A US Open Trip Changed Me Forever

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The world’s greatest tennis player, John McEnroe, was in a corner of the dressing room, reading the newspaper dejectedly.

The second best player in the world, Ivan Lendl, was standing in the narrow space just a few meters from me. He would be in midfield in a few hours but now he’s talking to another player about golf.

I took it all in, a fly on the wall in the middle of the tennis kingdom. Mats Wilander passed him. I could hear Jimmy Connors tell his obscene jokes.

Is this really happening? Was the 16-year-old me in the locker room at the 1983 United States Open? Even today, I pinch it whenever I think of it.

That year, my father and I formed a doubles team that represented the Pacific Northwest in the father and son portion of the Equitable Family Tennis Challenge. We flew all-expenses-paid to New York to compete against amateur tandems from across the county in the popular tournament. The championship rounds were held at Flushing Meadows, in the midst of America’s tennis grand slam.

Since then, the US Open has been special to me in a way that I feel to my bones. If it wasn’t for him, I would be a different person. And I would not have a cherished memory with my late father.

what a different time it was… In 1983, total prize money for male and female professionals was $1 million. Fans and players clashed on the field. No one checked your bags as you entered through the doors.

As part of the Equitable event, teams of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husband and wife and siblings played matches on the same courts played by the professionals. We had passes that got us into the locker room with the best players in the world.

In week two of the Open, after playing a match in our little tournament where the grand prize was a silver plaque, I showered in the shower room next to a small group of pros. I was there when one of the pros came in to take a shower – soaping my hair. My favorite player in France was Yannick Noah, who went to victory at the French Open that summer and became the first Black player to win a Grand Slam tournament title since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975.

Noah kindly asked me in his accented English. I explained that I was a national level junior, one of the few Black players at that level in the United States, and told him about the Equality tournament. That night I asked him if he was ready for his next big game in the quarterfinals. He said he couldn’t wait.

“I hope you and your father are there,” he added, before wishing us luck.

As big and lucky as they were, those rare moments in the locker room weren’t what impressed me the most at that Open. The encounters with the other two tennis stars stand out. Encounters that changed my life.

One afternoon at the Flushing court, I spotted former Army parachutist super coach Nick Bollettieri, who has trained many of the world’s best young players at the Florida tennis academy.

I approached Bollettieri. I asked about his academy and said I dreamed of attending one day, but my struggling family couldn’t afford the exorbitantly high price after my parents divorced and my father’s small business floundered. Fortunately, one of Bollettieri’s assistant coaches was nearby. Assistant, Mich, said he saw me do a good fight against one of the best seeds for under-16 boys in Kalamazoo.

Bollettieri thought for a moment, then motioned for me to approach. “Find Arthur,” he instructed, “and ask if he’ll help.” Bollettieri meant Arthur Ashe, whose Wimbledon win ignited my passion for tennis. The two came together to help other minority players join the academy.

Bollettieri said he’d help out if Arthur could fund some of it.

Finally, I asked my father to find Ashe and come up with Bollettieri’s idea. It seemed like a daunting task to me that I couldn’t handle. But my father always pushed me, always looking for ways to help me stand on my own two feet. He taught himself tennis after his college basketball career ended, and he insisted that I learn tennis too. Now he told me it was my job and my only job to build the field.

So I started looking for Arthur Ashe. I wasn’t normally this brave, but I waited for him to finish a press conference near the center court at the old Louis Armstrong Stadium. When he was finished, I approached softly.

I can still feel Ashe’s welcoming handshake, I can sense her patience as she listens intently to what I have to say. I remember promising to see what he could do to help.

The next day, Ashe stopped by to watch a few points while my father and I were playing one of our games on the Flushing field.

I was so nervous at first that I made a few easy comebacks. But when it came time to unleash my only real weapon, a left-handed serve that I could detonate like a fast cannon or twist in a spinning spring, I fired it.

ace. ace. Winning.

My father and I didn’t win the tournament, but we won that game. Ashe knew I was real.

A few months later I got a call at my home in Seattle. “Hello Wolf,” said the voice on the other side, “this is Arthur Ashe.”

He had made a deal with Bollettieri to pay for my stay at the Florida academy. I went there for my senior year of high school. The place was overflowing with tennis talent. My first bunk? Andre Agassi.

Destiny mysteriously reigns in our lives. If I hadn’t been at the US Open that year, I wouldn’t have been in Bollettieri’s academy.

If I hadn’t joined academia, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to attend the University of California, Berkeley, the university’s permanent tennis force and the university that has shaped my adult life. At Cal, I played on my way from junior members to full scholarship and became the first African American to captain the men’s tennis team.

Fate finds its way with all of us.

My brother Jon and I treated my dad to a trip to New York for the 2004 US Open, for the first time since the Equitable tournament.

It was there that I realized that he was sick. He struggled to breathe and lost not only a step but also a measure of his mental acuity. One sweltering afternoon, it went away and disappeared.

Shortly after that, my father was hospitalized in a nursing home. He was dying of amyloidosis, a blood disease that attacks his brain, lungs, and heart.

We often held hands while he was struggling for life. I looked for any trace of its familiar, comforting power. When he summoned energy to speak, sport was once again the thread that bound us together.

We talked about memories. We remembered our shared love for the Seattle Sonics and Roger Federer, and all the good years we’ve spent playing tennis together since I was little.

“We’ll always have the On,” he said, gripping my hand tightly.

Yes, I assure you, we always will.

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