Archives for category: tennis


tennis-ball-984611__340I  I looked forward to playing tennis at our new condominium in Costa Rica.  The sales literature we relied upon showed two courts nestled amidst tropical landscaping.   The selling realtor, a fabulously successful Californian named Brett, assured us these courts were of the highest quality and had lights for evening play when desired.  Upon our arrival, however, we realized the only thing he failed to a mention is that the courts did not yet exist.  Perhaps, after two or twenty-two or seventy-two more condominium units are sold (everyone has a different story) the two courts in our community will be constructed.

“Pura vida,” said Brett, when asked in person about the courts, using the local fits-all expression to convey ‘no worries.’

“But you told us there are courts,” I said.  “I believed that our place has tennis courts.”

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Brett, unruffled.  “There’s a court at the Coco Bay Club.  You can play there.”

“How far is that?” I asked.

“Five minutes, tops,” said Brett.

Allowing for Brett’s tendencies, I took that to mean ten-fifteen minutes.  Not as optimal as the one minute walk I’d expected, but workable.

“Is there anyone to play with?” I asked.

hotel-swimming-pool-1065275__340“There are a ton of people at Coco Bay, and a pool and a spa and a five star restaurant.  You’ll love it.”

“Five stars?” I asked, my skepticism rising.

“Well, maybe four stars.  Plus, it might not be open this time of year.”

Brett’s nickname could well be “grain of salt.”  As another example, he told me that Magic Jack, a computer attachment for low-cost phoning, is free for three years, even with the advertisement in front of both of us stating “Six months free.”   One tolerates Brett’s “reality” due to his legendary effectiveness.  Someday, if we choose to sell, he’ll convince the next owner that our unit is, somehow, worth more than rational analysis indicates.

“Alan from my office is a member there,” Brett continued.   “I’ll have him call you tonight.  He’s a great tennis player.”
“Wonderful,” I said.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t hear from Alan that evening.  The next morning, I walked over to the real estate office to see when Alan might be in and ran into him at the entrance.  He was identifiable by his appearance in tennis whites.  In the dusty hubbub of downtown Coco, that stands out.  Fortunately for me, Alan’s opponent had just canceled, and he was pleased to have a replacement.  Alan is a about forty, a Quebecois who headed off to warmer, Spanish-speaking climes decades earlier.

“Were you going to play at Coco Bay?” I asked.

“Yes, my buddy is a member there, and I was going to be his guest,” said Alan.

“Oh,” I said.  “Brett said you were a member.”

“Well, not really,” Alan said.  “But I have an idea.  We’ll drive over there and tell them you are a potential member and I’m your realtor.  I’m sure they’ll let us in.  They’re desperate for new members.”

“Hunh?  Brett said the place is humming with activity,” I said.

“Well…” said Alan.

“Anyway, the realtor idea should work,” I said, thinking that the story plausible and increasingly willing to embrace quasi-reality  .

“I just hope I can give you a good game,” said Alan.  “I’m a beginner.”

“Brett said you were ‘great,’” I said.

“Well…” he halted again, both of us contemplating Brett’s relationship with truth.

Alan drove me back to my place to change into tennis clothes and pick up my racquet.  Though disappointed at Alan’s “beginner” status, I tried to remember that playing “for fun,” not blood, is appropriate on vacation.

I settled into the passenger seat of Alan’s SUV for the drive to Coco Bay.  It involved navigating a local neighborhood.  There were few cars on the road, but tons of pedestrians and bicycles, people on their way to work and school.  Women with assorted bags walked among fruit stalls and small bodegas to complete their daily shopping.

Driving in small-town Costa Rica is a double-edged experience.  There are chaotic traffic patterns due to a lack of shoulders, curbs or painted lines and ever-present potholes.  Also, a single bicycle can be loaded with as many as three adults or four children.  On the positive side, one admires the vibrant hubbub of the community.  Children walk in groups to school, instead of being bused or carpooled as they would be in much of America.  They chatter and laugh as though they had not a care in the world.  And, though they live in homes we would consider hovels, most are dressed and groomed like fashion models.

