1960s U.S. Indoor Tennis at Its Finest
W. Newton Jackson, III
IBeginning in 1964, the U.S. National Men’s Indoor Tennis Tournament was held in Salisbury, Maryland on the Delmarva Peninsula. Bill Riordan, a local merchant and transplanted New Yorker, had convinced the United States Lawn Tennis Association (as it was then called) to move the tournament from its site at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in New York City while that facility underwent renovations. The move was intended to be for only one year, but the tournament met with so much success in Salisbury that it stayed for over a decade.
Every February for a dozen or so years, Salisbury took on a festive air when players from all over the world, including Chuck McKinley, Dennis Ralston, Manuel Santana, Cliff Richey, Arthur Ashe, Rafael Osuna, Thomas Koch, Stan Smith, Tom Okker, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase, and Manuel Orantes—just to name several out of hundreds—arrived to play on the two canvas courts strapped to the floor of the Quonset-hut wooden civic center. The 32-man singles draw began play on a Sunday, and the singles and doubles finals took place on the following Sunday.
The viewing of matches was spectacular, because the bleachers practically touched the outside lines of the courts. Most of the players stayed with host families. Local kids acted as ball boys. The Jaycees acted as ushers. High school students came in buses from school to watch afternoon matches. Each night there was a tournament party at one locale or another, and, from some accounts, they were bacchanalian affairs.
In 1965, the men’s singles draw listed one William C. Higgins, Jr of Lawton, Oklahoma. He played Francisco Gúzman of Ecuador in the first round. I do not know how Billy fared in the tournament, but, even if he had gotten through the first few rounds, he would have had to face McKinley, who won the tournament in 1964, as well as Wimbledon in 1963.
One thing Billy Higgins did accomplish in Salisbury that February was to meet a local girl and, at some stage in their relationship, leave her in kindle. (For those unread in British literature, this expression has nothing to do with the software used to read e-books.) In any event, Billy and Jill married, and she and the baby followed him throughout the U.S. and Europe while he played the tour. In 1969, he was ranked 25th in U.S. men’s tennis—an excellent tennis player by all accounts.
Moving forward to 23 October 1976, on that beautiful Saturday afternoon the undersigned was playing doubles in a tournament called the Salisbury State College Open. My partner and I had gotten through the first round and in the second round were to play C.J. Travers, a local teaching pro, and someone by the name of Billy Higgins. When I saw the draw sheet, I said to myself, “No, it couldn’t be.” Sure enough…when I walked onto the court, it was the Okie from Lawton (not Muskogee) and sure enough…out we went 6-0, 6-1. (I was able to hold serve one time.)
Billy and his partner eventually won the tournament, to no one’s surprise.
The point is not to suggest that Billy Higgins’s career was in a state of decline because he was playing in a local tournament or that I had ascended to Mount Olympus to hurl lightning bolts at the other tennis gods. Rather, Billy happened to be in Salisbury because his in-laws lived here: he was visiting them; and he wanted to get a little tennis in.
Moving forward into the 1980s, I got to know a fellow by the name of Jim Bochte, who was the summer-time tennis professional at Buck Hill Falls in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. One day I happened to ask him if he had ever heard of Billy Higgins. He got a big smile on his face and spent the next hour talking about him—all favorable. Every summer when I returned to Buck Hill, he would ask me if I had seen Billy, which unfortunately I hadn’t.
Jumping still forward to 2012, I was playing in a USTA-sanctioned, 65-and-over clay court tournament at Belle Haven Country Club in Alexandria, Virginia and had made it through the first round. Afterwards, the club pro Steve Fiske introduced me to my second-round opponent, David Schermerhorn, who was living in Colorado. Unknown to me, David had grown up in Oklahoma. I launched into my “Okie from Lawton” story, and he quickly said, “That’s where I’m from, and Billy Higgins was one of my brother’s best friend growing up.”
