Friday, April 13, 2012

Sphairistike, Anyone?

Spring has sprung, with a vengeance,  as if the Easter Bunny had been replaced by his/her cuz, Energizer Bunny.

Some might celebrate by teeing-off instead of being teed-off at winter. Others might attend an early season game at the ballpark, where their team, however woeful (you know who you are), is still hopeful far above its players’ or new big-talking manager’s true talents.Well, at least for a week or so.

Or, maybe you just want to wander down Manursing Way and gaze at the too-early blonde daffodils, lined up like contestants at a Gwyneth Paltrow look-alike contest, before packs of vegan wild turkeys gobble (sorry) them all up.

Myself? For fifty-five springs I’ve celebrated pretty much the same way. I check to see if the nets have pushed up through the court surfaces to cling to their net posts. True, in some of those earliest years I may have played most of my imagined sets against various brick walls or garage doors around the town where I was raised. The name of that place just happened at the time to be immediately recognizable around the world as a mecca for playing something called lawn tennis: Forest Hills.

What’s lawn tennis you say? An excuse to stand around daintily munching watercress sandwiches on little crust-less triangles of white bread? Wrong.

Way back when, lawn tennis, in case you never knew or have forgotten, had about as much to do with the slugfests that take place today on parking lot-like surfaces masquerading as real grass (Wimbledon), genuine clay (Paris), and, well, actual painted asphalt (the aptly named Flushing and Melbourne).

Each spring, no matter what court surface we choose, many of us celebrate Walter Compton Wingfield’s game that hit the market in 1874 as a boxed set with racquets, netting, and vulcanized rubber balls for anyone with access to a relatively flat lawn. Poor Walter, unlike Sir Thomas Lipton, he obviously did not know the value of brand consultants, since he called his game Sphairistike, which soon became known as “sticky.”

Sticky, anyone? Of course not. But, by 1877 certain English uppers attached a new brand name to this game, Wimbledon, which is why we do not get up early in July to have breakfast at Sphairistike.

Since tennis was my high school’s most consistently successful sport (not necessarily a hard thing to do), I must confess to having cheated winter back then by playing something called indoor tennis. There were very few “bubbles” at the time to cover courts, so we practiced after school in the cavernous armories of upper-Manhattan on dimly-lit, unvarnished wood courts. Once, we even played on linoleum courts. Fast? Returning serve, you began to understand how the number eight hitter felt facing Koufax.

But, let’s be honest, indoor tennis is often merely an act of desperation. Even the most fervent bubble-heads long for the first day of being able to wear shorts or skirts comfortably or to hit a very high lob which does not touch some plastic sky and come straight back down to you. Indoor tennis is just a way to get out of your house; you might as well be shopping at the mall or picking up the laundry.

WSTC Stadium 
The longest, hardest winter wait to play that I ever experienced was my first, when I was eight years old. In September, Ken Rosewall had won the US Nationals, forerunner of today’s orphaned Flushing Open, right across the street at The West Side Tennis Club, itself orphaned from its former home in Manhattan. “Muscles,” as his Aussie pals used to call him, had defeated his best friend Lew Hoad in the finals, preventing Hoad from achieving what only Don Budge had been able to accomplish up until then: a Grand Slam.

I attended the Quarter-Finals that year, 1956, and the very next day a friend of the family handed me his old Coronet Simplex gut-strung racquet, my first of many. I immediately began hitting balls against a wall in a small courtyard less than fifty yards from the WSTC entrance across Tennis Place. I could see the players, including that year’s champion Shirley Fry and her finalist opponent Althea Gibson walking into the grounds, who both signed a long-lost green leather autograph book.

WSTC Club House
I had immediately fallen in love with the game. It is almost impossible to convey the combination of athleticism, artistry, and passionate competition on display upon those lawn courts now. Today’s game, even at Wimbledon, bears only passing resemblance to the game as played on the soft and unruly turf at Newport, Longwood, Southampton, South Orange, Merrion and Forest Hills. Men and women players demonstrated a variety of styles and ventured fearlessly to the net on most points. There were always powerful players, but power only got you so far. Players who held to the baseline as to mommy’s hand at the crosswalk, spent their day futilely chasing their opponents cleverly angled volleys.

Was the game too elitist and private in those days? Not to a small boy with his new pre-owned racquet, PF Flyers, and wearing his “sharkskin” First Communion shorts, who desperately wanted to be a part of it all as soon as the next spring could come.

Still does.

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