Friday, January 16, 2009

What a Racket

Rocking my Jimmy Connors hair, and my Yamaha YFG20 racket, circa 1979

I don't know if anyone's noticed, but Tennis magazine sure has been a lot more fun lately. How my brother Bill, my friend Greg or I didn't write this month's "10 Greatest Racquets of All Times" piece is beyond me, although the outcome would have decidedly different if we had. My brothers and I started playing tennis in 1977 after my mom's flirtation with the sport quickly petered out (why run around getting sweaty when you can smoke cigarettes and be rail thin after having five kids?) and her equipment was left to gather dust.

That's Bill in the lower left with his Lamphere High teammates circa 1978

Bill started thing off, using Mom's racket to hit against the wall of a church near our house (the closest he's ever come to organized religion). That summer, Tracy Austin's Cinderella run at Forest Hills got me hooked, and before I knew it I was taking lessons with the big guys over at Rosie's Park. Between my brothers, my stepfather, Gary, and my brother's friends (Paul, Barry and Mike), there was always a gang going to play tennis.

About a year later, our mom agreed to let Billy, Terence and me join Village Racquet Club (an indoor facility just across the county line on Chicago Road in Warren) where I spent the next two years battling it out against the other kids on the Junior Improvement Ladder, always looking to make my move onto the Junior Achievement side. That period is one of my favorite memories of my childhood. Mom would pick me up at Page Middle School and "Time Passages" by Al Stewart and "Reminiscing" by the Little River Band would ALWAYS come on the radio as we drove directly -- right past our house -- to Village, where my brothers and I would participate in clinics, use our unlimited "walk-on" court time and go in the hot tub in between doing homework in the lounge area. I had a bunch of friends there -- Jenni Blachut among my favorites, as well as Mike (aka Kid With Disgusting Mouth), Perry (aka Kid with Stick Up His Butt), Jenni's sister Beth,  Mike and Dave Balos, Danielle and Michele Durak -- and we'd usually stay until closing time. (The Blachuts lived up the street at Bear Creek Condominiums, which my parents had come this close to moving us to before we settled in Willow Hill Condominiums in Madison Heights.)

Our fearless squad of instructors included Jenni and Beth's mom, Margaret Blachut, Chris Pratt-Johnson and Jeff Delie. Chris memorably challenged Margaret to a Macomb County Battle of the Sexes, although I don't remember who won. And Jeff -- who famously scolded me to "get that slice off your forehand" -- turned out to be a creep, accused of molesting young girls at the club.

(Much of this was chronicled by my brother Bill in "The Lob Also Rises," his parody of Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" set in the rough 'n' tumbled world of tennis in Eastern Michigan, with Bill standing in for Jake Barnes pining over his Lady Brett Ashley, one Kathy O'Dowd, who caught his eye in her power-blue warmup suit!)

What am I doing inside the service line???? (La Casita, 1983)

By the time we moved to Arizona in the spring of '79 -- lured to a place we'd never been before with the promise of a tennis court in our own backyard -- my brothers and I had all been playing competitively for a number of years and were ready for the next big thing. The tennis court turned out to be one of many in our Charlie Keating master-planned community (how's that for a bait and switch?), and everyday was 175 degrees out, but by the there was no turning back. That fall, we signed up to play on the Dobson Ranch team tennis league, modeled after the famed World Team Tennis of the '70s. Our team consisted of the Walsh brothers -- ages 12, 14, 17 -- and the poor guy who joined by himself thinking he'd be placed on a team with other adults he could become friends with (I think his name was Vaughan Gunter-Smith, and I know he had a HUGE serve.) Instead he had to deal with a snot-nose kid like me for three months. Each week we'd take on another team of feisty housewives with really annoying strokes yet who were more competitive than Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova combined. I'd get frustrated thinking I should be able to kill these hacks (which I usually could in singles) but then fall apart in doubles where those types seem to excel most. (I was known to call foot faults on MY OWN doubles partner if I wasn't happy with the way things were going, which was invariably THEIR fault as far as I was concerned.) I was awful and the whole thing was an unmitigated disaster.

Greg displays his ahead-of-its-team open-stance forehand, with trademark Chrissie Tracy left hand, during junior year at Dobson High, circa 1984

Later, I met my Arizona BFF, Greg Jelinek, in a Dobson Ranch juniors event (No Vaughns allowed). By the fall of 1980 Bill had gone off to college, so it was mostly Greg and me practicing during the week and the three of us on the weekends Bill came home. I played No. 1 singles and doubles on my freshman tennis team during the 1981-82 school year (our team won big and I "lettered"), but the homophobic attacks began to spiral out of control because my teammates perceived my friend Greg -- who regularly came by to watch -- as being gay. (Never mind the fact that I, too, was gay.) 