Small world, indeed
On Serve: Suzanne Lenglen and Antoine Watteau
reprint from Cagibi Express - September 5, 2018
Imagine that in a hidden corner of Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera, Suzanne Lenglen plays tennis. Dressed more lightly than the spectators in their rococo frills, her body is both concealed and revealed in all its ballet. Lenglen’s every tennis stroke is a musician’s glissando a dancer’s glissade perfectly guided and placed as if on a handkerchief on her opponent’s side of the court. (Her father trained her using real handkerchiefs.) And when the pressure of performance is too great, she sips a little cognac on changeovers. Watteau’s lovers in attendance are thrilled, dazzled. Under the spell of Lenglen, their lovemaking later will be enhanced and forgotten, the island’s reigning sculpture of Venus momentarily superseded by a real-life Goddess of the homely. As the other great players of the 1920s described Lenglen: “You can’t imagine a homelier face” (Helen Wills). “Heaven knows no one could call her beautiful” (Bill Tilden). But Lenglen as Goddess, nevertheless. Goddess as mystique, as popular song. The classic WWI song, “There’s a long, long trail a winding,” became a Lenglen trail of spectators winding more than a mile to see her at Wimbledon. Did Louis the Sun King have that? Goddess meaning she smoked and drank through six consecutive Wimbledon singles titles. Goddess meaning tennis as ballet, tennis as the music of Lully, Rameau. The absolutism of Louis XIV gives way to the rococo dreamscapes of Watteau. WWI gives way, a memory. It is Lenglen who conquers France.
Why I Play Tennis
I was asked by a successful hedge fund client why he should keep working when he had certainly made enough money to last a lifetime for him as well as his children. His profit and loss statement was already off the charts, so it no longer served as the motivator for him.
I couldn't tell him why he "should" show up each day. I could, though, tell him why I continue to show up for tennis, despite having accumulated more than enough victories. My tennis cup PNL runneth over.
I thought about why, after 35 years, I continue to enter tournaments, to compete, to put my mind and body through the preparation so that I show up ready to bring the best Bob I can be to the court.
At the beginning, for me, it was all about winning and losing. Who I was, if I was a success or failure, had to do with results only. At first I couldn't beat players who were better than me. That figured. I couldn't beat players I perceived were below me. I felt like a loser. A failure. Then, when I hit the 35s I won a lot. In fact, I won most of the time and it just wasn't enough. The winning didn't seem to mean that much and I didn't feel as good as I thought I would. Winning was too easy because I was just better than a lot of the opponents or I got someone on a bad day. So winning didn't feel that good most of the time. Add to that, losing felt awful no matter how it happened. The whole thing just started to get old and I stopped enjoying playing.
But I wanted it to be special. How could I be good at something and, yet, not enjoy the experience?
So I started to search for what I could pull out of the experience to make it special. I made lists of what I did love about doing the work and competing. Each match had something in it that made it a positive experience. I loved having to find the quiet within the storm. Having to find relaxation in the midst of a perceived stressful situation. I loved developing the craft. New ways to hit the ball. New places on the court. Developing a sense of purpose for each shot. I loved trying to work it out while someone was trying to keep me from doing it. I loved the engagement. How long I needed to pay attention to really get the job done. I loved the stress and pressure of each point being a win/lose experience. I loved attempting to impose my will on my opponent as he tried to do the same to me. I loved when it was close and I had to deal with pressure. I loved, when I lost, having to be a good loser. I loved having to be a good winner. I loved being faced with failure and giving full effort at pushing it away for as long as possible, and sometimes, I if lucky enough, being able to win from the precipice. I loved when pushed to my limit, when it feels like I just can't squeeze out one more drop of focus or effort or energy, finding a little bit more. I loved the effort that I need to put in to get myself to exercise in the gym, to run sprints, to do agility drills. I loved having a reason to eat well,even though I would rather eat badly. I loved the texture of the experience.
Most of all I loved that I constantly needed to do the work of making my days on the court meaningful and special.
It wasn't tennis' job to do that. Waiting for only good results to get myself to feel good was a certain way to be unhappy much of the time. JFK said, "ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what can you do for your country."
