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Hardcrab Tennis Tournament by W. Newton Jackson, III
March 25, 2018
This is a short story about an actual, unsanctioned tournament played in a small town in Maryland some thirty years ago. The part about the guy with the two-handed serve is true, as are all the nicknames. The rest is total fiction dreamed up by me but I think it comes close to what a lot of us have experienced in small town tournaments.
One hot Saturday morning some thirty years ago, my doubles partner Tom and I drove to a little town nestled on a sound leading to the Chesapeake Bay where, pardon the cliché, if it’s not the end of the world, you can see it from there. The locals crab in the summer, oyster in the winter, and drink year-round. A distinctive accent prevails among them, and they use unfamiliar locutions such as “There’s a slick cam on the fairway today” which means that the water in the channel is perfectly calm due to an absence of wind, or “She ain’t pretty none” which means that she’s beautiful.
The heat/humidity index was so high that August day that you could not strike a match and get it to light, even if you doused it with gasoline. I suggested to Tom that we go to the IGA store and buy some cabbage leaves to wet down with copious amounts of water. Then, we could stick them inside our floppy white hats, just like the Aussies did back in the 1950s. Tom said no. He thought that that was a bit too much. We were in foreign territory, and such a gesture might be viewed by the natives as ostentatious or, even worse, condescending. Being a physician, he reminded me that a healthy sudation was the best way to evacuate the body of its gross humors and crudities, whatever that meant.
We found the tournament site easily—three tennis courts side by side across the street from the fire station. Parking was on the grassy outside perimeter of the courts. Most of the vehicles were pickup trucks, and a few had gun racks in the back window, so Tom’s candy-apple red BMW stood out like a Playboy bunny in a church choir, except we wouldn’t be spending the next two days with choir boys.
We proceeded to the check-in table where we met our first-round opponents, two local fellows, big rugged-looking guys wearing wife-beater tee shirts who introduced themselves as “Scorchy” and “Moo Tit.” The director told us that our match would start in fifteen minutes and take place on one of the end courts. We suspected that their skill-level might be marginal, but they appeared to be in shape, and we had to be ready for anything.
We lost the racket spin, and the other team chose to serve first, which presented us with our first eye-opener of the day. I had seen two-handed backhands, and I had seen two-handed forehands, but until then I had never seen a two-handed serve. After tossing the ball up in the air, Moo Tit grabbed the racket with both hands and slammed down on the ball just like a wood chopper. Once in a while, his serve went in, but most of the time he double-faulted. We were cruising along and about to bagel them when the first interruption occurred. A couple of dogs ran across the court, one chasing the other, and I noticed for the first time that there was a hole in the fence at one end of the court. After shooing them off, we resumed play, but not long after that there was a deafening noise from the fire station siren, apparently signaling the hour to be twelve-noon. We stopped play for five minutes with our index fingers in our ear canals before finishing the match and winning 6-0, 6-0.
Afterwards, we drove to a nearby hotdog stand to grab some lunch—the proprietor had a special on scrapple sandwiches, but we stuck with hot dogs—before returning to the Woodchoppers’ Ball for our next match. (On the way back, a bank’s time-temperature sign said ninety-seven degrees.) Most of the same pickup trucks were still parked courtside, but this time tailgates were down, beer coolers were out, and the morning’s losers—presumably the losers—were slaking their thirst in the oppressive heat. Some girls had also shown up, and they were standing at one court-end or another, depending on where their boyfriend or husband might be playing. For our second-round match, “Skag”—we later learned the director’s nickname—sent us to the same court we had been on in the morning. He said that because “it was hotting” we would play a single ten-game pro set instead of the standard two-out-of-three sets. We found our next opponents already warming up. This always unnerves me because I know we won’t get the warm-up time we deserve and psychologically they have established “ownership” of the court. Silly, I know, but that’s the effect it always has on me, and, more disarming, was the fact that they had solid ground strokes and crisp volleys.
“Bee Bop” and “Jitter” quickly got ahead of us, but not because they were better than us. First, another dog ran onto the court, but this time stopping to urinate—the puddle vanished quickly due to the heat. Second, when I ran back toward the fence to retrieve a high-bouncing ball, my sock got caught in the hole in the fence as I threw up a lob. Third, we heard a heated argument two courts away apparently over a disputed line call, which caused one player to pull down his tennis shorts and moon the other team before he and his partner stomped off the court and roared away in their truck.
Tom and I started playing much better and had gone ahead 9-7 when we noticed a Sheriff’s Department car driving slowly around the courts and realized that the deputy was peering out his window and checking license plates, probably for expired tags. Meantime, our opponents got to 9-8 when Jitter put a drop shot right where the urine spot had been. We were so unnerved that we didn’t even try to run for it.
We welcomed the change-over time to sit down, hood our heads in a towel, and drink some water. On the other side of the court, Bee Bop and Jitter were standing, and each had popped open a beer. Tom pointed to his car where the deputy sheriff was peering inside the windows and gave me a worried look. After half a minute, he left, and Tom said it must have been the out-of-state tags that caught his attention. I thought it was really the outlandish paint job, but I said nothing. Meantime, our two opponents had returned to the court and were eyeing us in a not too friendly way.
Tom prepared to serve for the set, and hence the match, and I was hoping this would indeed be the last game because I was having cold sweats, which meant that I was becoming dehydrated. Suddenly, the ear-shattering wailing of the fire siren once again filled the air, and our two opponents quickly dropped their rackets and ran off the court. In fact, most everyone there jumped into their pickups and drove off, leaving a few of us non-natives standing around.
After fifteen minutes or so, when they still had not come back, it dawned on me that it was a local custom for everyone to go to a fire. We decided to be of use by picking up empty beer cans on the grass and throwing them into a trash can. Bee Bop and Jitter had left their rackets and beer cooler on the court, so we expected them back soon to finish the match. After an hour had passed and no one had returned, I suggested to Tom that we forfeit them, because, if we were victorious, our next match would be the semi-finals on Sunday morning. He looked at me like I was crazy, but off I went anyway, searching for the tournament director to demand that USTA rules be followed, forgetting all the while that this was not a sanctioned tournament and they didn’t apply. A couple of the girls were still at the courts, so I asked them what was going on. One said that Skag was at the fire because he was a volunteer fireman, as were Bee Bop and Jitter. For that matter, she added, so were Scorchy and Moo Tit.
We decided to leave town and head home. We never came back, and to this day we don’t know who, if anyone, won the tournament.
© 2018 by W. Newton Jackson, III