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Net Gain

How a Jaded Tennis Bum Recaptured His Love of the Sport

Malik Yusef
Malik Yusef
Malik Yusef
Malik Yusef
Malik Yusef

By Andrew Reiner | Posted 8/22/2001

I am a pack rat. Which means that I hold on to everything, including feelings for things and people that haven't played an important role in my life for a long time. There are a few things, however, that I have let go of at one time or another and, with uncharacteristic indifference, bid good riddance. One of these things was tennis. Even though I had been involved with the sport for more than 25 years, I had grown tired of playing it and cynical of teaching it.

But this isn't a story about sour grapes. It is a tale of loss, yes, but of redemption as well--through tennis, of all things. My story winds up in an unlikely setting, Patterson Park. This East Baltimore space, home to prostitutes and athletes and artists, is no Flushing Meadows, the New York site of the U.S. Open (which begins Aug. 27) and spiritual home of American tennis. Yet it became a mecca for me this summer, and its pilgrims, ages 7 through 13, came daily from recreation sites throughout the city, never aware of the minor miracle they were helping to create.

This isn't, I'm sure, what the Greater Baltimore Tennis Patrons, who operate the tennis program that I oversaw in Patterson Park, would call it. The nonprofit organization doesn't deal in miracles, only in ground strokes. But sometimes a spark of divinity can flicker in the most unlikely places.

My earliest memory of holding a racket is from when I was about 10 years old. My parents had taken my brother and me to the first Baltimore City Fair back in the '70s, and we came across a booth for a semi-pro tennis team. They had a backboard set up, and after I rallied a few balls off of it, one of the team members said that I would be a natural, especially since I was left handed (an advantage when serving to right-handed opponents). While my mother didn't consider the guy's compliment (because she didn't want the house cluttered with any more sporting goods) and my father ignored it (because his sons played baseball), I embossed it in my memory, with little crossed rackets around the words. I began playing tennis because my older brother, whom I adored, took it up as a break from playing baseball all day. I stuck with tennis because it wasn't baseball.

Baseball had been my first love. Growing up, my neighborhood pals and I played every form of baseball we could get our hands on. Softball in the morning. Stickball in the afternoon. Wiffle ball after dinner. Baseball at dusk. If we weren't playing it, we were talking about it or flipping baseball cards or playing board games that simulated it. My father, once a college ballplayer, aided and abetted our passion by having us watch ball games on television while he pointed out what made a hitter's swing so powerful or gave a pitcher's fastball its zip.

Every weekend, from mid-March through June, my father took us to the playing fields across the street from where we lived and taught us how to throw a ball. While this gift of time, energy, and knowledge was helpful, appreciated, and raised the level of my game, it also raised my anxiety level. We couldn't go home until we learned how to throw overhand with the elbow propped at a 45 degree angle and the hand held aloft as if it was holding a tray. Anything less than this, any motion that hinted at throwing sidearmed, was blasphemous, a sign of weak character. Baseball, for my father, was about process and morality.

When I was 14, an age that has no patience for procedures, I jumped ship and switched to tennis, which I played competitively through high school. At least with tennis I was outside my father's realm of criticism--but not outside his sphere of influence. No matter how hard I tried to enjoy and get better at tennis, I couldn't shake the yoke my father taught me to make: During every match I was more obsessed with form, with process, than I was with playing the point.

The biggest offense I could commit in my own eyes was hitting a slice backhand, a defensive block of the racket--tennis' equivalent of throwing sidearmed. The slice was the easy way out, the safety shot I resorted to when I became scared of losing. Often I would give up on a point if I felt that I had hit a shot poorly; I could hear my father's voice reverberating in my head that I didn't deserve to win if I was too cowardly to hit the ball correctly. To make matters worse, I got down on myself again when I lost points. So even though the tennis coach at my college suggested that I play JV for a year and then move up to varsity, I couldn't do it. I could no longer handle the lose-lose dynamic I had set up for myself before I even walked onto the court. I needed to uproot and replant myself in less acidic soil.

The tennis-bum lifestyle--teaching and playing--is a good one, rivaled only by that of ski bums. Golf pros have it well enough but they are usually out-of-shape, middle-aged guys in saddle shoes. Tennis bums, on the other hand, maintain a youthful edge even as they age. Maybe it's because their sport keeps them in decent shape, or because they maintain constant tans, or because they wear sunglasses early in the morning (not because of the glare)--or, and much as I hate to perpetuate the stereotype, because they become a little too chummy with students who look great in a tennis skirt. (Female pros, however, tend to be much more focused and sober, literally and figuratively.)

