Lawn. And Tennis.

“If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration.” ~Serena Williams

If the closest you’ve come to tennis is watching Wimbledon on TV every two weeks in July, then you probably think the game is akin to golf, with nattily dressed people playing a gentlemen’s or a ladies’ sport while spectators “Ooh” and “Aah” over their precise shots and acumen. Of course Wimbledon, being on NBC for so long, was accessible to the masses. Regular folk like you and I could watch it and feel like we were transformed into the strawberries and cream loving crowd that filed in and out with spectacular precision from the grounds of England’s Lawn and Tennis Club. Lawn. And Tennis. That’s what we imagine. But that’s not the only tale of tennis.

Around here there is an old tennis court. I use the term loosely, because ages ago, when the weeds began to grow through the cracks in the cement, someone decided to take the posts out and transform the area into a place to ride skateboards. They didn’t take a broad stroke to it, though, as you could still see where the posts had been, and the ghosts of the lines still show through in places. I used to stand outside the fencing and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday, probably in the ’80s when pretty much every place had a tennis court within walking distance.

Of course the ’80s were for stars like Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and others. Continue reading “Lawn. And Tennis.”

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Dear Journal: Rio

Dear Journal,

rio-de-janeiro-2016-olympic-parkI wish I was in Rio right now. Yes, Zika virus be damned. I want to be there. I’ve always felt a connection to the Olympics, at least since 1996. Back then it was Atlanta, and it was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and it was Michael Johnson.

Back then it was all about track and field. The swimming was a mere blip on my radar. I remember Lenny Krayzelburg, but only because of that unique name. So it’s funny that 20 years later I’m thinking of Rio, but I’m really thinking of the swimming competition. That’s because of Michael Phelps, of course, but it’s more than that.

I wish I was in Rio right now, breathing in that musty air, being one of the many bodies packing those grand venues, living the Olympic dream. Before I die I have to personally experience an Olympics. There’s absolutely nothing in the world quite like it. I know. I can feel it slightly muted through the TV.

I have always loved things that were larger than life. No, not like that Backstreet Boys song, but really larger than life. People like Michael Jordan, events like the Super Bowl, but this — the Olympics — is somehow larger than all of that, and it’s not even close.

Back in 2000 I started taping some of the events. I have a disc’s worth of snippets from Sydney, and I wish now that I had preserved more from those epic games. I did capture the debut of Mr. Phelps, though, and his battle with the Thorpedo. That was epic.

Olympic Swimming Pool
The pool in the Water Cube where many world records were recorded during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

And then there was Athens (20 discs), followed by Beijing (23 discs), and then London (25 discs). I watch them religiously when I want something dynamic on in the background, or when I’m feeling nostalgic, or just because. That’s what the Olympics is for me. It’s a “just because.”

I can talk for ages about why Paul Hamm really deserved his gold medal, about the incredible come from behind victory for the men’s 4×100 team in Beijing, and about Gabby Douglas making history in the all-around. I can wax nostalgic about Missy Franklin’s 30-minute turnaround, about Natalie Coughlin’s incredible Athens, or about Kerri and Misty winning triple-gold at 3 straight Olympics. That’s incredible.

And that’s led us to Rio, at least this time around. So I want to be there. I want to walk on that hallowed ground. I want to close my eyes and soak it all in. Because it only happens once every four years — the Summer Olympics — and I’m not there.

Sam

We Need a Really Good Ball Man

kramerballmanRemember that Seinfeld episode when Kramer wanted to be a ball man for the U.S. Open? He spent an awful lot of time racing from place to place, stopping on a dime, and then racing back. I’m almost certain he never really made it to the big time, but it was Kramer so it was just funny that he even thought he could. That’s one thing about Kramer: he always gave his all to whatever passed his fancy.

But I’m sitting here watching Wimbledon, and I see these kids sprinting back and forth from one side of the court to the other, chasing balls before the stars who are playing the actual match get ready to serve again. I can do that.

What we need in today’s modern tennis game is a really good ball man. We need someone who can make quick decisions, who won’t get too caught up in the game, who can focus on wherever the balls are, and who can retrieve them and get them back into play as soon as possible. Ball women would be nice too.

