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Top Five Tuesday — Top Five People I Ever Played Tennis With

In honor of Wimbledon, this week’s Top Five list has to do with the sport that has made up so much of my life.

And in honor of the fact that I don’t really play anymore, this post also honors some people I used to play with. Back when I played, that is.

So here are the five most famous people with whom I have ever stepped on a court. Note: a good number of them are famous only in the relative sense — they are famous in the world of tennis.

5. Craig Kardon. Of all those on the list, I spent by far the most time on the court with this one. We grew up practicing with and competing against one another in the Dallas area. Sometimes he won; other times I won. Together, we won a state championship in doubles for Boys’ 18-and-under. During and after college, however, our tennis careers took very different turns: while I went north and focused on academics and ultimately ministry, he starred at the University of Texas, played professionally, and then found his niche as a coach.

And not just any kind of coach. His first “student” was Martina Navratilova, who had already won eight Wimbledons. Craig coached her to her ninth. Since then, he has also coached former World #1 Ana Ivanovic and even had his own instructional show on the Tennis Channel.

4. Butch Buchholz. Butch was a highly ranked American pro in the 1960s. In 1979, he had settled in Dallas and was looking to stay in shape by practicing with an ambitious teenager in the area. Someone suggested me, and so the next thing I knew we were on the court together. I remember two things: he wore a warm up suit (top and bottom) in 95 degree heat and he used no spin at all on his groundstrokes. Buchholz has since gone on to influence the tennis world by founding and subsequently running the game’s “Fifth” Grand Slam — the Key Biscayne Masters held every March.

3. Paul Annacone. I played Paul in 1980 at a National Junior Davis Cup tryout event in Stanford, California. I had one of those days where even though I knew the guy I was playing against was much better than me, I still won, 7-5, 6-4. He later proved how much better he was than me by getting to #12 in the world and a few years later found his true calling: coaching. As you can see in the picture below, he too has coached some winners. Today it’s Roger Federer and in the late 90s it was Pete Sampras. Think he ever says to either of them, “You know, that time I played Talbot Davis . . . “?

2. Chuck McKinley. Chuck McKinley won Wimbledon in 1963 without losing a set the entire tournament. And in the fall of 1978, he was in the same situation as Butch Buchholz a year later: relocated to Dallas and looking to play with a teenager who was eager to improve. My name came up. At that stage, I was as focused as I had ever been and he was a far cry from the player who won Wimbledon 15 years earlier. In fact, he was out of shape and could hardly play in the heat. I do remember thinking, “Even though it’s just practice, I’m playing a guy who won Wimbledon!”

1. Rod Laver. Laver should top the list of anyone who has ever hit with him. Winner of two calendar year Grand Slams (1962 and 1969), he’s among tennis’ holy all-time trinity along with Federer and Sampras. In the spring of 1985, I was living in central New Jersey and covering tennis for The Trentonian newspaper. Laver and Ken Rosewall played an exhibition match just outside of Princeton, and I was there to cover it. I got there very early, brought my racket just in case, and God intervened so that Rosewall was late (I’m not sure about that part). Anyway, Laver asked, “would you like to hit a few?” “No, Rod, I’m busy!” So we hit back and forth for about 20 minutes, and it was for sure the most nerve-filled warm-up I’ve ever been part of. I played reasonably well, though, and he was awfully nice.

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