I can't say that, at 21, when I first started teaching tennis, I didn't romanticize this lifestyle. But it wasn't what brought me back into tennis from retirement. After all, I was teaching at a high school rec site where the closest I got to a tennis skirt was Marion, a student in her 60s who barked orders at her classmates and was built like a drill sergeant. Even though this job didn't help my social life, it was the best teaching experience I ever had. Long before I entered a classroom to teach English (my job a decade later), this gig taught me how to break down complex techniques and explain them in a simple, intelligible way to people of different ages and, especially, intelligence levels. And it taught me how to work with white and black kids on the same court, which was no small feat when one black student was calling some of her classmates "honky bitches" and a pair of white twins, who attended a Baptist school, refused to play doubles with two black sisters because their parents "wouldn't allow it."

After college, I tried working in advertising and corporate PR but found the 9-to-5 routine too structured. Luckily, I found a job as a teaching assistant at Woodholme Country Club in Pikesville. At first, I was embarrassed to show up at happy hours and tell friends from my previous white-collar incarnation that I was teaching tennis, but, unlike in other sports such as baseball or basketball, it's de rigeur for tennis players to teach their sport while still at the height of their physical and competitive powers (one out of two, in my case). Actually, most tournament-level players teach as a way to make great money and avoid wearing a tie and dealing with rush-hour traffic. I enjoyed teaching the club members' kids so much, especially the teens, I used to give some of them free lessons and hung out with them in the snack bar. It was a honeymoon phase for them and me: They were still young enough to be blind to the differences between themselves and the hired help, and I was thrilled to have a hand in tennis again, let alone to be making good money doing it.

Throughout the late '80s and into the mid-'90s. I taught tennis at a few area private clubs and with the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council. I managed to juggle these assignments while working full-time jobs with nonprofit organizations; I simply made sure that if I was quitting a job, I did so before the outdoor tennis season began. This was in the days when the job market's appetite for workers was insatiable, and teaching tennis, though not a career path I cared to pursue, kept one of my feet in a youth I still wasn't ready to abandon. My students, like the job market, couldn't get enough. They worked hard to learn the strokes and the game, but thankfully few if any had the hang-ups with form that tormented me years earlier.

After a few years, however, I noticed something unnerving about the kids I taught. Maybe it was a change in me (I was now teaching middle-schoolers and was more aware of my students' behavior), but I think it had more to do with the changing economic climate. My adolescent students, especially, acted as if their lessons were another chore, like taking a grammar- enrichment class, that would better prepare them for the hypercompetitive global economy. Many of them stumbled in from swim team workouts that began as early as 7 that morning and, after tennis, were headed to lacrosse and soccer camps. Just as their T-shirts instructed, they were there to just do it so that this might be yet another talent to help land them a scholarship to a prep school or college their parents otherwise couldn't afford.

Despite my efforts to loosen these kids up, tennis to them was yet another commodity to consume. After I got to know some of these Brads, Ashleys, Tiffanys, and Tylers well enough, even I became a commodity. I went from being a teacher to another service-industry slob whose purpose was to either entertain or accommodate them. "Why don't you pick up the balls instead of us?" many of these students asked me during these years. "I'm paying you. It's not the other way around, you know," they reminded me. But the prize for Best Sense of Entitlement went to one tyke who, tired of taking instruction from me that he felt was getting him nowhere, told me, "I don't have to do this. My father could buy you."

Back in the early '90s, I bartended at the Club Charles. I started out working happy hour but quit after seeing the same people come in every afternoon and bond with others whose commonality was that they were lonely and couldn't face what waited for them at home until they were buzzed. This was also why I stopped teaching tennis four years ago. The misery of kids whose lifestyles were turning them into mini-adults was beginning to affect me. When you struggle to motivate yourself, there's no way you can convince someone else to get up from the floor. Besides, as I get older, I'm considering heat and the summer sun more my nemeses than my companions.

So, without fanfare and less melodrama than when I quit tennis the first time, I put away my sunblock once and for all. Over the next few summers, I taught gifted and talented kids about explorers; the gig allowed me to dress up as a pirate and cloister myself in air conditioning. But this past spring I started graduate school and needed a more flexible schedule. I interviewed with the Greater Baltimore Tennis Patrons (GBTP) because my only other option for making decent money in the summer seemed to involve serving martinis to people half my age who make triple my teacher salary and still leave sub-poverty-level tips.

Soon after meeting Lynn Morrell, GBTP's program director, and the program's president, Clinton Kelly, I felt good about seeking them out. They seemed to have activist sensibilities, which sounds contradictory for a sport so beholden to tradition. But breaking with tradition, I learned, is the key to the game's vitality.

