Pioneer Pride: Part 18-Tennis Team I

I no longer recall the genesis moment of my life in tennis. There were no summer parks lessons in grade school or PE courses in junior high despite four crumbling courts on campus. My parents never introduced me to tennis. But one day, there I was in junior high, with a cheap wooden racket, hitting balls against the backboard at Rivercrest Park because none of my friends played. That all changed when my dad took up the game and that became a major part of our social time together once my parents separated for good when I was 12.

I suspect now my interest in tennis began while watching the Grand Slam tournaments on television. It was the golden age of American tennis, the mid to late late1970s, the Studio 54 days of fiery golden rivalries between Connors, McEnroe and Borg, when the Rolling Stones played, when super models played, when Virginia Slims cigarettes sponsored the women’s pro tour, when the New Yorker routinely ran long fact pieces on tennis, when 35 million Americans played tennis with mostly wooden rackets, making it the number one recreational sport, when cities around the country built thousands of public courts (many lighted) to accommodate the boom, when parks and recreation departments (even in rural areas!) staged clinics and tournaments for all ages on lazy summer evenings. Americans moved a lot more back then, and tennis was a game of graceful movement, conversation across the net, and mingling.

And there I was in Oregon City, entering high school, and about ready to live the most unlikeliest, preposterous American tennis story of all time! Man, that high school tennis team—my four years as a varsity member. There is a novel there, the great laid-back American coming-of-age tennis novel for an uptight nation that doesn’t play tennis anymore.

Where to begin with team?

How about this crazy story from my first year. We had one player on my team, a kid named V, who had never picked up a racket in his life before trying out his senior year on a lark. The interesting thing about V was that, infrequently, he would practice naked (before the coach arrived from his teaching job at a junior high across town). There V was, on the courts at Gardiner Junior High, dinking forehands with a Jack Kramer Autograph, rushing to the net, chasing down lobs, slicing serves, while the junior high boys and girls track team’s distance runners would jog around the courts and act as if a senior boy playing tennis in the nude was a perfectly normal thing to do in 1979. No one ever said a word and the coach never found out. We were all loose and undetected.

In my freshmen year, Oregon City belonged in the Wilco League with schools like Lakeridge, Lake Oswego, and Tigard, some of the best white collar tennis schools in the state. There was really no such thing as a best blue collar tennis school.

These rich schools had the best courts in the state, all newly surfaced with crisp nets. All their players were club members and played year round with professional coaches, traveling to matches around the region. All their players had multiple rackets and wore the finest Fila and Rossignol European apparel and tennis shoes. They had harems of girls at their matches, where they routinely defeated us 6-0, 6-0 in 45 minutes or less, and that included the warm up. Once, the number one player from Tigard pulled up in a convertible sports car, an MG I think, and left the motor idling outside the court, won his match in a matter of minutes, and then drove away with his blonde girlfriend, his feathered hair somewhat blowing in the breeze. He didn’t take off his warmups or break a sweat. He didn’t even take off his sunglasses.

It was a peculiar feeling getting your ass kicked every match, right out there in public, inside a galvanized fence. I did cry after one particular humiliation. There was just no way to beat them, let alone compete. They had it all and often laughed at us and our cheap gear and terrible form. I mean, we had one player who routinely whiffed first and second serves for the strangest double faults in tennis history!

Then, divine intervention came from the merciful Gods of Tennis who wore nothing but all white. They surely saw us suffer and moved heaven and earth to alleviate our pain. Their leader must have been Arthur Ashe, the compassionate graceful black God, not the other white American tennis assholes of my youth.

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