“Do you mind if I leave off the car for a wash?” asked Alan.  “It’s just a few hundred yards from the club.”

“No problem,” I said.

The car wash consisted of a lean-two where two tattooed guys had a hose, a bucket and rags.  At home, one would no more hand over keys to them than to panhandlers on the street.  Yet, Alan chatted with them in Spanish and bade them good-bye:  “Regresamos en dos horas, mas o menos,” he said.  (“We’ll be back in two hours, more or less.”)

We walked across the main avenue and proceeded down a side street overhung with tropical trees.  The pavement became a pitted dirt road; we exchanged amiable nods and greetings with several people as we passed.  A pack of napping dogs barely raised their heads to note the two Gringos walking with tennis equipment.  Finally, we came to a guardhouse and gate beneath a faded sign:  “Coco Beach Club, Luxury Residences and Lots, Completion Spring 2009.”

“Hola,” said Alan, to arouse a sleepy guard in an ill-fitting uniform, who bore a striking resemblance to Larry of ‘The Three Stooges.’

He seemed surprised by our arrival but waved us in.  Beyond the gate, elaborately designed paving stones conveyed the aspirations of a high-end community, the effect diminished by grass growing up between them.

“This place doesn’t look very successful,” I said.

“They got killed in the downturn,” said Alan.  “But they might revive with the economy.”  He shrugged, to convey: “Who knows?”

“Does anyone live here?” I asked.

“They sold about ten percent of the lots,” Alan replied.  “Fortunately, they completed the roads and clubhouse before everything died, and the tennis court.”

We arrived at a massive stone clubhouse, where the hopes of pre-2008 bust was reduced to humidity-swollen doors, cracked tiles, and a shuttered restaurant.  The “spa,” visible through a condensation-ruined glass wall, consisted of a selection of forlorn exercise machines, many with hand-written signs indicating “no funcionar.”   No one was in the “office” to speak with us.

“We’ll play first,” said Alan.  “The court is just past the pool,” he continued, upbeat.  In spite of his good cheer, I envisioned a tennis court with cracks and grass growing in the middle.  “Stop it,” I scolded myself, fighting to prevent cloudy thoughts from darkening the sunny day.  We walked out the back door of the clubhouse and arrived, at last, at a glistening swimming pool, surrounded by palm trees and flowers.  Several other guests lolled in the water and made the Club seem alive, however iguana-1057830__340tenuously.  Insects buzzed around foliage in a riot of color. A large iguana lounged at poolside like a tourist.

“There’s the court,” said Alan, pointing to a metal gate at the end of a walkway.

I could only see the entrance as we approached, since thick shrubbery surrounded the rest.  When we entered, I was relieved to see a bright green surface and a sturdy net, a perfectly respectable tennis court, with absolute privacy.  Or so I thought.

Tennis is played in a variety of circumstances and in front of a variety of on-lookers.  At Coco Bay, however, I played for the first time before spectators who hooted and hollered after every shot.  In fact, they screamed between points and during water breaks.  The noise began with our first warm-up shot and continued.   We played not before rabid fans in monkey-624797__340Chile or Kazakhstan but rather, a troupe of howler monkeys, who’d taken seats in a massive fig tree adjacent to the court.  They found our game entertaining.  Or, they found it irritating, or amusing, or disgusting.  Hard to say.

Whenever there was a lull in the monkey symphony, we heard roosters from somewhere beyond the fence and, to top it off, cows mooed to provide the bass.  On percussion, a flock of parrots chattered as they darted between surrounding trees.

“Is it always like this?” I asked Alan, astonished.

“Not always this loud,” he said.  “There’s a hawk or something scaring parrot-807303__340the parrots.”  He motioned skyward where a massive bird I thought resembled a pterodactyl circled.

“Let me take this all in,” I said, pausing to look around.  “This is incredible.”

