Monday, August 17, 2015

The Greatest Men's Tennis Matches I Ever Saw--And a Few I Didn't

I appreciated the great tennis blog The Changeover publishing my personal ranking of the best men's matches I ever saw and a few I didn't. It opened this way:

To take several years to write a 352-page novel about a tennis player (including early drafts that were much longer), you have to first be obsessed with the game. Part of being obsessed means watching thousands of tennis matches—the majority on TV, but many in person. For those I couldn’t watch or the many brilliant battles that happened before my time, I’ve looked deep into the game’s history in search of the epics.

For my personal ranking of the thirteen best men’s professional tennis matches of all time, presented here in reverse order, I’ve included five I attended, five I watched on television, and three I read about. Like all such “best of” rankings, there is nothing scientific or objective about it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jack Kramer: The Racket Worthy of its Crown

My very first tennis racket in 1971 when I was four years old was a Wilson Jack Kramer. My dad had sawed off the handle to make it short enough for me to use. I can vividly remember the delicious feel of the Kramer sweet spot when a shot hit right in the center and the wood frame flexed back and put a smooth smack on the ball that sounded like the man for whom the racket was named.  


I didn’t think about this sound until I read the excellent tribute to Kramer by Steve Tignor in Tennis magazine in 2009 where he wrote about ”the three quick syllables and hard, clicking ks at the center” of Kramer’s name.  For me, Kramer’s name is like the sound of a rally: Jack! — the sound of the ball on the strings after an especially good forehand;  Krame is the shot zipping through the air; and Er is the felt-covered rubber orb landing on the court. Then it repeats.  Jack Krame – erJack Krame – er…the rhythmic sounds of tennis.
About 17 years ago when I lived in Houston I went to put up signs advertising for a yard sale at my home. I stopped off at a antique/junk store near my house and ended up buying a dozen Kramer frames for a total of $100, acquiring rackets even when I was on a mission to sell things. I’ve continued to collect Kramer rackets, even though since Wilson made about 10 million or so between 1949 and 1982, these frames are by no means rare.  I love the Jack Kramer racket nonetheless, both the ubiquitous ones with the golden crown on the throat and the 
rarer, earlier ones emblazoned with his image. A Kramer feels good in your hand, standing there swinging in the living room or the den every now and then, imagining a ball hitting squarely in the sweet spot. 

Shortly before New Year’s Eve in 2000 I spent a long time in a sports shop in New York contemplating buying the graphite Jack Kramer Autograph Millenium Edition for $250 or so.  I passed, reasoning that I already had multiples of the real thing and didn’t need one of graphite. 

They don’t make wood frames like the original anymore — rackets are all plasticized composites and near weightless and coded with numbers like software programs, bearing futuristic descriptions such as ”Microgel” and “Cortex.” 

Tennis rackets were better when they were made of wood and named after a man. Long live Jack Kramer.

Originally published October 28, 2009.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rocket Rod Laver and the Last True Grand Slam

It's more than fitting that the finals of the Australian Open are played in Rod Laver Arena, named for the compact redhead with the powerful left forearm who is the holder of the last true Grand Slam in men's tennis.    

The Rocket won the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 1969, the second year of the Open Era, repeating the calendar Grand Slam he won in 1962 as an amateur.  No man has won a calendar year Grand Slam since, and none have really even come close --Sampras, who won 14 Grand Slam events,  never even reached a French Open final.  Laver, who won 11, missed 1963-1967 because he turned pro when only amateurs were allowed to compete in the slams. He surely would have won more if he hadn't missed those years, and most likely would hold as many or more as Roger Federer's leading count of 17.

Federer, Andre Agassi, and Rafael Nadal have won the career Grand Slam, but Laver won all four twice in the same year, and forty-six years ago he did it against all-comers -- pros and amateurs alike.  To his credit, Laver is very gracious, saying that the game was not as good in his day as it is now.  And three of the four slams then were played on grass and one on clay, unlike today's mixture of two hard courts, one grass and one clay. But the fact is Laver did it, not once, but twice.  

Until Djokovic or someone else comes along and lofts all four championship trophies in the same calendar year, The Rocket should still be called the Grand Slam king.

You can read Laver's beguiling memoir,  The Education of a Tennis Player, (co-written with Bud Collins and reissued by New Chapter Press) and watch his 1969 Wimbledon final win below.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Joy of the Australian (Insomniac) Open

The Australian Open is underway. I've always loved watching summertime tennis on cold winter nights, and wrote this blog post below on January 24, 2009.
It was a gray 6 degrees Fahrenheit (-14 celsius) one morning where I live in Philadelphia last week, a layer of ice coating the sidewalks outside my home, but I was warmed watching summertime tennis from Melbourne where players hide in the shade during changeovers and long points.
I love the Australian Open's new year reminder that this weather and this winter won't last forever, that the short January days are lengthening a little with each passing, and that summer is out there somewhere in the future, that long days on outdoor tennis courts are on the horizon. Baseball has the renewal of each season with spring training, when the breezes are warm in Florida and the grass begins to grow again, but I'll put the joy of starting the new tennis season in the middle of summer down under up against it anytime.
The only problem with the Aussie Open is the sleep deprivation it requires. I've missed a lot of live matches the first week because I had to go to bed at a reasonable hour, but I was happy to wake up about 7 a.m. and flip on the TV and catch the end of the late night matches that stretch past midnight down under, 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Just this morning I caught the end of the Fernando Gonzalez-Richard Gasquet five-setter, two brilliant groundstrokers crushing the ball at each other, four hours into the match, tied at 10-all in the fifth set. It was an exciting wake-up call as both went for big shots right to the end, Gonzalez winning 12-10 in the fifth, after losing the first two sets. 
This week though, I'm sure they'll be some great night matches in Melbourne, which means a 3:30 a.m. start where I am, and that I'll wake up during the night and wonder about the score and go down and start watching a match. The pull of a Grand Slam match is hard to resist. At the very least, this week I'll be setting my alarm for 5 a.m. or so, in time for a very early breakfast and the world's best tennis. 
I'll catch up on my sleep in February.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Quietly Playing the Qualies

Several of the chapters in my novel Red Dirt take place in the qualifying draws of the French Open and the U.S. Open.  This week the Australian Open qualifyings are going on, a largely forgotten part of the tournament that precedes the main draw. Here’s a blog post I wrote about the U.S. Open qualifyings in August 2008.

