Living in Florida allows the dedicated tennis player (or fanatic—depending on who is doing the defining) to play outdoors all year round. Actually, I live right across the way from the Evert Academy. When we bought our home, the agent said we might hear the sound of tennis balls late at night, which was music to my ears. Needless to say, there are many fine teaching pros in the area. Some, like Aaron Krickstein and our own community professional, Geoffrey Moore, have played on the professional circuit. Other USPTA professionals have become master instructors, capable of teaching old style or new, child or adult, serious players or weekenders who want to look like serious players. This leads me to the purpose of this column. I was fortunate enough to observe our sport on two levels this past week. Both made me pleased to play tennis and proud of those who have made a career of our sport.
On Dec. 11, our pro invited three of his friends to play as part of our tennis program. I think that every player who loves the game secretly harbors the hope that, if he or she could just put all of their best shots of a lifetime together for one brief moment, they could be out there holding his own. Forget it. Aside from Geoff, who played for Australia, we had a New Zealander, Chris, who had played on the tour, Gabriel, a very talented shot-maker originally from Romania, and Dick Stockton, originally from Garden City, and well known to all of us who played in the 70s. The intensity of the past (as well as the winner’s check) may have been lacking, but the skills and competitive nature of the past were still apparent amid the jokes and camaraderie.
What struck me most was the beauty of “old school” strokes. These men honed their styles back in the days of wooden racquets, and serve and volley. As we watched, Stockton and Moore got into a forehand cross-court duel. Each stroke was the mirror image of the one that it preceded or followed. Each shot looked balanced and “natural” and each shot said to me “Not on the best day of your life could you repeat what you just witnessed.” It won’t stop me from trying or dreaming, but reality can be a stern teacher.
The pros patiently answered questions from the crowd, listened to our “war stories” and left us all eager to see a return match some day.
A few days later, I got to see it all over, only this time, on a higher level. For the third time, I was a volunteer at the Andy Roddick Foundation’s charity event. As a volunteer, I was responsible for people finding their seats, expediting crowd flow and paving over the inevitable “discussions” about seat placement and special needs. There are “war stories” here also, but by and large, the spectators were tolerant of delays and happy to be a part of the fundraising that went for a good cause. We were rewarded for our efforts by some excellent seats reserved for volunteers, vendors and those who devoted time instead of money.
The cast of characters at this exhibition were headliners. Aside from the host, Andy Roddick … Andy Murray, Sebastien Grosjean, Jesse Levine, Justin Gimelstob, Brenda Shultz McCarthy and Alla Kudryavetseva, a young Russian who recently defeated Maria Sharapova, participated. Ms Kudryavetseva tolerated the repeated mangling of her name with grace. Andy made a point of announcing that all the players were appearing for free, with no fees paid. All of the money raised would go toward his Foundation. This was the ninth year of the event, and Brenda Shultz McCarthy had participated in every one.
Before the exhibition began, Roddick was presented with a Humanitarian Award from the Jewish Federation. Rather than defend his title in the United Arab Emirates, he boycotted the tournament because Shahar Peer, an Israeli player, was not granted a visa to play. I should add that the Tennis Channel, taking a similar stand, did not televise the event. Values are only values when they are tested, and though Mr. Roddick stands at around 6-ft. tall, he was even taller in everyone’s eyes.
As with the first exhibition, skill and good humor went hand-in-hand. If I thought I could never match the teaching pros, imagine watching Roddick play Murray or Grosjean with hands as soft as croissants deftly hit an impossibly-angled touch shot. Murray and Roddick especially made it look so easy. Their timing is so fine that it seems as if the ball rockets off their strings with no effort. Sitting directly behind them, watching as the serves clip the corner or the center line apparently with the exact same and unreadable motion, it is understandable why they are the among the best; here they are in the hot Florida sun, playing for charity.
Then there was Justin Gimelstob. The butt of more than a few jokes about his skinny legs and non-existent calf muscles, Justin took it upon himself to be the spokesperson for the Jewish half of the men’s doubles, as he and Jesse Levine played the Andys (Roddick and Murray). He tried invoking Hanukah and the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days, but I guess there is only one miracle per holiday season and the Andys won. Believe me, it was all in good fun and Justin gave as good as he got.
At the conclusion of the day, reflecting on the levels of the game and the nobility of those who give their time in teaching or competitive playing, I walked away proud to be a part of a sport that I play for fun and exercise that has a noble side as well.