“Hey, there’s a reason they shot ‘Jurassic Park’ in Costa Rica,” said Alan, smiling.

Alan and I hit for an hour.  For a beginner, he wasn’t bad.  After we finished, I paid a piddling sum at the office to become a “visiting member” of the Club and walked back with Alan to retrieve his clean car.

The next morning, I saw Brett.

“Alan said you enjoyed the tennis scene yesterday,” he said.

“That’s a good way to put it,” I said.  “The actual tennis was okay.  But I will definitely remember the setting forever.”

“Listen,” he said, “there’s a few lots in there you might be interested in buying.  They can’t miss!”

“Hasta la vista, Brett,” I said, retreating.  “You’ve already helped enough!”


Thursday is senior citizens day at our local supermarket, Harris Teeter, where shoppers over sixty receive a 5% discount. Fully aware that I am approaching that age in several years, I still make some smug calculations when I encounter discount day. For instance, I steer clear of the self-checkout lines, since the “seniors” are even less technologically able than I, and always seem to get stuck. I also avoid crowded aisles where the carts move more slowly than molasses. And I park in a far-off corner of the lot, since the ding potential from those beige Buick’s is tremendous. Imagine my surprise and dismay, therefore, when the checkout girl deducted 5% from my total last Thursday, without even the decency to ASK if I qualified.
“Do I look that old?” I nearly blurted, but then thought: “If they’re going to insult me by saying I look old, I’m keeping the $2.59.” Still, another milestone on the journey of life was passed.
“What other indignities are ahead?” I asked my wife, Katie, when I arrived home.
“Be happy you’re alive and healthy,” she said.
“You’re right,” I agreed, reluctantly. But I still didn’t like this small intimation of death, like a leaf falling from a tree in late-September.

I’m not certain when I first recognized my own mortality. I was probably around forty when I calculated I was at, or close to, the “back-nine” of life, actuarially-speaking. Yet, at that time, I was still intensely busy at work and ably performing in tennis, softball and soccer. At home, my children were young, and life was simply too busy to pause for reflection, especially on a topic that had no solution, no upside, and no negotiation.
Life is different now. All three children are finished with college and established in their own lives. I retired from real estate law five years ago. If I don’t make an effort to keep busy writing or exercising, reading, or traveling, thoughts of aging creep in, like the grey hair now surrounding my temples.
The realm of athletics is a microcosm, I think, for the issue of aging. There is an inexorable trajectory, from youthful obliviousness, to full-throttle power, to coasting “at the top of your game,” to reluctant recognition that maintenance is all you can hope for before, finally, slowing down.
At fifty, in recognition of the arrival of the “maintenance” period, in the form of creaky joints, I performed triage on my roster of activities. I gave up competitive soccer, softball and racquetball in the hope of competently continuing high-level tennis.
The challenge of remaining competitive against opponents half my age is not to play “their” game. Rather, I adapt to blunting their power with guile, their speed with spin. The task is made increasingly difficult due to my inability to play as frequently as before. Basically, I play “whack-a-mole” with my body. If my elbow quits aching, my shoulder stiffens. When my heels feel solid, the shrunken cartilage in my knees becomes apparent. If, one day, I think everything feels perfect, a twinge in the neck appears.

Sports have always been important to me. My earliest memories involve ping-pong in the basement of our home. When I was four or five, I begged my older brothers to play. Well before I was able to compete with them on the table, I tried to be helpful retrieving balls from murky corners behind furniture and spider webs.
I progressed at five or six to throwing rubber balls incessantly against the outside wall of our house and, as soon as possible, commenced playing little league baseball.
Soccer was added to baseball in seventh grade when I was informed at my new school the other choice was football. While I enjoyed playing catch, being tackled by people intent upon my destruction didn’t appeal. When I was ten, my sister introduced me to tennis and I have played, with varying intensity, ever since. During college, I added squash and racquetball to the agenda. As late as my mid-thirties, I was still adding, as platform tennis, a cold-weather fusion of tennis and racquetball, became a passion.
When I began the winnowing process, it wasn’t because I enjoyed playing less; it’s that my body was not able to play as much as before. I also suspected a subtle lessening of my abilities. “I may be a pretty good shortstop, but I’m no Derek Jeter; I don’t have to do this for a living,” I noted.

