, everybody got settled, the line judges assumed the position, and the umpire nodded at me. I grabbed a ball from my pocket and dribbled it a couple of times with my racket. Serve a first serve again, is what I was thinking. Don’t take anything off, scare the bastard with another monster serve. Even if you double-fault, it’s still game point.
But then I heard it. A boo. I looked up and actually saw the guy, some old dude with a blazer with a shield insignia on it. In England they actually wear that type of crap. He did it again and the chair umpire told him to be quiet. I gave the dude a good scowl, shook it off, and dribbled again. Across the net, Evgenyev was looking at me this weird way. I think he might’ve shook his head. I was like, “What?” He shook his head, like, “Nothing.” So I shook my head and then I tossed the ball.
I smashed the serve as hard as I could, but it caught the net. It went up and over, though, so at least I had another serve. I nodded to a ball boy and he tossed me a ball, kind of hard, not the gentle underhand toss like they’re supposed to. I mean, it kind of stung my hand. I was like, what the fuck? But again, I’m thinking, “Concentrate.” I pretended to inspect the ball, just to give me a little time, but it was a new one, so whatever. A few more jokers in the crowd started up, following the old guy’s lead, booing. They sounded like cows. The chair umpire shushed them again, but he didn’t put a lot behind it. You know, Wimbledon is like the mecca of tennis, and they’re all big on this respect and tradition crap, but the way he said “Quiet please” was like “I have to say this but I don’t mean it.” I got the serve in, but the Russki forehanded it right back at my body. I returned it, barely, but he was already rushing the net. He smashed one to my backhand and I made a weak lob, but he jumped and pounded it into the cross corner and I could only watch.
Well, he ended up breaking my serve, and pretty soon he had me back on my heels, playing catch-up, fighting for every point. He was reading my serves really well and getting a lot of my first serves back. He was even hitting winners off some of them. At the next crossover, he just sits there, quietly sipping water and all Teutonic and Russian and everything while I’m trying to get myself back in the game. I change my socks, my racket, towel myself dry, put on a new red-white-and-blue headband, and take a couple of bites of a granola bar, something I never do. I hear this dude in the stands go: “He broke that boy’s jaw. Smashed it like a teapot.” And this lady goes: “He doesn’t even look sorry.”
Now, I’d like to know exactly what people are thinking when they say that kind of shit. Here I am, fighting for my life in the premier tennis event of the entire world, maybe it’s the only time I’ll be here, and they’re stage-whispering about the poor, hurt kid. Not to be a dick, but what do they expect you to do? Wave your tennis racket and make it all better? It was a freak accident. I don’t go around hurting people on purpose, and if I did I wouldn’t do it with TV cameras on me. And if I go, “I’m so sorry,” yeah, the kid’s going to feel much better. It’s just asinine, you know? It totally gets away from the fact that it was the kid’s fault.
So the match was kind of getting away from me. Evgenyev took the second set, and the third, but neither of us broke the other in the fourth and I won it on a tiebreak when he double-faulted twice. So now it’s a one-set game. Fresh start. I would still totally have had a chance to win if I hadn’t broken the umpire’s nose. What can I say? I was nervous. And it’s not like I punched him out over a bad call, like Connors would probably have done, except that he went on to make the finals and lose to Borg by a set. It was my first serve of the fifth set, and by then I was feeling tired and a little shaky from all the crowd bullshit. And I just shanked one. It wasn’t even traveling that fast, but the chair umpire was watching the service box, thinking that’s where the ball would land. So his nose was out in profile, and he had kind of a big one, I’m thinking, or the ball would have just gone right by him, but instead it hits him square on the nose and there’s just this weird sound, like when you snap a celery stick.
He said, “Shit!” really loud, and he was miked, so probably the ice cream vendors outside heard it. All the old ladies gasped. Blood just started pouring out of his nose and all down his shirt and tie and blazer. He looked at me, I swear he was thinking, “You meant to do this.” I gave him one of those palms-up gestures, you know, saying sorry. And I even said “Sorry” I think. But he just shook his head and climbed down from the chair, staring at me the whole time, even while the paramedic wiped off the blood and examined his nose and everything.
You’d think they’d get a new umpire after that. Anyone could see that he’d have it in for me, but apparently there’s some technicality that says he can’t relieve himself of his duties, and the head umpire was watching the match on center court, and anyway, this had never happened before. So after about ten minutes he’s back in the chair. He’s got this piece of white tape over his nose, and he’s holding an ice bag on it, and his eyes are bloodshot and starting to turn black underneath, and he’s like, you know, resume play.
I won’t lie, I wasn’t playing that great, but I really couldn’t get a call from anyone after that. The Russian would serve and it would be out by three feet, I’m not exaggerating at all, and the line judge wouldn’t say anything, the chair judge wouldn’t say anything, and I’d just have to walk to the other side of my court and wait for the next serve. You could just see it, the whole crowd sitting there with pinched faces, thinking, go ahead, protest the call. Evgenyev, playing like shit, still closed me out and won. And of course he went on to lose badly in the third round.
The way the press made me out, it was like I was invited to have tea with the queen and I took a shit on the tablecloth! Their papers were like, “A Cheeky Showing,” and “Racquet Rogue Raps Rupert,” and so on. There were all these quotes about what an asshole I was, from waitresses who said I was drunk and rude to chambermaids who claimed I didn’t tip. Which of course I didn’t! Who thinks to tip a chambermaid? Who even knows what one is? They turned it into this big Ugly American thing, me and Connors, probably McEnroe, too. Even back home, there was a sidebar in Sports Illustrated, “Warhead Self-Destructs,” or something, that showed a picture of me apparently shrugging next to a picture of the kid with his jaw being sewed shut.
People forgive guys like Connors and McEnroe, because they throw temper tantrums but then they win the whole enchilada. And if they stick around long enough, it’s like they’re elder statesmen. Who calls McEnroe a brat anymore? He’s the voice of tennis, the new Bud Collins. Me? I was the guy who broke the kid’s face. The next year at Wimbledon they did a soft-focus thing on TV, following up on the kid and his plastic surgery, and of course the little fucker wanted to be a ball boy again because he loved tennis so very very much, and they had the Duke of Kent saying how brave the kid was to still be a ball boy after the horror he had endured. The kid walked on the court and he got a standing ovation even though you’d think people would be a little more excited to see Vitas fucking Gerulaitis than the kid who was going to shag his balls.
I watched it from the bed in my studio apartment. I was teaching classes at the Y in Passaic, New Jersey. I had stayed on the road for a few months after Wimbledon, but the heckling was so bad that even when people weren’t saying anything I was thinking, what will they say next? A couple of bad losses and I wasn’t even in the top 400 anymore.
But I learned something. It wasn’t an easy lesson, but who ever said life was easy? I learned that character doesn’t count, hard work isn’t always rewarded, and that people might love you one minute, but they’ll turn on you the next.
I stayed at the Y for a few years. The kids didn’t judge me, they just wanted to watch me serve, and I managed to teach some of them to be pretty good. We even had a city champ one year. I’ve been scuffling since then, teaching a little, playing for money a little. I’m no longer allowed to compete professionally because I tried playing under an assumed name once and got recognized.
Listen, I’ll be honest. My game isn’t what it used to be, but I can still beat anybody who walks through the doors of the Riverhill Country Club, and I can teach them how to beat just about anybody else, as long as they’ve got talent and they’re not afraid of the ball.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tomasz Walenta.