GBTP, which began in 1975, runs events including an annual national prep-school team tournament at the prestigious McDonough School; by the late '90s,, what had been a staid nonprofit organization changed its focus to become more inclusive, coinciding with a time of change in American tennis itself. "We decided it was time to teach people how to play a game they could have for the rest of their lives, rather than spend our energy only on people who already know how to play," Kelly says. Part of this meant initiating year-round instruction for wheelchair-bound tennis players and an annual wheelchair tournament that draws competitors from throughout the mid-Atlantic region. It also meant that Kelly has begun banging his shoe at United States Tennis Association (USTA) meetings, à la Nikita Khrushchev, arguing to the sport's governing body that, "You guys need to make the game more accessible and affordable!"

His remonstrations have paid off. In 1998, the USTA adopted the Patrons' USA Tennis Program, which meant that grant money from the USTA allowed GBTP to expand its summer program. From the Patrons' first classes at four sites around Baltimore County in 1998, which drew 200 participants, the program has mushroomed to 45 sites, which attracted 2,000 tennis students throughout the Baltimore metro area this summer. "Before [GBTP] came along, there was very little interest in tennis in Baltimore County," says Keene Gooding, assistant director for programming for the county's Department of Recreation.

That wasn't always the case. In the late '70s and early '80s, when I was playing on the Milford Mill Academy courts, our classes averaged about 10 or 15 students and the county still sponsored the Gold Cup, a program that culminated in a tournament at Essex Community College, bringing together the best junior players from the area. But waning interest in tennis and budgetary cutbacks caused the county to cancel the tournament in the mid-'80s. Weighing all that has happened to local tennis recently, Gooding says, "The Tennis Patrons created more enthusiasm than we have seen in a long time." (It doesn't hurt that GBTP's honorary chairperson is Pam Shriver, holder of 22 Grand Slam doubles titles and 21 singles titles and a tireless advocate for the game.)

This success at garnering interest in the game is the reason, says Tom Forman, program supervisor for the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, that his department opted to let the Patrons open up shop at new city sites. "We liked their track record," Forman says.

Patterson Park is an important testing ground for GBTP's new partnership with the city's parks department. The city and GBTP chose this site for the program because not only does it contain 10 tennis courts but, like most of the city's courts, they have barely been used for years. While many of the nation's public courts have long been neglected, the neglect is most glaring in cities like Baltimore, majority African-American cities where many kids and young adults (especially males) would rather spend their energy and time on basketball than on sports that many perceive as expensive, effete, and for whites only. However, with the meteoric rise of golfer Tiger Woods and the tennis-playing Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, many younger African-Americans are now paying attention to these games. This is a positive trend, Forman says. "Our goal is to get people to gravitate toward lifelong learning sports--the ones that teach you to become self-motivated and that aren't as rough on your body," he says. "You can't play basketball or football forever."

The Patrons, which also offer lessons in Baltimore, Howard, and Carroll counties, have been trying to help Forman achieve his goal. At our Patterson Park site alone this summer, we loaned rackets to more than 60 children and adults. And GBTP has tried to make lessons affordable: Six weeks of 90-minute classes cost $35 for children and $65 for adults. This enabled the group to meet its mission of making tennis--a sport that still conjures images of Fred Perry in pleated white slacks and a white V-neck sweater--more affordable and accessible.

But this popularly cited credo--which Kelly will repeat to anyone in earshot--was only part of the reason GBTP expanded its reach into the city. "We wanted to improve the quality of life in Baltimore City," Kelly says. "That's our highest calling." He says that the Patrons were so anxious to introduce the sport downtown that they "committed to the city without any funding." This was a big gamble when you consider that it ended up costing GBTP as much as $50,000 to run the four city sites--at Patterson, Clifton, and Latrobe parks and at Solo Gibbs Police Athletic League Center--this past summer, along with an extra $15,000 in scholarship monies GBTP provided for its neediest students. About 60 percent of that amount was raised through grants and donations from local corporations, hospitals, and the USTA. Approximately 40 percent of the Patrons' annual overall budget comes from such sources, as well as private donations and special events. The balance of the budget comes from program fees.

With the program's success and growth have come the same challenges that afflict many organizations: Too few GBTP staff members are juggling too many responsibilities, communication is slow for addressing noncrisis problems, and quality of staffing is inconsistent. This summer I visited a Patrons-run site in Baltimore County where the head instructor had his adult students running the same relay races I used with the 7-year-olds I teach at Patterson Park.

Some concerns about the program, though, had less to do with GBTP's growth than its present scope of programming. "I thought that this would mean year-round instruction for beginners and that the Gold Cup would be revived," says the leader of a recreation site in Baltimore County who asked not to be identified. GBTP does offer year-round instruction, but the indoor classes can only support a limited enrollment and the cost of lessons is higher. Kelly says that the Patrons are hoping to offer cheaper, outdoor instruction in the fall for teens, and are looking into sponsoring tournaments, but none of this will happen this year. The next generation of tennis lovers can't be created overnight.