Derek Jeter presently is playing out his final season of a long and distinguished career with the Yankees. While his professionalism is admired, it’s impossible to deny the decline in his performance. His defense is slowed, his power hitting non-existent, and his durability is suspect. Several fans have confided they suffer cognitive dissonance when “The Captain” takes the field. They don’t begrudge him his accolades. However, they wish he would surrender his position at shortstop to a younger, more able teammate.
I’d hate for my tennis teammates to experience such thoughts when I come to play. I don’t want to out-stay my welcome. For this fall season, I’ve forsaken the “all-ages” league for the first time, in order to play against “Over-40” competition. I’m not yet psychologically able to sign up for the “Over-55’s,” though I qualify.
If the aches and pains overwhelm, I already have a plan to return to where it all began — the ping pong table. Great sport, no running, no body contact, weightless ball, and no age limits. Every day can be senior day.

Several recent stories have featured me as the smug hero or the sympathetic victim. So, in the interest of balance, here is one where I am the dupe! Enjoy.


Hamlet’s advisor, Polonius, said: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Polonius was no dummy.
In 1986, a man named Billy Feehan invited me into his weekly tennis foursome. He was an amiable raconteur in the mold of an old-time politician. He slapped backs and shook hands like he was pumping water. He bear-hugged his doubles partners after winning shots and laughed at jokes, particularly his own, with a hearty laugh. His hair was suspiciously dark and thick for a man approaching fifty, but he never admitted to extracurricular efforts in that regard and it would have been awkward to ask. After all, Billy owned the beautiful court where we played; to be a regular in his Saturday morning doubles was a privilege in our northern Jersey community where wait-times at public courts and tennis clubs were substantial and unpredictable.
Billy was proud of his tennis ability. He propelled his barrel-chested torso with surprising agility over chicken-thin legs. After he made a winning shot, he often declared: “Whoa, bet you didn’t think I could get to that! No, you didn’t. I’m da best!”