I say, ask not what tennis brings to me...ask what I bring to my tennis.
I fail at some or all of these things on some days and I am disappointed but just decide that I will do better the next time. I want to look in the mirror at the end of the day and say, "You did good." The joy of working on the details every day has kept me engaged, focused, interested, happy and young. The fact that I am better today than I was 10 and 20 years ago is a huge payoff. The fact that I will be better tomorrow is what makes me jump out of bed each day.
It's a Family Affair
These kinds of things don’t make tennis headlines, but they should: Would you believe there’s a family in Chicago that has collected more than 50 gold ball national championships playing only with each other? Jerry Morse-Karzen is the common thread running through all of them.
Jerry and his little boy Brett (who is 6’9”) won their 34th National Father/Son title at the Senior Father/Son Indoor at Cherry Hill, NJ earlier this year. They are a country mile ahead the second-place all-time team of Charlie Hoeveler and his sons Chas and Justin who have combined for “only” 25. But Jerry also won 4 or 5 nationals with his father Richard, and oh yeah, he’s bolstered his gold ball total with another 16 that he’s won with Becky (now Moffatt) in the Father/Daughter!
Having experienced the unique nature of playing the family events with his father Richard, Jerry recruited son Brett at the age of 14 in 1997. Four years later, they combined for their first gold ball, defeating Zan Guerry and John, another multi-generational team. Zan had won the nationals with his father Alex decades before. That apparently opened the floodgates, and there has been a deluge of national championships for the Morse-Karzens since then.
The M-K’s have been so dominant that they have the distinction of being the only team in history to be ranked #1 in the US in both the Open division and the Senior division (father has to be 60 & over) simultaneously! In the recent Indoor, David Chang and his son Jonathon were another team that was able to successfully compete in both the Open and the Senior events. Ironically, they reached the finals of the Open, but only the semis of the Senior. They had the misfortune of running into the Morse-Karzen juggernaut in the semis of the Senior where they lost 6-1, 6-3. With the rangy M-K’s blanketing the net, the Changs remarked that they “couldn’t find much daylight,” a familiar experience for opponents.
So, after all these years, why do the Morse-Karzens continue to compete? Jerry says quite simply, “It’s fun.” Brett adds that it’s a great incentive to stay in shape, and he says with a twinkle, “And we’re still playing pretty well.” They both agree that it is a great bonding experience, where you get to hang out together and work for a common goal. They point out that the teams that play the Father/Son events share a special camaraderie. Many of them have known each other for years, playing each other as up and coming juniors, then as college players, and later as adults with families of their own. And even into the seniors and super-seniors and beyond.
In the early years, the fathers were the big dogs and the sons are just trying to hang in with the adults. Before long, the sons are shouting “Mine!” more often and the teams are somewhat balanced. As the sons improve and the fathers age, it becomes the fathers who are trying to hang in against the power and athleticism of the young guys. In effect, the fathers are tasked with trying to slide downhill more slowly than the sons improve.
Jerry and Brett acknowledge what a great group of players are drawn to play the family events. The tournaments in some ways resemble an Old Home Week, with fiery matches during the day, and dinners with long-time friends and opponents in the evenings. Put a bunch of tennis players at the table and the tall tales are going to start to flow. Jerry says he remembers more about his father/son tennis than the matches he played on the tour. Maybe that’s another one of the reasons we keep playing – for all the stories we can tell…..
Lobbing in Lugano
If you enjoy playing on red clay, and the travel bug is a familiar companion, then Lugano, Switzerland should be on your bucket list. The Lugano Seniors Open is an ITF grade 1 tournament that is played in one of Europe's most scenic resort towns. Lugano is located near the Swiss-Italian border and boasts a lakeside view that few venues could surpass. The tournament had a plethora of outstanding international senior players in all age divisions.
