This past Sunday, June 16, was the 40th anniversary of the best tennis match I ever played and the biggest match I ever won.
(I know I’m writing four days after the anniversary, but I don’t blog on Sunday, Monday is Sermon Rewind, Tuesday is Top Five, and by Wednesday time, why not just wait til Throwback Thursday? AND the reason I remember the date so precisely is because in the run up to the tournament I kept telling a girl I liked that the Texas Sectionals was ‘June 11-16, June 11-16.’ She never liked me back but maybe that’s another blog for another time.)
Back to the story. On June 16, 1979, I beat Paul Crozier 6-3, 7-6 at the McFarlin Tennis Center in San Antonio to win the Boys’ 18-and-under at the Texas Sectionals. Paul was a better player, but I had a better day and suddenly, miraculously, I was the thing I’d always dreamed of being: number one in Texas.
It’s not false modesty to say Paul was a better player. A year older than me, he ALWAYS won Sectionals for our age group, whether 10s, 12, 14s, or 16s. I had gotten a grand total of one set in five previous matches. His game was a mix of Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe, with silky smooth groundstrokes and punishing serve and volley. Later in that same summer of 1979, he won a Boys’ 18 International tournament … so I guess you could say he was #2 in Texas but #1 in the world.
On finals day, I was glad to be there. I knew I had improved a lot by adding topspin to my backhand and improving my serve, so it crossed my mind that I had a chance. My dad had accompanied me to the tournament, as he always did, and before the match gave me some very quiet encouragement and took a seat in the McFarlin clubhouse.
And when we started …
… in tennis terms I “tree’d.” Or hit “the zone.” Or “played out of my mind.” Whatever the cliche for having a better day against a better player. I won the first thirteen points of the match, hitting winners on most returns of serve and unreturnables when I was serving. As most people who’ve ever played over their head will tell you, I wasn’t really thinking about how well I was playing. It just happened.
Things evened out in the second set and Crozier and I both held serve til 6-all. In those days we played best of nine point tie breaks, meaning you could have simultaneous set point at 4-all. And I remember the last four points vividly, having replayed them in my mind a great deal over the last forty years.
3-2 for him in the tiebreak, I hit a backhand down-the-line passing shot. I almost always hit those cross court. I got down so low for that one that my left knee scraped the court. For the first time in the match, I started thinking: “Holy moly, I’m serving the next three points. I might win!”
3-3. Double fault. Holy moly! I’ve gone from winning to choking! Let’s get ready for a third set!”
3-4. Serve & volley on a second serve & hit a winning stretch backhand volley down the line, made possible by lightning fast courts. In emailing this week, Paul told me he remembers that “amazing backhand volley” well and doesn’t know where it came from. Neither do I.
4-4. Match point for me and set point for him. Somehow I knew I’d hit a good first serve, and I did, hard and flat to the backhand corner of the ad court. Not an ace but not returnable either. No celebration but I jogged to the net (where I was headed anyway because, hello, it’s serve & volley 70s!) and shook his hand.
One note about my dad. He was a great tennis father. Meaning, he sat quietly and watched my matches, never injecting himself into the match with either cheering or criticizing. And he was watching this particular match with a friend (Craig Kardon’s father Sol) from that elevated place in the clubhouse at McFarlin. Anyway, when I hit that serve and it didn’t come back, as I was jogging to the net, for the first time in my life I heard him lose some composure and, with his friend Sol, let out a cheer. I’ll always hear that sound coming over my left shoulder.
Isn’t that ultimately what every son needs to hear from his father? Even if he takes it for granted in the moment, some things become both more real and more meaningful in the remembering.
Novelist William Faulkner famously said that “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” He’s right, of course.
And every so often — especially on a day like today — that’s a very good thing indeed.