Though I only knew Billy in the context of suburbia, I had no reason to doubt his youthful tales of stickball dominance in some corner of “da Bronx.” Trash-talk, for Billy, was an integral part of the game.
Ownership of a backyard tennis court might create a misimpression about Billy’s social status. Though surrounded by wealthy communities, his town of Hawthorne was largely working class. The court took up the entire yard. In fact, its perimeter fencing formed the boundary lines. By what means the local zoning board approved such a configuration the local planning board, I couldn’t imagine. Perhaps, Hawthorne had simply never conceived of the possibility of a backyard tennis court, so had no regulations.
In any event, Billy ran an insurance agency he inherited from his father, and professed to do well. Besides Billy and me, our group consisted of Ray and Gary. The four of us didn’t interact outside of Saturday mornings. Typical of such all-male groupings (this may be hard for women to believe) we never discussed anything of substance and knew almost nothing of each other’s personal lives. Though Ray and Gary knew of my real estate law practice, I didn’t even know their last names. Post-tennis discussions over bagels and orange juice, which we took turns providing, proceeded as follows:
“Hey, I really kicked butt today,” said Billy.
“You played tough,” I said.
“I’d whip you guys for another set but I gotta check out some land,” said Billy. “Got some investing to do.”
“Sounds good,” said Gary. “Where is it?”
“Oh, up in Westchester, Rockland, y’know,” said Billy.
“Great,” I said, skeptical in the face of such vagueness.
“I might do some developing,” Billy continued. “Any of you interested in a big payday?”
“I’ll pass,” said Ray.
“I’m happy enough with my little paydays,” I said.
Billy turned to Gary. “You?”
“No, Billy, I don’t have cash,” said Gary.
“What a bunch a’ chickens,” said Billy.
And so on. Our little group was cautious by the standards of the mid 1980’s go-go real estate market, and we were especially cautious by Billy’s standards, apparently.
On occasion, Billy referred clients to me for legal representation in the purchase or sale of a home. I appreciated his efforts and I reciprocated, when appropriate, with insurance referrals. I viewed such a business relationship as normal. I was fortunate to have similar arrangements with other local realtors, bankers, neighbors and existing clients. I also received referrals from other insurance agents.
One day, Billy called to ask if I would have lunch with him. This surprised me since I’d never seen Billy off the tennis court. I’d never seen him in street clothes.
“I’ll take you to my club,” he said.
“I didn’t know you belonged to a club,” I said.
“Yeah,” he laughed, “Gino’s Pizzeria.”
“Listen,” said Billy, when I slipped into the booth across from him a couple days later, with my two slices. “I’ve got a proposition for you…”
In my experience, such a sentence rarely portended good things. I girded myself. Billy continued: “I’m trying to build up my insurance book, and I could really use your help. For every home buyer you refer to me, I’ll give you a friendly envelope, if you know what I mean.”
“Billy,” I said, having anticipated something along these lines: “That’s not necessary. I refer people without strings, without expecting a kickback, not to mention it would be illegal.”
“Okay,” he said. “I understand where you’re coming from, you being a lawyer and all. I just figured everyone could use a little extra cash. I know I could.”
We finished lunch quickly, me feeling as though I’d touched something dirty and Billy devoid of his usual swagger. Our tennis games, however, proceeded as though nothing had happened. Several months later, I had nearly forgotten our awkward lunch when Billy announced, during a water break: “I’m adding mortgage brokering to my business. If any of you guys (he looked straight at me) know someone who needs a mortgage, I sure could use the help.”
“Wow,” said Ray, “you’ve always been focused on insurance.”
“Well,” said Billy, “insurance isn’t what it used to be. My commissions are getting squeezed.”
“That’s surprising,” said Gary, “since real estate is booming and all.” Addressing me, he added: “You must be doing great.”
“Yes, it’s been a good run,” I said, also wondering if there was more to Billy’s story. I renewed my determination to avoid entanglements with him beyond the ordinary.
Soon thereafter, Billy referred a young woman to me. She was buying a condominium in Hawthorne, and Billy said he was arranging her mortgage. Her contract appeared straightforward from my perspective, and she impressed me as a nice person, calmer than the average first-time homebuyer. Whatever concerns I may have felt initially, due to her connection to Billy, were assuaged as the transaction proceeded routinely. The day before closing, however, Billy called sounding frantic:
“There’s a problem with Maria’s deal,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Title is clean, her mortgage commitment looks good.”
“I may have made a little mistake with her paperwork,” said Billy.
“Hunh?” I said, gripping the receiver tighter, tension filling my gut.
“Um, ah,” sputtered Billy. “She had to show some liquid assets to close, but, ah, she doesn’t really have any.”
“How did she get the mortgage commitment?” I asked.
“Well, I ah, sort of, ah created some documentation for her,” said Billy. “I figured she could get the cash from a buddy of mine in Paterson for a second mortgage, but he says he’s tapped out.”
“Are you saying you forged her application?” I asked.
“Hey, ‘forged’ is a pretty harsh word,” said Billy. “I ‘improved’ it.”
I breathed deeply and remained silent for a moment while the ramifications welled up in my mind. I recited them off aloud:
“Maria has already waived the protection of the mortgage contingency since she received a clean commitment. She stands to lose her deposit of $20,000 if she doesn’t close. The seller won’t be able to move and he could lose his deposit on the house he’s planning to buy. His sellers are screwed, too. This is like disaster dominoes. Maria could be on the hook for it all, too, and she’s going to sue you, Billy, for sure.”
“And everybody else in this deal,” said Billy, pointedly.
I felt anger pounding in my temples, anger on behalf of Maria, and anger on behalf of myself. I hated crises, of course, particularly when I’d played no role in their creation. This situation was like a comet falling on my head from clear, blue skies.
“Only you can save the situation,” said Billy.
“How’s that?” I asked curtly.
“If you provide $20,000 for the closing, I’ll get you paid back in a week. I’ll rustle up the dough,” said Billy.
“Are you crazy?” I asked, my heart pounding to match my head. Besides the outrage of his assumption that I would simply write a check for $20,000, I was certain lending money to a client was frowned upon by the rules of ethics.

