Friday, May 15, 2009
1976 is a year I will never let slip away from my memory.It was when I turned 16 and got my driver's license and independence.1976 was a year in which I went to see the movie “Rocky” with my tennis buddy Stevie Brown that inspired me to dedicate myself to fitness/tennis and never giving up on my dreams .
“Rocky” had me getting up before school every morning to run a 1.6 mile loop around my Cincinnati neighborhood .I even went so far as to ingest the raw egg diet of Mr. Balboa before many of those early morning training sessions..
I joined a gym and did weight training every other day .
Stevie Brown and I were headed in opposite directions on the tennis court in 1976.Stevie with his smooth classic strokes was the star of our high school team.
Me with the mentality of a brick wall was content to hit balls until my opponents either got bored ,frustrated or just plain angry with my ability to return every ball sent my way until the cows came home.
My defining moment in tennis was in 1973. Reaching the finals of the boys city championships .It was a dream I had envisioned since my brother had done it twice .
I never dreamed of winning .Getting to the finals was the “vision” .
That is where Stevie entered the picture ..On the other half of the tournament was a name I didn’t bother to look for or expect to lock horns with at all .
I beat a cocky kid in the quarters named Andy Porter who was talking about who he was going to play in the next round in the car ride to our alternate match site .As if beating me was a foregone conclusion .Only problem for Andy Porter was I wanted to win the damn match more than him .
The guy I faced after Porter was a pushover .Then came trouble with a capital "T"(or "S")
A year younger and about a half foot shorter than me . Stevie Brown kicked my butt .
I was not cocky .I didn't assume I would beat Stevie .I had achieved my goal of getting to the finals just like big brother Dave .
In 1976 I had let that memory fade pretty far away .Rocky was calling out to me .
Stevie now Steve was on his way to leading our high school team to the city and state championships.I was drinking a lot of raw eggs and humming the Rocky theme “Gonna Fly Now”.
Many years had passed and I don’t really know what happened to Steve. "Rocky” was still around in some shape or form (or Rambo).I was working at Midtown Tennis Club in New York and noticed an article on the wall about Bob Ryland who was a pro at Midtown.
The headline “Arthur Ashe’s dream : to beat Bob Ryland “ hit me like a sledgehammer .
The article said Bob was the first black professional tennis player .
Jackie Robinson of my sport ....sledgehammer again !
After a few weeks I got up the courage to ask Bob to hit with me .I should have kept my mouth shut.
It was the most torturous one hour of tennis I ever encountered .Bob only hit the ball that day with sidespin on both forehand and backhand .If I did get in position to hit a shot it was out of sheer luck .
Like Micky the trainer in “Rocky”made him chase a live chicken all over the yard Bob’s shots were like hundreds of chickens and with each missed shot my frustration boiled over .
I yelled at him to," play tennis like a man" .He laughed and continued to torture me with his sidearmed missiles .
After that I asked Bob to help coach me for some USTA men’s events .
Bob’s answer was “NO” .
He mentioned an event in Brooklyn that I should enter on an indoor linoleum court.
Not the tennis I grew up with in O-H-I-O.
That court was faster than greased lightning and I lost 6-0,6-0 to a guy named Michael Clarke.
I pretty much begged Bob on the subway ride home to help me get some game.
Bob finally agreed as we passed under the East River and back to the safety of the slow clay courts at Midtown Tennis .
One day as I was relaxing before teaching junior groups Bob walked by me with a tennis ball hopper filled with 100 balls . “Let’s go”, he said and motioned to the court.
I jumped up and quickly followed the “Master” onto court 3 .
Bob then proceeded to hit balls to the farthest reaches of the court and simply said ,”hit the ball as hard as you can”.
I did and 100 balls and 10 minutes later I was gasping for air and sweating profusely.
I limped off to teach my class that day .Over the next few months Bob repeated that drill and added other drills along with some sound technical advice .
Since most of my lessons were hitting lessons I could practice Bob’s methods .
Most of the pros at the club could not understand my desire to play and train in my free time since I was already working seven days a week.
I was searching for my defining moment. Where are you Stevie?
1985 was a year in which I lost eighteen first round USTA men’s matches.Ouch! Bob’s advice was simple ,”hit the ball hard and don’t be afraid”.
Winning was never discussed .Losing was not hitting the ball hard .I obliged.
That all changed when I accompanied Bob to the US Open to see Bruce Foxworth .
Bob was helping Bruce get through his early round matches .
Bruce was a cool customer on the court .He listened to Bob and was winning against some big name guys .
As we left the grounds one day I mentioned my desire to get to the Open as a player .
Bob shook his head ,”maybe one day ...keep hittin’ the ball kid “.
Stadium Tennis Center in the Bronx.In the shadows of Yankee Stadium is where my defining moment emerged .
Bob gave me a simple strategy ,”hit the ball down the middle of the court”.Down the middle until my opponent got bored , frustrated or angry with my ability to get every ball back in play until the cows came home.
My opponent was Michael Clarke of the earlier 6-0,6-0 linoleum smashfest at my expense .
This time with Bob in my corner the score was 6-1,6-1 for me.
Maybe 1973 was not my defining moment in tennis . Steve Brown had moved on to bigger and better moments and I guess that I had as well .
I have heard it said that you learn more from losses than from your wins.
I learned to fight harder . To train harder and develop a more complete game .
I learned that in my first year of tournament play when I lost seventeen times in the first round of USTA-Eastern men’s events .I thought about quitting many times during that year .Each time I lost I would speak to Bob and his first question would be ,”when is your next tournament ?”.
I never said to him ,”I quit” .
Instead I started entering tournaments in groups so after one was over I would be ready to move right into the next event .
Bob had the discipline of a champion and his mindset was rubbing off on me.
Not just in tennis but into all areas of my life .
If you think like a champion and train like a champion then eventually you will become a champion.
I spent many years searching for a way to erase the loss to Steve Brown.
In 2009 and many years removed from that loss in 1973 I am now honored that I could compete against my friend in such a meaningful match .
I never found a way to erase that loss but instead I found a tennis legend that changed my life .
In 1985 Bob Ryland helped me to look beyond Steve Brown.......and Rocky.
Arthur Ashe's hero when he was growing up was Bob Ryland now I know why.