Thursday, October 4, 2012

Same River Twice

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote that nobody can wade into the same river twice, or something close to that. My Greek is a little rust-iki.

And, I say that no tennis player ever enters into the same game twice. No matter how many times I play on the same court with the same partner against the same pair across the net, each match is different and I always witness a shot, an angle, stroke or effort that I have never seen before.

A Saturday morning, Manursing Island Club court #2. We switched sides as the last minutes of summer expired and celebrated the equinox net-side. One of us had obtained an egg from the club kitchen which he stood on its end on the court-side brick. Just at the appointed minute, as the sun stood above the equator, the egg stood up straight all by itself. We stood there beguiled by the universe's little trick as if we were young boys long ago, B.A. Before Apps.

Then our egg rolled over and we began the autumn season.

What other game takes a number and makes it into love? 

What other major spectator sport, in its major championships, insists that both men and women play the tournament side by side? None.

The Wall, Greytops Court One
On another September Saturday, fifty-six years ago, my father and I took a short walk from our home on Dartmouth Street in Forest Hills Gardens, around the corner through cobbled Station Square, under the Long Island Railroad trestle into Schmidt's Pharmacy, past the soda fountain on the left to the counter in back, where we picked up two tickets to the "Nationals." These had been left for us, most likely, by my uncle Tom Welstead, West Side Tennis Club member and volunteer tournament Director of Media Relations, or some such title.

Then, we walked west on Burns Street. At the corner of Tennis Place, we could look left and just see the  crowded entrance to the WSTC clubhouse; we continued past the hard courts, the Har-Trus and red clays along Burns Street until we rounded a corner at Sixty-Ninth Avenue as the clay turned to dirt and the courts into a temporary parking lot next to the stadium where I would later we learn to ice skate.

We entered the Stadium grounds and walked on the gravel and through its dust past the blue and white concession stands with their aroma of grilled hot dogs and heard the best voice I have ever heard up to then or since, the announcer for the match about to begin. You can still hear his voice if you watch Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train.

My father and I rose up the steep concrete stairway to Portal Five or Six, then turned and rose up again, half-way to the stadium top and turned to look down at the green lawn with its perfect white lines and the marquee opposite with its blue and gold canvas striped awning, while the players warmed up. Talk about love at first sight! I was stricken before the first point, and am still.

WSTC Stadium
Up until that moment, at the age of eight, sports to me had meant baseball. The year before, I had been to the Polo Grounds and fallen for the World Champion New York Giants. Talk about tragic love! It took another fifty-five years for the Giants to repeat.

But, that was puppy love. This was something else entirely. I was completely seduced by the beauty of the scene as we looked beyond the stadium courts and marquee to the field courts and the club house and dots of human color all over that canvas. The players moved gracefully on the closely-mown lawn, their strokes popped loudly in the chair microphone. They ran, bent down low, jumped, volleyed (yes, it's true), dove and had the grass stains to show for that, as did the white balls themselves.

Althea Gibson, Shirley Fry, Rosewall, Savitt, Seixas, and my immediate favorite for life, Lew Hoad. Few remember him today, but in that 1956 US Nationals he was after the last notch for a Grand Slam, having already won in Melbourne, Paris, and at Wimbledon. Up to then, only Don Budge had accomplished a Slam.

In September 2008, during one of the most challenging year of my life (there was a lot of that going around), I created a fall invitational tournament called "greytops." That year, playing doubles with old and new friends had helped sustain me as I struggled through month after month of "re-inventing" myself. Greytops was and is meant to celebrate a game, friendship, sportsmanship and just plain having fun. Our entry fees continue to  support an Under Ten -Year - Old tennis program at Carver Center in Port Chester.

That's been a nice way to come full circle for myself and other greytops™ fortunate enough to have been introduced to the game.

Lew Hoad, by the way, was thwarted in that 1956 final by his friend and doubles partner, Ken Rosewall.

We cannot wade into the same river twice, and yet, in 2005 I played a match on a court next to the very same stadium. My partner was the same Ken Rosewall. I am happy to say that we won, but winning with him was absolutely beside the point for me. It was all about just being there.

We can't wade into the same river twice, but who's to say that the same river cannot come around a bend and wade into us.

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