The name-calling and prank phone calls went on for weeks on end (the coach of the team was even in on this) until finally they gave me an ultimatum: Greg or the team. (I picked Greg and I said it right to their faces.) The whole experience left a horrible taste in my mouth and, needless to say, I didn't play on the team during the rest of high school. Interestingly enough, Greg ended up joining a year or two later and did quite well for himself. Go figure, they liked him once they got to know him.

It was during these years that our little gang (Bill, Greg and me; Terence had lost interest a few years after we moved to Mesa) developed a reputation for always having the latest equipment. So much so that the Dobson Ranch pro, Brian Lahner, would always tease us when he'd see us over on the courts near his lessons. (Naturally, he'd want to try things out too.) With each new racket came an entirely new style to match it, of course ("I'm gonna be Bettina Bunge!"), which I like to attribute to my not getting all that much better over the years. (Each "style" had only been playing a few months so therefore was a "beginner.") While we did follow certain racket fads, we always went a little outside the box, which is why our list would definitely put us in a league of our own. Here are some thoughts:

Virginia Wade and Sue Barker were using the Maxply Fort when I started playing, but because I was so young, my first (non-drugstore*) racket was the Wilson Jack Kramer Autograph Junior. None of us ever got the original Prince (who would want to be anything like Pam Shriver?), but I later had the Prince Woodie (I call those the Kathy Rinaldi years) and Greg had the Prince Pro, which Shriver eventually upgraded to, too.

Instead of getting the full-size Jack Kramer, my next racket was the Bancroft Players Special. (I'm sure I wanted a Chris Evert Autograph, but I had to be reasonable so settled for Martina's latest.) 

Compromise: A Martina Navratilova poster and a Chris Evert (Autograph) poster

UPDATE: I've never been able to find the actual Martina poster I had -- the photo above is also from the 1978 Wimbledon final.

But in 2024, the series "Apples Never Fall" -- about a dysfunctional tennis family -- had it hanging in one of the daughters' bedrooms. Sadly, this is as much as they ever showed. 

None of us had the Head Professional, although Terence's first racket was a Head Junior, which was similar. (Jenni Blachut's sister Beth had one, but wasn't able to keep up with my vicious groundstrokes when she "challenged" me on the ladder.) At some point Bill got a couple Garcia Pro 240s (aka the Harold Solomon Autograph) and Greg got a Rossinnol Strato.

Our stepfather had the Head Arthur Ashe Competition but none of us ever had Jimmy Connor's famous sword. Greg, however, had a Wilson T-3000 (in fact, he was using it the first time we met/played). Greg later got a Wilson Sting in the '80s, if I'm remembering correctly. My first non-Wood racket was the Yamaha YFG20. (I spent an entire summer waiting for the UPS man to deliver it.) It was newfangled Fiberglass(!) and Renee Richards was using it when we saw her at the Avon Championships of Detroit before we moved. I later had another (brown) Yamaha, which my frenemy Jim Bell cracked (Jim's one of the guys who delivered the ultimatum. Years later, big surprise, I found out he was a big homo.) But the Woodie was after the first Yamaha, and around 1983 I got some open-throat wood-graphite composite Snauwaert deal (as seen in these photos of me). It was with this that I won the Dobson Ranch Junior Open, coming back from four match points down to A GIRL!

I've never tried any Babolat racket, but I did want the Wilson Pro Staff 6.0 85 in the worst way. (I think I demo-ed one for so long that it would have been cheaper to buy it than to pay the fee.)

Now the Dunlop Max 200G is the one racket on this list that I most definitely had. I'd still be using it today if I could (my last one cracked). After loving Chris and Tracy and Andrea for all those years along came Steffi Graf and my whole outlook on the game changed. Instead of being a patient baseliner who could occasonally win matches, why not hit the ball as hard as I possibly could (and adopt a one-handed backhand) and never win again? The final racket on the list is the Donnay Borg Pro, which Greg had in college (I believe he used the original Wilson Pro Staff through high school). Bill was the huge Borg fan, but he opted for the Donnay Fiberwood (instead of orange it had sort of a purply rainbow thing going on).

UPDATE: Very sad to report that I heard from Jenni's sister Beth that Jenni passed away in 2015, after a lifelong battle with substance abuse.

Jenni, Beth and Tina 

Read HERE.

*My very first racket was a traditional frame made by Windsor, purchased at the Green Acres drugstore on 13 Mile Road in Warren, not far from Village Racquet Club. Mine was light blue with a black grip. I wish to God my brother Bill were around to confirm, but pretty sure I have the details right.

Just came across this photo featuring me in my T-shirt for the Phoenix Sunsets, the World Team Tennis team for which I ballboyed in 1982!


BW said...

Nicely done. Wish I had a picture of that spaghetti racket I strung up!

Anonymous said...

Cute little Kenny!!! dbphx