Thursday, September 12, 2013
Never for one minute in my life did I think that the last tennis event I would ever compete in would take place at the site of a Grand Slam event.
Until a great group of doctors at the Hospital for Special Surgery put me back together with shoulder, wrist and neck surgeries and 3 and a half years of physical therapy.
Now my life as a tennis player is known as before and after July 20th ,2008.
That was the date of the accident that made me realize how lucky I am to play the great sport of tennis......or for what it is worth...be alive.
In June of 2012 I was able to step back onto a tennis court and compete in an event for the first time in nearly four years.
I consider that as the start of my bucket list of things to do post July 20th, 2008.
First was to play in the New Jersey State Men's Championships at the Arlington Player Club on the red clay one more time. My opponent was nearly thirty years my junior and a former #1 player at Ramapo College.
The fact that I was able to get four games against a 24 year old opponent that was ranked 11th in the USTA-Eastern section gave me great satisfaction and soreness throughout my entire body from head to toe.
Then it was on to the US Open National playoffs and a chance to compete for a spot in the US Open qualifying rounds.
In my way was Zach Jonas who had attended my camp 8 years before in Westchester County,NY.
Zach was the smallest kid that summer and the Zach that I faced in 2012 was double his size and hitting with a considerably greater amount of power and spin.
It was a physical struggle to get one game. I finally realized that to win a game let alone a point I was going to have to stand on or inside the baseline and take balls on the rise and go toe to toe with the 18 year old Zach.
In the end the 2 games that I won were a victory.
During the match I actually was running so hard that I fractured my left foot.
After witnessing Derek Jeter's 2013 injury issues I can definitely relate to his setbacks.
Considering that in 2009 a doctor told me that I would never hit a tennis ball again a broken foot is a minor issue.
So July 20th, 2008 was in my rear view mirror a bit.
Tennis was my first love.
Before girls.Before baseball,pizza,beer,movies and lobster.
In 2008 I had seen a couple of movies about older guys making comebacks in their respective sports and this motivated me to get back in shape for tournament play .
My love for the sport of tennis goes beyond winning matches.
I love the training,I love the sights,sounds and smells when I am on or around a tennis court.
I first hit a tennis ball as an innocent six year old boy on a clay court in Cincinnati,Ohio in 1967 .As a boy I dreamed of standing on Court Philippe Chatrier and competing on the beautiful crushed red brick for the world clay court title.
In 1988 while playing on the satellite tennis circuit I was lucky enough to visit Roland Garros when I picked up my French Federation classification card to compete in French money events.
I walked over with my tennis buddy Steve Cantor to check out Court Chatrier as it is now known .I held my breath and imagined the feeling of being out there sliding,slicing and hitting heavy topspin with that days best players .
As we walked back to the Metro station I had a visual image of returning to compete at Roland Garros to motivate me in all my practice sessions while in Paris at The University Club and Luxembourg Gardens.
When I returned to New York with renewed confidence I won two USTA-Eastern Men's events on red clay.It wasn't Paris but it was still every bit as exciting to me to claim these titles.
Before moving to New York City I viewed the US Open at Forest Hills like some sort of fairy tale place.In 1975 I sat glued to a chair in my buddy Matt Bloomfield's house while Jimmy Connors battled his way to the finals at Forest Hills on the green Har-Tru clay after they switched from grass in 1975. Only to lose to the Spanish clay master Manuel Orantes.
I never really imagined that I would stand on let alone play a match on the famed Stadium court at The West Side Tennis Club in New York City.
It was the second round of The N.Y.State Men's Clay Championships.My partner was a local teaching pro that I beat up on in sparring sessions at The Midtown Tennis Club in New York City. We faced a formidable tandem in Chris Garner and Howard Endelman. Garner had been an All American at Georgia and turned pro the year before with wins over Rafter,Kafelnikov and Todd Martin. Endelman was a top 200 ATP Tour doubles specialist.
The one game we did win was on my serve where I literally had to scratch ,claw and fight for every point.Over the next twenty years I competed on the grass courts at The West Side Tennis Club 7 or 8 times and loved every second of every match .Grass was not the easiest surface to play on but in the same way my brother looks for a challenge by going to a remote spot on the globe be it Mount Everest or Papua New Guinea .Grass is my New Guinea (minus living in mud huts and avoiding headhunters).Especially when you have to adapt your game to the nuances of tennis' original surface. Low or no bouncing balls.
Getting into a permanent squatting position works your core in ways you cannot imagine .Try doing that for a week or two!
As you warm up for a match and gaze out at the Stadium that held many legendary epic matches on one side and the beautiful main building on the other you can get weak at the knees and there were moments when I would look over in disbelief .
So in the summer of 2008 I entered a series of events in addition to competing on my USTA men's league team .
The first two events were against college opponents that were around 25-30 years younger than myself . After not playing in a tournament for 3-4 years it felt great to be in the mix . Hitting the ball cleanly, grinding out points and feeling the fatigue in my lungs and legs .
My third event was on the fabled grass at West Side . I arrived early for my match to take in the surroundings and ready myself for my match .A junior player that I knew warmed me up for what would be my final match .
It felt great to be on the grass again after a few years away .
My friend Lloyd Emanuel had run an event at West Side for many years and then a few years back (unfortunately for Eastern tennis) the tournament was cancelled.
My opponent had never competed on grass but was a good 15 years younger than me and it seemed a much better ball striker .His lack of grass court experience helped me gain an early lead of 5-2 in the first set until he figured out the unique grass bounce .
After that the battle ensued for the first set. It was ended in a tiebreaker which I lost and then he won the second set and the match .After it was over I looked across to the main building and turned to look at the Stadium and felt a bit of sadness that I would have to wait until next year to compete on the turf at West Side again .
That was June 24th and less than one month later my life as a tennis player would end for what seemed like a lifetime.
I never did get to hit a tennis ball at Roland Garros ....... only in my dreams .
But I will always have the memories of the special moments I spent at West Side etched in my mind .
Memories of the soft blades of grass ,the majestic beauty of it's Tudor clubhouse and the stadium where some of my sport's greatest matches have taken place.
Next week I will return to The West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills to compete at the USTA 40 and over championships along with the likes of Michael Chang.
Yes that Chang. French Open champion. Davis Cup hero.
So I get to check one more line off my bucket list.
It would be great to think that I have the physical prowess to compete for the title but....after July 20th,2008 I feel blessed just to hit on the grass courts one more time.
Here is the US Open story on my match with Zach Jonas