“Billy, if it’s that simple, why don’t you write the check?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m not liquid,” he said. “My money’s tied up in land.”
“What does Maria say about this? Can her parents help?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “They don’t have money. I told her I’d take care of arranging the down payment. She doesn’t even know about this. She’s just a babe in the woods.”
“That apparently makes two of us,” I said.
“Listen,” Billy said. “It’s simple. You provide the $20,000, Maria gets her condo tomorrow, no one loses anything, and no one gets sued. I’ll pay you back in a week. I’ll even get you an extra thousand bucks, cash. That’s half of my commission.”
“I don’t want your commission,” I said, bitterly. I felt revolted, like I’d tasted something rancid. In a way, I had.
I tossed and turned that night. I didn’t share the dilemma with anyone, at work or at home. Finally, when I weighed the risks and benefits, I decided I’d rather risk the money and decent sleep for one week than consign Maria and her innocent seller to the meat grinder of our legal system. I’d be stuck in it with them, too, with Billy, and it could take years to resolve. I’d have to pay $5,000 for my insurance deductible, at a minimum, and have higher rates moving forward. Anyone familiar with shotgun litigation, where everyone within range gets sprayed, will understand my decision to risk $20,000 was not without some rational basis.
The closing took place as scheduled. Maria appeared delighted and had no idea of the source of her down payment. I gave her a bouquet of flowers as a house gift, as I did to all home buyers. Billy arrived as we were finishing the first mortgage paperwork. I barely acknowledged him, but he made a big splash presenting Maria with a bottle of champagne. He winked at me when we made eye contact.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “It’s all set. One week, and you’ll be fine.”

He had Maria sign a note for her “second mortgage.”
I tried to put the matter out of my mind. Fortunately, I was busy with other closings and Saturday tennis was rained out. When the seven days were up, I drove to my office with dread. I hadn’t heard from Billy all week and wondered if he would show up; I tried not to consider what to do if he didn’t. To my relief, Billy stood on the landing at the top of the steps outside my office door with a broad smile and an envelope.
“What did I tell you?” he asked.
I didn’t respond, but took the envelope.
“Are we still friends?” he asked.
“I’ll think about it,” I said, pointedly failing to accept his handshake.
Billy turned and went down the stairs. Figuratively speaking, I’d dodged a bullet. It was like finding your car’s parking meter expired but you hadn’t gotten a ticket – except the magnitude was a thousand times greater. A reprieve! I felt elated. At my desk, in private, I opened the envelope. Instead of the hundred dollar bills I was expecting, there were tens and twenties. They totaled only $5,000. I felt like my head might explode.
I called Billy’s number and left a message demanding full payment and quitting the tennis group. Sparing the reader tedious details, I called and beeped (an annoying technology of the 80’s and 90’s) Billy’s number several times a day for the next several months, leaving messages on his answering machine ranging in tone from sarcastic to angry to pleading, depending on my mood. Rarely did I receive a response, but he eventually delivered two more $5,000 installments via a messenger, who ran into my office without notice and handed me envelopes.
Billy soon disappeared altogether. I left a message or two on his phone each week, out of habit and passive-aggression, but despaired of receiving full payment. As a relatively prominent local real estate attorney, my hands were tied. It was too embarrassing to report Billy to the police, let alone chase him in court. If I did, I would have to address my own stupidity, the ethical problems involved in my awareness of his forgery, and my lending of money to an unknowing client.
Nearly a year after the closing, by which time Billy’s line was dead, I happened to notice a newspaper headline: “Hawthorne Insurance Agent Charged With Fraud.” The article indicated that Billy had been arrested. Allegedly, he had accepted payments from customers and forged their coverage over a period of years, without forwarding payment to actual insurers. Six months later, I read of Billy’s conviction and sentence to several years in prison. I also read, with satisfaction, that he’d lost all his assets in the real estate bust precipitated by the 1987 stock market crash.
Considering the magnitude of his criminality, I considered myself lucky to have lost only $5,000. I hadn’t exactly been a “lender,” in the classic sense of the word, but the caution counseled by Polonius still made sense. I applied it with increased diligence for the rest of my career.