Think about it. So many of the tournaments throughout the year are played during school time. Why take these kids out of school so they can do a job an older person can accomplish just as well? There are many adults out of work. This would take care of a few jobs for them. 000039a7_mediumIt’s a win-win. Kids can still come out on the weekends and have part-time work that way, but during the week we can rely on really good ball men.

There would be a training academy where tennis pros and former ball boys and girls lead workshops on the best decisions to make in certain situations. They could be taught on court, and simulations done to test reflexes. There could even be a reality show on it; they’d call it “Get Those Balls, Man,” and there would be a separate “Get Those Balls, Ladies,” for the women.

Ball men would handle the ladies’ tournaments, and ball women would handle the mens’. This way we can hopefully keep focus intact, because everyone knows women are more interested in watching other women play, and men are more wont to pay attention to other men on court. By mixing it up we create better focus and, let’s be honest, more eye candy for the spectators. Being able to watch fit ball men and women get after those balls would only add to spectator interest. Another win-win.

We need a really good ball man because we need an infusion of something new in the ages old game. First there were changes in court surfaces, then better racquet technologies, and now the revolution should continue. Get those kids back in school, eliminate some of that rampant unemployment, and add to spectator interest.

Now, to pitch it to the world tennis tours…

Sam

Seeing Orange

TN ORANGE WHITEI went to a college where everything was draped in orange, from the buildings themselves, to the attire in the school store, down to the lanyards and the cushions for fans to sit on at the football games. I’m surprised the beer at the bars near campus wasn’t all orange as well. That’s how much the school (nee, the town) bled orange, and probably still bleeds it to this day. In Knoxville, Tennessee, orange isn’t just a color; it’s a state of mind.

I used to like the color orange before I found myself at the University of Tennessee and everything I saw for miles around sported that color. It was on every license plate, on the flags that hung out car windows, adorning the menus at popular restaurants in the Knoxville area, and even on pet food. I don’t even want to know what they had to put in that pet food to make it the bright orange they advertised.

The Vols (and their rabid fans) pride themselves on supporting the team first, and everything else second. I haven’t lived in Knoxville for 15 years, but when the school made it to a bowl game last year I remember seeing orange when I looked in the stands at the game on TV. I tuned in because of some fascination with a school that I never truly identified with. Maybe it’s because I love green, and green doesn’t always go well with orange. Or maybe it was something else.

Syracuse CollarBut then I moved, and I thought I had left that insane amount of orange in my rearview, both physically and mentally. I got here, though, and because of this place’s proximity to Syracuse I was drawn in yet again. These fans aren’t quite as rabid about their Orangemen (and I suppose Orangewomen too) as Knoxvillians are about the Vols, but they aren’t too far off. And oh, the orange! It’s the same vibrant color I thought I had left behind, the same brilliant orange I thought was gone for good. Boy, was I wrong.

Now, this time of year, with the Syracuse basketball teams heading to the Final Four, the hysteria has hit a fever pitch. Nearly every person I saw today at the mall was wearing some variation of Orange, desperately trying to be a part of a surprise run by two teams none of these same people took to this position on their brackets. Is that hypocritical, to have so much support for a team now when they had no faith just three weeks ago? I don’t know, but don’t tell them you think it is. Those fans’ll take your head off.

I went to a college where everything was draped in orange, where the mascot was a droopy-eared dog who wore a mix between a shawl and a cape. But it was orange, so I guess it counted. I guess anything orange still counts. Which is both sad, and really, really cool. I’m just not quite sure which at the moment.

Sam

Redemption in Chicago

chi-ct-bulls-cavaliers015-ct0023569433-20141031There is indignation in Chicago tonight, and they believe it’s justifiable to feel that way. But they’re wrong. Let me lay the scene for you…

The officials in the Bulls/Cavaliers playoff game had controlled the action, and the score, throughout the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, calling offensive fouls on the Cavs to let the Bulls back into the game, and not calling obvious fouls to try and win the game for the home team. With 3 seconds left on the game clock those same officials neglected to call a foul on Joakim Noah, instead letting the ball get knocked out of bounds by the Bulls. .8 was on the clock, but the actual time the ball went out of bounds was in dispute so they huddled at the screen to figure it out.

