When I moved to New York my coach Bob Ryland would speak at great lengths about how he played tennis at "The Jungle".It was a proving ground where many young players mixed with older more experienced players.Sitting on the benches between the sets of courts you could pick up a game or sit and listen to players games get verbally picked apart by other bench squatters.I did end up spending a limited amount of time at the jungle in Harlem on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.Most days I spent practicing were at Midtown Tennis Club or East River Park along the FDR Drive(Bob's jungle).I became the king of the FDR jungle in the mid 80s.Eventually I stopped going altogether.I began traveling to many tournaments that took up the better part of a week and weekend.Country club tennis as Bob called it was not a breeding ground for tournament players.The public parks are where Bob"made his bones" as a tennis player even practicing with the legendary pro Pancho Gonzalez in the L.A. public parks .Getting to Bob's jungle was not easy.Walking there meant going through Alphabet City which was notorious for drugs and crime.Public transportation to Bob's jungle was not a great option .Bob actually had a pre-game ritual which at first seemed crazy until I realized that the foot bridge to his jungle had been knocked out by a car.The ritual involved crossing 6 lanes of the FDR highway and somehow avoiding getting grazed by a car doing 65mph.It was that or walk a half mile north to the next bridge. So I chose to Bob's path .Once safely on the other side there was a mix of relief and adrenaline pumping nausea that reduced the time needed to warm up on the court before a match.I guess that is a bit of an understatement.Who needs the running of the bulls in Pamplona to get your heart racing?Once there I was greeted by a crazy mix of Lower East Side tennis nuts.It was like West Side Story meets West Side Tennis Club.I have to say as I sit here that I miss the eclectic aura of Bob's jungle.Families barbecuing next to the courts playing loud music on boom boxes blasting Salsa music.Junkies and homeless people coming up to the fence to beg for money or smokes.Seaplanes landing in the East River.Subways rumbling overhead.Boats,cars,motorcycles and helicopters rocking my senses.When I went out of the city to play in a tournament it was very hard at first to concentrate without any noise.I missed the Riff Raff!
Midtown Tennis Club's rooftop courts were noisy(especially at rush hour)but Bob's jungle was bedlam.I don't miss holding my breath to pee in the bathroom.I miss the guys selling flavored shaved ice off a cart.Sour sop and Guanabana were my favorite flavors.My strokes got fine tuned on the cracked courts at Bob's jungle while I played my favorite sport to the rhythms of a Latin beat .I miss seeing a husky,beer bellied tall guy named Juan Baez chain smoking then going out to kick some young guys butt with his slice and dice routine.Angel (do not know his last name) was another guy that was every bit as talented as any guy I saw on the Satellite tour but had possible(?) drug issues.He regularly beat up on me when I first arrived on the scene.In 1986 I beat another tough guy from Bob's jungle named Jose in the finals of the park championships and felt a bit like Kung Fu snatching the pebble from his master's hand and leaving the Dojo for good.Under the noisy Williamsburgh Bridge I made my tennis bones on that day.After that day I rarely made it back to cross the FDR. I heard Juan Baez died of a heart attack while playing on the courts at Bob's jungle.Eventually they fixed the foot bridge so the FDR dash was no longer needed. Bob moved uptown.I moved out of Manhattan altogether.Now years later it all seems like a dream.
Get Bob Ryland in the International Tennis Hall of Fame
Sunday, June 21, 2009
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