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Clay’s Fuzzy Yellow Balls

   Tennis has been a big part of my life since the age of 13. If you know tennis, you know that 13 is an unlucky number -- not because of any superstition, but because it's far too late to pick up the sport with any hope of real achievement.

   What did I know? I had hopes of being the next great lefty after Rod Laver, but along came Jimmy Connors, effectively crowding me out. At 13, I entered a USTA junior tournament expecting to win ... 'cause I was stupidly optimistic -- and still am. If you can rebound from disappointment, it's a useful trait. Makes you try things that wiser people might not attempt. Once in awhile, it pays off. Not this time, however. I lost in the first round, in part because fairly early in the match, while serving, my wooden racquet slipped out of my sweaty hand and crashed headfirst into the concrete court, fracturing the frame. No rebound for little Clay. I didn't enter another tournament until I was in my fifties. 

on court

   I did, however, play a lot of tennis in the interim, and attended as many tennis events as I could, starting with the US Indoor Championships in 1972, where I got to see the incomparable Rod Laver play, and …

Wimbledon

...Wimbledon in 1975, the year the sainted Arthur Ashe beat the surly Jimmy Connors for the most coveted title in tennis.

   My youngest brother, Bryan, took up the sport even later than I did and, putting the lie to what I stated above, got so good that he became a certified teaching pro ... just because I used to beat him at ping pong in our basement. The little bastard! (In our most recent -- and absolutely last -- match, he beat me 6-0, 6-0.)

on court

    Look at him, all smug and serene. Honestly, the lengths some people will carry a grudge. (I'm in awe of his achievements, actually. He's a top-notch tennis player and an even finer person.)

   But I digress. After playing an awful lot of mediocre-to-occasionally-good tennis, I had a golden period from 2011 until 2016 where suddenly everything came together. I started to play quite well and to win. 

   A major reason for that patch of success was that I teamed up with Fritz Craft. Fritz, a thoroughly likeable guy in real life, is Army-tough on the court. And no wonder: he spent years in the U.S. Army as a dentist in Southeast Asia and Alaska. When I got to know him, he was on his way to becoming the state dental officer of Nebraska. He and I had a magical season in 2011. We went 12-0 in doubles, winning the ABTL 3.5 doubles championship. It was the first time in my life I've felt completely confident on court. It's an amazingly powerful sensation. You just know you're going to win. 

   And win we did, quite a lot, over the next several years. 

on court

   I also had some singles success. Although I had great times with Fritz, I've honestly always preferred singles, but my only medal in that pursuit came in the state Seniors Championships, where I took silver, in 2014, I believe, in the 55-59 bracket. The final was probably the best singles match of my life. We had quite a crowd watching, and listening to their reactions was a hugely uplifting experience, but my opponent -- a guy named Rick -- was the better player that day. 

   The best overall competition experience of my life came the following year. In February, I had to undergo hip replacement surgery. I told the surgeon at the time that my goal was to recover in time to compete in the State Games of America. It's a kind of mini-Olympics in which champs from every state are eligible to play for national medals. On the strength of our 2014 championship run, Fritz and I were eligible. I worked out like crazy all through the spring and then, like crazy, I entered three events: 4.0 singles, 3.5 doubles with Fritz, and 3.5 mixed doubles with a woman I'll call Ingrid (since I don't know if she'd want to be mentioned here).

Long story short: I came away with two national medals.

on court

  With Fritz, I won silver, and with Ingrid I won Bronze. In that same tournament, I had a really good shot at Bronze in 4.0 singles, but heat stress tapped me out. I know that may sound like an excuse, but consider this: I was up 5-0 when it struck ... and I didn't win another game. I barely finished. Still, from the March of Athletes in the Opening Ceremony...

opening

 ...to the final point, it was one of the great experiences of my life. Fritz and I went on to win another Cornhusker State Games gold medal in 3.5 dubs. That was 2017, I believe.

 

on court

   But shoulder surgery, followed by lower back surgery, took me out of competition for a long stretch. I made a bit of comeback. Around 2018, I went 10-0 in mid-level league play and then lost in the championship to a guy who'd also gone 10-0 in the other half of the league. It was an excellent match, so close that even the third-set tiebreaker went long, but I finally lost 12-10, ending as runner-up.

   In the Cornhusker State Games that year, I played a really good singles match for the bronze, but came up just short. The following year, I beat the same fellow in the first round. So satisfying -- especially since he was from Omaha! I made a good start in the second round. My family was gathered to cheer me on, but once again heat stress filled my vision with gold stars and then it started to tunnel. Recalling that my wife had made me promise I wouldn’t die on the court, I reluctantly decided to quit. Up 6-4, 1-0, I called my opponent over and conceded the match. My tennis “career” was done. 

forehand1 forehand2
doubles5 serve1
portrait1 serve1
backhand

portrait2

   I'm still hitting, but after four surgeries and forty-plus years on the court, my game is played. Much of the reason is mental: I can no longer make the swift, confident, and correct decisions necessary to play well, and when I do the result is often feeble. Still, I enjoy my time on the court immensely, and I love watching the game played at its peak. There's nothing more satisfying than tennis. Of all the sports, it brings out less of the worst and more of the best that humanity has to offer, and with a bit of luck it can last a lifetime. Short of that, there's always pickleball.

veggies