It’s getting to be late August and people of a certain age all have this “I can’t believe they start school this early” feeling when that happens. For me, not being in school at this time is a reminder of that horrific ritual of football two-a-days – a friend recently reminded me that he can still remember the “smell of cut grass and fear” — but even before that, there was another August event that marked my calendar.
This marks the time when the City Tennis Tournament was played. A great part of my pre-teen summers were spent at Querbes Tennis Center. No lessons or personal instruction; just go out there and play.
I wasn’t any good, but it was something to do. We’d play challenge matches or hit against the backboard or anything we wanted as long as we kept the tomfoolery to a minimum. Upstairs, they had the world’s greatest Slushes for a couple of quarters.
But there at summer’s end, it was always capped off by The City. And you had to play in it, because everybody else did.
I don’t think I have ever been so nervous as the first match I ever had in the 12-and-under boys singles. I was still a few weeks away from turning 10, but I was thrown into the bracket with kids who were about to start shaving.
They stuck me with the top seed – let’s call him “Scott” – and I got dusted. It was Men against Boys, only both of us were boys. Not only did I not win a game, I’d bet I didn’t win a total of 10 points the entire match.
But Scott was The Dude and everybody knew it. It was my first year to play tennis and he was probably born with a racquet in his hand.
The next year, I avoided Scott in the draw and actually won a match in the 12s. Even at age 11, Scott coasted to the title that year.
Which brings us to the next year, when I was in my final year of the 12-and unders. My high hopes were quickly dashed on the opening day of the tournament. Not by Scott, but by another kid (who would also go on to become a sports writer), 6-1, 6-1.
I didn’t enter the doubles, so that was it for me in the tournament. I had looked forward to it all summer and after one day, I’m done.
Two days later, I get a phone call. It’s Scott, who wants to know if I wanted to be his partner for the 12-and-under doubles. There were only two teams entered and because Scott was ranked so high, we would have a bye to the finals.
I’m pretty sure Scott didn’t know who I was (and still doesn’t), so it was a complete trophy-grab for him. But I was a willing participant.
When our match arrived, there on the other team was the same future sportswriter who had just dominated me in singles a few days earlier. Revenge!
We start playing and I’m acting like I’m John Newcombe or Rod Laver. Going after every shot, serving as hard as I can, working on my spin game. The only problem is that none of it worked. I would have been better off playing left-handed.
We lost 2-6 in the first set. Scott’s trophy was in real jeopardy and I could sense that he knew he could have called anybody else and done better than this.
So let me tell you what happened next. I remember it so vividly that I could take you to the exact spot at Querbes Tennis Center on Court 2 where it happened.
Scott walked over to me and whispered in my right ear these fateful words:
“Just stay out of the way from now on.”
And let me assure you that I did just that. I did the minimum I had to do – no double faults and somehow managed to return any serve that came my way – and after I did that, I might as well have been on the next court over while Scott finished the point.
How did that strategy work out for us? Second set — 6-0. Third set – 6-1 (I’m sure I had something to do with us losing that one game.)
I was – and am – happy to remind people that I was once a City Tennis Champion. Yes, I still have the trophy.
Until today, there were only four people who knew this story. And I can assure you, Scott isn’t one of them.
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