My first excursion into European clay court tennis began last July in Lugano. The tournament matches were not given specific starting times, instead an order of play was published that tells each player what court he is assigned and that his match would not begin before a certain time. The entire atmosphere was quite casual even though some players would get quite emotional. Remember, we were near the Italian border. Nevertheless, the players were friendly, and the staff was helpful despite the fact that English was a real challenge. Switzerland has four official languages, unfortunately English is not one of them. I muddled through nevertheless and talked my opponents into announcing the score in English.
My wife and I spent two weeks touring Switzerland before the tournament started. Our Swiss tour guide told us that within every Swiss person lurks a policeman. I can believe it because the lady behind the tournament desk insisted that each player receive just one banana. Any player, including yours truly, caught with a second banana had to deal with the wrath of a real banana cop.
Playing on red clay was a new experience for me. I must say it was different and a lot of fun. Trying to maintain my balance and not fall down was quite a challenge. The slippery surface was tough on a hard court junkie like myself. I managed to win my first match quite easily but lost my second match to a seeded player. Probably the best part of the tournament for me was getting the chance to meet and practice with players who really knew their way around a clay court. Overall it was a great experience, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves the game.
The Best Tennis Camp EVER!!!!!!!
The year was 1971. I had just finished my first year as Tennis & Squash Coach at Williams College, a dream job I never expected to get. I was planning to celebrate my good fortune with a summer on the beaches of Martha's Vineyard. It would be my first summer of NOT teaching tennis since I was 16 years old. Then the phone rang.
Jim Westhall was the Director of Marketing for a condominium development in Bretton Woods, NH. He wanted me to hire and train staff and direct an adult tennis camp at the Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, NH - along with Rod Laver & Roy Emerson. I had 2 questions for Jim. (1) Where was Bretton Woods, NH? (2) Why did he think that Laver & Emerson, both still active on tour, would ever show up in Bretton Woods, NH?
Jim flew me to Boston to meet Laver, on his way back home to CA from Europe. I met the Rocket at Logan Airport. I asked him if he would be in Bretton Woods. He said either he or Emmo or both would be on court every day of the 8 weeks. I was in!
I convinced most of my Williams tennis team to come with me to the mountains. Some of them already had a little teaching experience and the rest caught on quickly. But their teaching skills were not that important because for the 8 weeks of camp either Rocket or Emmo (and for one week, both of them) were with the campers at breakfast, lunch, & dinner, and in the lounge after dinner, plus on court teaching all day. Can you name a week-long tennis camp where an ATP pro interacts with the campers morning, noon & night?
The Mount Washington Hotel, site of the International Monetary Conference in 1944, was a grand old hotel set on 10,000 acres of NH wilderness. 12 red clay courts, an enormous dining room with round tables for 12, and an active bar and lounge with a small band and a singer were the feature attractions. Campers and staff mingled for meals and for drinks and dancing afterwards. At the end of each day's session on court, Rocket or Emmo would lead a charge up the hill, yelling "To the bar!!" After dinner, back to the bar for more drinks and dancing. Aussies really know how to have a good time!! Often enough, if spirits were still high when the bar closed, Emmo would invite the hardcore up to his room for a nightcap at the small bar in his room.
Herbert Warren Wind, tennis writer, visited for the day that first year. He wrote a long opinion piece in the New Yorker Magazine, and called our camp "one of the great bargains of our time." That first summer you got a room, an opening (free) cocktail party, all meals, a minimum of 7 hours of tennis instruction per day, and the right to call Rocket or Emmo your friend, all for $325 per person. Truly "one of the great bargains of our time!!"
Many of our campers came from the New York City area that year, so at least 60 of them showed up at Forest Hills for the US Open on grass, to watch Emmo play 16-year old Bjorn Borg in the first round. Emmo won in straight sets, 6-4,6-4,6-4, and our campers saluted his victory with the Aussie cheer they had learned at camp that summer: "Hooray for Emmo, hooray at last, hooray for Emmo, he's a horse's ass!!"
No question - The Best Tennis Camp EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Hardcrab Tennis Tournament
W. Newton Jackson, III
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