I was a bit tentative my first week at Patterson Park. Not because of the location or the condition of the courts. The courts were recently resurfaced, the nets were brand new, and a few aging oak trees grasped the fences surrounding the courts with their spindly fingers like an old tennis bum now content to watch instead of play. I was more concerned about my staff, because four of the seven instructors--Drew Childs, Watson McLeish, Luis Garcia, and Dan Merti--were teenagers with little teaching experience. Even though Tali Giglio was in her late 30s and had played on the professional circuit, she had no teaching experience and struggled getting along with the kids. The other two, David Talan, a college junior, and James Hilson, in his mid-50s, had taught before. As it turned out, this was the best group of tennis instructors I have ever worked with. They were always there and on time. They enjoyed working with the kids, were respectful of them, and were sensitive to their needs (not a common trait in most high school-aged guys). The only slacker was the more experienced James.

Out of the six weeks that our program ran, he didn't show up one-third of the days. When he was there, he spent all of his time telling stories, which wasn't such a bad thing. If during a break we talked about music, he would chime in about his days as a jazz drummer in New York City. When we talked about tennis, he regaled us with tales of teaching at a Canadian tennis camp so exclusive that people shuttled along the grounds by golf cart, and of throwing a party at the tony Southampton, N.Y., home of one of his adult students, who left James the keys to his place. (The police raided the joint, he says, because they thought he and his friends had broken into the home.) James seemed to have been everywhere, known everyone, and done everything. Except show up for work.

But his loquaciousness also redeemed him as a teacher. When the kids started showing up from the Mary E. Rodman Recreation Center that first day and they stared at us and we, the mostly white staff, stared at them--both groups a bit afraid to break the ice--James came to the rescue.

The pregnant silence had made me worry, though. A lot was riding on the success of this site because it would act as a litmus test for future sites. The GBTP hopes to get a foothold in the city and open more sites, and programs like the one at Patterson Park are intended to help gauge whether the city will provide enough enthusiastic students to sustain that growth. Even more of a concern was the infrequency with which we saw our students, who arrived by van from their recreation centers. The city's scheduling of van drivers and lessons defied logic: Instead of coming twice a week, as planned, groups came once a week, and even then we never knew if they were going to show up. And it's difficult enough to get kids interested in a new sport even if they're exposed to it frequently. But when you throw social awkwardness into the mix, the goal is even more elusive.

What finally decompressed the air between us and the kids was an unlikely pressure valve. It was an Accu-Hit. The device, basically a flexible mechanical arm that holds a tennis ball, works much as a T-ball stand works to teach young baseball players to hit. The Accu-Hit entranced the kids and taught them how to hit the ball without having to listen to a lot of technical mumbo jumbo. When it was time to hit moving balls tossed their way, these kids--who had never even watched tennis before--barely missed any shots and many cleanly stroked the ball over the net.

This meant that our students enjoyed the game almost immediately because they saw results. This sounds trite, but in a bottom-line-driven society, results as trivial as hitting a ball over a net mean everything. It's why so many people, especially kids, don't want to try new things; they fear missing the ball, which, to them, means failure. To me, their willingness to try meant something more important: that they left these lessons more willing to embrace change and unfamiliar challenges and people.

Even if they don't internalize a smidgen of this lesson on some level, that's OK. Because my bottom line has always been different from most people's. To see these kids smiling as they got out of their vans (instead of wincing at the thought of yet another thing to cross off in their Daybook), to hear the loud squeals and rowdy peals of excitement (which would have drawn glares at country clubs), to have the kids show up a half-hour or hour late by van (instead of getting in and out of cars in a synchronized ballet of expedience and order that I grew used to in Timonium), were all a revitalizing balm. They sank deeply into my body and activated a muscle, stiff from lack of use, that helped me remember the joy of tennis.

I couldn't even get too angry at a neighborhood kid who walked onto our court one day while we were on break and started chucking our balls to his friends outside the fence, as if this was a natural pastime in East Baltimore. I was furious, of course, and berated the kid, who seemed indifferent.

But as he strutted off the court--on his way, I later found out, to shatter the window of a nearby car and steal its CD player--I silently thanked him. He had evoked in me a visceral reaction that jarred me out of the complacency I had associated with tennis years ago. It made me more aware, more vigilant. It made a court that once appeared monochromatic awash in color. If James had been there, he would have appreciated it too.

To learn more about the Greater Baltimore Tennis Patrons, call (410) 296-2100.

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