When one’s age is equal to a prominent speed limit it’s gratifying to continue to compete in tennis against significantly younger players.  Gratification, however, does not make it easier.  I am on a USTA 4.0-level team.  That equates roughly to golfing with a handicap of 8 or batting about .305 in baseball.  It’s solid without being extraordinary.

My teammates are all at least fifteen years younger than I, but when we play doubles, age is not an issue.  “Craftiness” and “experience” and “calmness under pressure” are my attributes.  What I lack in power or running speed is offset by the assignment of a complementary partner who hits hard and leaps high.  My results rank me as one of the better players.

Singles, however, is a different sport.  One is all alone.  My team, called the “Bulldogs” (something about Durham) has qualified to compete in the State Championships.  To that end, my teammates have been playing each other in “challenge” matches in order to establish our pecking order.  The better one does against one’s own team, the higher court they will play at the tournament.

I played teammates against whom I have had a lot of success in my first two challenge matches.  Both also made the error of agreeing to play at my community’s clay courts, a slow surface.  I sliced and spun my way to comfortable victories and then soaked up their admiration.  After all, if my exploits are attributed to super-human qualities, their defeat at the hands of “the old guy” is less painful for them to accept.

The third match, however, was against our star.  Dave is a twenty-three-year-old so recently graduated from college that he still talks avidly about the challenges of taking early-morning classes and studying through the night.  His racquet bag still has the insignia of his college tennis club and his strings and shirts are in college colors.  Dave may be young, but he parried my offer to play on clay, cogently pointing out that the tournament was going to be played on hard courts.   Damn.  I guess they do teach them something in school these days.

I arrived several minutes early at our chosen facility, a Durham park near Dave’s office.  I noticed people hanging out around the jungle gym and the basketball courts.  The tennis court was empty except for numerous twigs and bottles.  I used the extra time to clean up while trying to ignore a teenager intently trying to remove a bicycle from a nearby rack by unorthodox means.  I convinced myself he’d forgotten the combination to the lock.

While I waited, a couple of ten-year-olds took turns crashing their bicycles into the fence surrounding the court.  Each cheered the other’s resulting fall as though this were a new event for the X-Games.  Perhaps it is.  I also noticed an older couple making out noisily beneath some bleachers.  I was relieved when they disappeared into the concrete block restrooms adjacent to the parking lot.  Finally, Dave arrived.  I had never been so happy to see an opponent.

We exchanged greetings and warmed up.  I noticed Dave’s arm was really “live.”  When he struck the ball, it had tremendous spin and hopped off the court.  I devised a strategy that was something along the lines of:  “Keep it away from him.”   I then noticed that he covered space with long, effortless strides so was only two long lopes from basically anywhere on the court.

My next strategy was I might hit “moon” balls that he might have trouble corralling.  Well, considering that Dave is six-foot-four, the high bounces didn’t faze him.  And when he came close to the net, the challenge of getting something over him and having it still land inside the court became clear.  Finally, we took several practice serves, and I realized he hit his “second” serve faster than I hit my first serve.  Not good.

My goal as we started was I wanted to avoid the dreaded “bagel.”  I considered how I would start the e-mail to our captain:  “Dave needed an ego boost.”  The first game was a revelation, however.  When I served a slow ball out wide, Dave tried to crush it so hard his shot sailed long.  After this happened several times, he became frustrated and hit balls ever farther out.  He muttered profanities as I recognized a wonderful thing:  “He really is young.”  The more slowly I hit my shots, the more wildly he hit his.


