Column: From bad boy of tennis to bad knees of tennis


I’ve been thinking about tennis.

Thinking, not playing.

My battered knees are retired, relieved to avoid further athletic abuse.

I like the “idea” of tennis more than the actual practice of it now, similar to how I feel about golf, dog ownership and family reunions.

I miss the “ker pock ... ker pock ... ker pock” during the long rallies of my youth, the ball bouncing off the asphalt (“ker”) followed by the quick collision with catgut (“pock”), the squeaks of sneakers and the wonderful poof at the opening of a new can of balls, each racket swing followed by a burst of yellow fuzz from fresh balls.

Two or three matches during a single summer day were not unusual. Hand and foot blisters were common. The 90- to 100-degree days of July and August did not matter. To stay hydrated, I filled the tennis ball can — they were metal then—with warm water from the nearby fountain, each sip tasting like rust and tennis ball chemicals. Between matches, I’d get a chili dog at the Dairy Queen and resume play without gastrointestinal repercussions. My skin went from lobster red to an enviable brown.

I have been thinking about tennis lately because of a new autobiography I recently finished in only two sittings, “Outsider,” by Jimmy Connors.

I always wanted to be Jimmy Connors, the bad boy of tennis who managed to jump-start the sport with temper and touch and make blue-collar kids want to don the white tennis shorts associated with the country club set.

On my 12th birthday, I was excited to open my first tennis racket — its wrapped shape easily identifiable — but was deeply disappointed when it wasn’t the metal-framed Connors-endorsed T-2000 I was hoping for. Instead, it was a used wooden-framed racket with the name Ann Jones written on it. A girl’s racket! I feigned appreciation, taking a few half-hearted strokes in the living room, fearing any second I would begin developing breasts. A couple years later, my parents bought me a “man” racket after I promised I would pay them back with my Wimbledon prize money. I managed to squeeze a pair of tennis shoes out of them as well, which I eventually kept together with electrician’s tape (my footwork was hell on shoes).

With no prior lessons, I joined the Tell City High School Marksmen tennis team. Our coach, new to the sport, couldn’t teach us anything; he’d sit in his car with a beer while we ran laps, reminding me of the coach (Walter Matthau) on “The Bad News Bears.” We were The Bad News Marksmen.
I was a hack. A scrappy player, my toes always touched baseline — I traversed it with the focus of Philippe Petit on the highwire — returning nearly every shot like a human backboard. Despite gripping the handle wrong, lacking a second serve and possessing no backhand, I did well at No. 3 singles.

Inspired by Connors’ showmanship, I made a spectacle of myself, grunting and jumping with each stroke, diving and rolling for the out-of-reach shots as if the asphalt were Wimbledon grass — a little blood never hurt anyone — sliding to and fro like a clay court specialist (this technique caused me to tear my ACL in my 30s), climbing fences if I had to, yelling at myself for my boneheaded blunders and cussing the tennis ball for its mutinous spirit during the last point, exclaiming my trademark line, “There’s one in every can!” My teammates ate it up. They nicknamed me “Gazelle” because of my exaggerated, likely unnecessary, balletlike leaps during returns. My knees scream now like a gazelle in the mouth of a lion with this memory.

Despite their son’s bad boy behavior, my parents were very supportive, my mom never missing a match. The excitement exuded from her lawn chair almost made me feel like I was playing Wimbledon. She was none too shy to applaud with zeal when opponents double faulted. An Evansville kid, after one such scenario, asked me during a changeover, “Who is that #$%&?” To which I replied, “That #$%& is my mom.” I hacked him to death in the third set — in mom’s honor.
Our team never won a title, often thwarted by the dreaded Jasper Wildcats, perennial winners. We hated Jasper, either out of respect or fear (likely both). The late great coach Ed Yarbrough was, to us, the Darth Vader of southern Indiana high school tennis. When Jasper was the next team on our schedule, we’d plead with our coach, “Do we really have to show up?” He’d burp.

I experienced only one memorable Jasper match. I earned my way into a third set — I heard the word “hack” a lot from the Jasper sidelines. I also heard Coach Yarbrough instruct, “Hit it to his backhand, hit it to his backhand,” as he gave me the evil eye after raising the black helmet from his head. All my coach said was, “I need a beer.” I could run around my backhand only so much. I eventually tired and lost.

I never became Jimmy Connors. I never made it to Wimbledon, as promised to my parents. I was better than some but not better than most. Still, tennis was my only sport, and I recall it fondly. There are worse ways to destroy your knees.

Scott Saalman and the Will Read (and sing) For Food Players will perform at Ferdinand Branch Library at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 18. Admission is a monetary donation or gently used books for the Friends of the Library. If it doesn’t rain, this will be an outdoor show; bring a lawn chair.

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