Most tennis fans consider the Grand Slams a two-week event, but in reality, there are three weeks of play starting with the qualifying draws — what insiders refer to simply as the “qualies.”

The qualies are a battle of 128 players hoping to win three matches to earn one of 16 open spots at the Open table. For those who have cracked the top 100 before, the qualifying tournament is a dreaded sign that their game has fallen and may never get back up

Last year’s U.S. Open qualifying draw included longtime pro Andrei Pavel who is 0-5 this year and ranking has plummeted to 237. Other players, however, like Rainer Schuettler, who also played last year’s Open qualies, have proved you can play the qualies and still turn their careers around; Schuettler reached the Wimbledon semis this summer and is now ranked 34. But for less-accomplished players -- youngsters on the way up and journeyman pros who’ve never cracked the top 100 -- it is a chance to reach the main draw of the U.S. Open, perhaps the greatest feat of their tennis careers

Reaching the main draw also means a substantial payday for low-earning players: first round losers in the main draw earn $16,500. Professional tennis at the minor-league level is a very tough row to hoe. While everyone obsesses over Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, there are legions of players battling it out for peanuts and coveted-ranking points on the Challenger and Futures tours

Consider that the 147th best baseball player in the world earns a few million year in a guaranteed contract that will be paid even if he injures himself in April and misses the season. In tennis, Sam Warburg, the American ranked 147th in the world as of Aug. 10, this year has earned only $68,201 and has career earnings of a mere $231,207.  That’s a pittance when you consider the expenses of travel and training professional tennis demands.

For fans, the Open qualies are an excellent alternative for those who find attending the main draw of the tournament too crowded and too expensive. Attendance at the qualifying tournament is free, and there are always multiple matches taking place on the outer courts from which to choose.

There are no binoculars required to see the matches, as is the case if you have upper level seats in the Arthur Ashe Stadium in the main draw. From the top sections of Ashe, the view of the court is about the same as a window seat from the airplanes taking off and landing at nearby La Guardia.

At the qualies, you can sit in the front row.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Searching for Big Bill Tilden

In the 1920s, Bill Tilden's fame was on par with that of Babe Ruth and Bobby Jones. He won seven U.S. Nationals (now the U.S. Open), but today he is mostly forgotten. I went in search of his small Philadelphia grave, and wrote an essay about him that appeared in the 2008 U.S. Open issue of Tennis magazine. (Click on the pages to enlarge.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tennis in the Gloaming

Originally published September 28, 2010.

My buddy Anthony Pozzi and I planned one last match outdoors before the days got too short and the weather too cold and play moved under the inflatable bubble that covers four of the nine courts at the Green Valley Tennis Club in Haddon Township, New Jersey.

My mother-in-law was in town to babysit, and I relished the rare night out for tennis while my wife was teaching, a night I'm usually changing diapers, hunting for clean pacifiers, and trying to rock our young one to sleep.

The bubble was already up and rain earlier in the day caused me to expect that we would have to play indoors, but late afternoon the skies cleared up and we punched in on Court 7, starting about 5:45 p.m., most certainly my last evening outdoor tennis for the year.

As usual, our games were long, deuce-ad, deuce-ad, and the first set, even though 6-3 in my favor, took a while, at least an hour. By this time the sunset sky through the trees at the end of the courts showed fiery red and orange, like a canvas by one of Hudson River School painters.

We started the second and played another long while to 2-2, at which point we decided to play a tiebreaker. He almost skunked me, winning 7-1 after I played a courageous (okay, lucky that the angry swipe I took went in) point.

Darkness by this point was coming down hard, but we agreed to play a 10-point super tiebreaker in place of the third set.

We moved from Court 7 to Court 5, optimistically hopeful that the easternmost court would provide just a little more light. He started out strong and the twilight reminded me of the Scottish word I learned from the marvelous short story, "In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark, a fantastic writer and teacher I was lucky enough to learn from in grad school at Rutgers-Newark.

I also thought of some early lines in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden recalls throwing a football on the lawn: "It was just before dinner and it was getting pretty dark out, but we kept chucking the ball around anyway. It kept getting darker and darker, and we could hardly see the ball any more, but we didn't want to stop doing what we were doing."

I felt the same, not wanting to stop, to not lose the last rays of light and the last of warm weather allowing outdoor tennis.

Down 8-5, by this time near pitch dark, I mounted a comeback, and somehow held off a few match points to come back and win the tiebreaker 13-11. On match point I hit a solid serve that he couldn't see at all.

I hadn't beaten Anthony in a while, and even though I had to enlist darkness to do it, it felt good.

I would have been content losing too, however, happy to be able to steal a last few moments of summer-like evening a few days shy of October. Besides, Tuesday night is Taco Night at the Tap Room, the bar/restaurant next door to the club, and the outdoor deck was open, the tacos $2 each, and a bucket with five Mexican beers only $10.

Anthony and I and several other players sat under a tree on the deck and ate and drank and told tennis stories.

It's a memory that will sustain me through the rapidly approaching days when the sun sets before I leave work, when ice begins forming on the morning windshields, and the outdoor nets go into winter storage.