Meanwhile, the Cavs, who had no timeouts remaining, got an unofficial one while the referees conferred. By the time they returned they had not only put time back on the clock (to 1.5 seconds), but they had also given the Cavs a chance they wouldn’t have otherwise had to call up a play. Hence the ire of the Bulls fans at the United Center, thinking they were robbed when LeBron James took advantage of the situation and hit a buzzer-beater to tie up the series at 2 games apiece.

But they weren’t robbed. In fact, they shouldn’t have even had the chance to take this game to overtime if it weren’t for those very same officials. Earlier in the quarter LeBron James was called for an offensive foul, but the replay showed that Noah joakim-noah-bill-kennedy-nba-chicago-bulls-sacramento-kings-850x560was still shuffling his feet, a call that led to a Bulls field goal to pull closer. Then J.R. Smith was called for a technical foul when he barely touched a player who had hooked him around the neck. Finally, the no-call on Noah, who was on top of LeBron James as he went in for the contested layup right before the ball was hit out of bounds on that fateful penultimate play.

I was screaming at the TV, and I don’t even get into basketball that much, when Noah climbed all over James, and I found it priceless when the Cavs got the “free” timeout to draw up the final play. It was long overdue that they finally get a break in the final span of time before the end of the game. I’ll be the first person to admit that James did commit an offensive foul when boxed in by two Bulls players, the play that led to the game being tied in the first place, so it was vindication when he received that inbounds pass and hit the shot that was the final dagger in a game that really would have been over long before that if not for those same referees.

Payback is a bitch, isn’t it? Sorry, Chicago fans. But those are the breaks.

Sam

Love-30

ace_tennis_love_key_chain-rf79912a9eaac4b9cb4a41eaf73f22f1f_x76w6_8byvr_512It’s that time in the game when the server begins to get nervous, when the returner starts gaining confidence, that moment after the ball hits the net and the head judge calls out, “Love-30.” Palms are sweaty because both players know they can’t afford to make any mistakes. They know that momentum swings on a swift pendulum, and that it could quickly get away from one or the other of them, so they also know about pressing advantage and defending position. It’s that tipping point that can change everything.

I remember the first time I fell in love. It was all magic rainbows and gaudy fireworks inside my mind and my heart. I felt a rush every single time I thought of her or saw her even in passing. She had no idea at the time, but she would smile at me and my heart would melt clear away. I would sit there and work out in my head just how I would approach her, with a complex line made to sound simple, one that she would chuckle at, and find me charming, and fall into my arms. But things don’t work that way in real life.

When I finally made my move it was clumsy, like a bad magician dropping his hat and everything falling out, but she still found it charming, she still found me endearing in my awful footing. She still wanted to dance with me. And it began as things often do, with looks, and sighs, and talks about nothing and everything at the very same time. It was exactly like I had pictured it, a whirlwind of emotions swirling around like so many dust particles, settling on us at the same time. I knew, I absolutely knew, that we were feeling those feelings, so I planned on how I would tell her.

tennis_ball_hitting_net_photo_cut_out-racb2aefbd4044e6a891180563a8de2fb_x7saz_8byvr_324I set it up like I set up most things, with a lot of planning and my heart on my sleeve. I was ecstatic to know that those words would soon step into the physical world, and everything would change. That change was like the difference between being a child and being an adult. It snuck up on you, but when you finally realized it was there it seemed like it had always been there. We would hug, and kiss, and spin around drunk on this ultimate feeling, set up by those three unimpeachable words.

And I said them, after so much preamble. They were out there in the world, like that ball sailing through the air off the strings of my tautly strung racquet, hitting the net. Love-30. I looked deeply into her eyes, at the power simmering in her gaze, mixed with a pain that I couldn’t quite fathom. I thought things had been perfect, that it was the next logical step in our relationship, that the momentum we had gathered had no way of slowing down or stopping. Until the ball hit the net, and her gaze lowered, and I knew the game was already lost, that the Love-30 had slid quickly to Love-40, then the game was done as swiftly as it had begun.

It was that tipping point that changed everything, but I realized later that it was the best thing that could have happened. Because Love is a beautiful thing, but it has to be shared.

Sam

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