The score was 3-0 for me when the music began.  An ice cream truck arrived repeating notes from a Bach Minuet.  I couldn’t resist providing this bit of information to the now-disconsolate Dave who looked at me as though I had set a new standard for nerdiness.  I suppose I had.  The music initially struck me as funny for being so out-of-place.  After it repeated nearly one hundred times the charm had worn off.  The simple tune stuck in my head.

I fought off several difficult serves to take a 4-0 lead and then served my spin-balls to make it 5-0.  As we changed sides Dave barely looked at me.  “I haven’t lost a bagel since I was ten,” he said.  I felt badly for him, though not enough to let him win a game; only enough to contain my giddiness and not say anything obnoxious.  As it turned out, I didn’t have to make a moral choice.  Dave served a succession of double faults and the first set was mine.


When we started the second set, the ice cream truck finally departed.  A new distraction replaced it, namely: the lights came on as darkness descended.  They buzzed, like a nest of hornets, if hornets were the size of cruise missiles.  Like the music, I thought the buzz would abate after a “warming up” period, but I was wrong.  The only benefit of the buzz was that we couldn’t hear the teenagers at the jungle gym who were engaging in a melee.  Perhaps, they were having fun.  I didn’t hear any gun shots.

Dave began to find his range in the second set.  He slowed down and recognized he would benefit from lengthening the rallies.  After all, I’m physically incapable of hitting the ball past him.  Therefore, if we just kept hitting back and forth, eventually I would either make a mistake, or I would hit a ball short enough for him to clobber with a large margin for error.  The score went back and forth and the games seemed interminable; Dave emerged with a 6-4 win.  We had to play a third and deciding set.  Dave smiled confidently as we drank water.  I could tell he was appraising our respective chances:  he was thirty years younger, taller, faster and fitter.  How could he lose?

My thoughts were simpler and more diabolical, albeit not with any actual basis in tennis scoring.  I pointed out that if I could win just three games in the third set, I would win the aggregate score.  Dave regarded me for a moment, not sure if I was joking.  I decided to go for reverse psychology:  “I’m just happy to give you a workout,” I said, with a degree of insincere modesty that even I found nauseating.


Early summer in North Carolina is a sweaty affair.  By the time it was 2-2 in the third set, we were both low on water.  We had to decide whether to risk botulism by filling our water bottles at the water fountain attached to the bathrooms or just to drink smaller and smaller portions.  I decided to sip more slowly.  Dave risked the fountain.  I digress.

We proceeded to hold our serves.  Mine were slow and bedeviling.  His were fast and powerful.  I benefited from the fact that the balls were worn and less lively.  Dave’s accuracy had improved, but his kick much weaker. Still, I couldn’t win a game on his serve.  3-3, 4-4, 5-5.  I finally cracked in my next service game and contributed my first double fault of the evening.  Dave pounced and took a 6-5 lead.  He served to within a point of victory but I broke back to force a tie-break.  Dave let out one final scream of frustration, but I sensed that he appreciated the challenge.

In one special point, for instance, he raced in to retrieve a drop shot, raced back to return a lob, came in for another drop, and scrambled back for another lob.  Just as I prepared to graciously tell him “good try,” he returned the ball with a ‘tweener.”  Caught between amazement and annoyance,  I hit a third drop shot to win the point.  There is little place for sentiment in a tie-breaker!

Justice might have been served if we had called the match a “tie.”  But as competitive males, that was not a viable option.  Also, our captain needed a result for the team placement.  We went back-and-forth for several points.  Finally, Dave pulled ahead.  When he hit the last winner, I didn’t begrudge him the win.  He’s the better player and should play on the first court at the tournament.  I’m satisfied to have prepared him for what he’ll encounter from a wily, older opponent.

I am pleased to have competed so long and so well.  Now, if I could just get Bach’s Minuet out of my head….