I never did make it to Wimbledon, and even if I had stayed with tennis I probably wouldn’t have made it but, who knows?
I started playing tennis on the asphalt courts across the street from my house in Hyannis, Massachusetts in 1964. My parents were divorced, and the following summer I went to Vermont to stay with my father. He ran a large resort at Mount Snow, and they had a summer tennis program run by a guy named Gene. My father told Gene that I was going to be working for him that summer and I was to do whatever Gene told me.
Gene asked if I wanted to be a tennis player. “Yes, I do,” I said. He immediately replied, “No, I'm asking you if you really want to be a tennis player.” When I assured him that I did, he told me to report back to the tennis courts the following morning at 6:00 a.m. What? The tennis courts aren’t going to move—they’d still be there at 9:00. So why did I have to be there at such an ungodly hour? “Because I told you to be here,” was the only answer I got. And so the next morning I dragged myself out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and proceeded to walk from my father’s house to the resort, which was about a mile and a half.
I arrived right on the dot at 6:00. Gene tossed me a soccer ball and told me to run around the lake kicking it. I told him I didn’t need to do that, since I had just walked from my Dad’s house. He gave me a look, and I silently took the soccer ball and kicked it around the lake. Returning about half an hour later, I followed Gene into the gym, where we proceeded to lift weights for about an hour. On to the staff dining room, where I proceeded to eat everything in sight. I’m telling you, I was hungry!
After breakfast, we grabbed all our equipment and went to the tennis courts, which were unlike any courts I had ever seen. They were made of clay and covered in brick dust. Our first job was to sweep the courts smooth and then lightly sprinkle them with water to keep the dust down. Sweep off the tape marking the court, and we’re ready for the day.
From 9:00 to 12:00 there were tennis lessons for guests. I took part in every lesson Gene offered, even if it was beyond my ability. At noon, Gene and I headed in for lunch, where I once again ate everything I could find. When we went back to the courts at 1:00 we either helped people who had reserved the court (I would be their ball boy), or I would get private lessons from Gene or play tennis with anyone who came by.
At the end of the day, I walked back to my father’s home and then got up the next morning and did it all over again. By the end of summer I was a for-real tennis player, and in the best shape of my life.
1965 was my freshman year in high school, and I tried out for the tennis team along with my friend Bill. The team had a ladder system: everyone was ranked on the ladder from number one on down. You could challenge a player who was ahead of you, but he couldn’t be more than two places ahead. Since neither Bill nor I was even on the ladder, the coach was a bit shocked when I said that I wanted to challenge the number one player, a senior named Winn. As the coach was explaining the ladder system to me Winn announced that he’d be happy to give me a match just to teach me a lesson. With the coach’s blessing, Winn and I played for the number one spot.
I beat him 6–0, 6–1. The world stood still, and all Winn could do was stare at me as if I were some alien being. My friend Bill challenged a kid named Mark—another senior—and beat him.
So there you have it. The Barnstable High School Tennis Team was being led by two freshmen playing number one and number two. Unfortunately our team wasn’t very good, although I won a few matches. I’m pretty sure that Bill did too, since Bill was a better tennis player than I was.
If Bill was better than me, then why wasn’t he playing number one? Simple. He couldn’t beat me. I was never very good at hitting the ball hard, while Bill could crush it. What I was good at, however, was keeping the ball in play and waiting for the other guy to make a mistake. With Bill, I usually didn’t have to wait very long. To this day I remember him yelling at me angrily:
“When are you going to hit it like a man and stop being such a girl?”
“As soon as you can beat me!” I would taunt him back. He never did beat me, and I’m pretty sure he’s still pissed about it to this day.
Our tennis practices consisted of our tennis coach dumping out buckets of tennis balls on the courts and letting us hit them back and forth. Given the fact that we were losing most of our matches, I suggested several times that we have a more organized practice so we at least had a shot at getting better. After being ignored by the coach and losing a few more matches, I confronted him on the courts. We got into quite an argument, and I lost my temper—and I smashed all my tennis racquets on the court right in front of him. I stomped off the court in anger, and I didn’t pick up a tennis racquet again for more than twenty years.
I guess I showed him.