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  • by Karen Cummings

They Could've Been Contenders

All hackers have, at one time or another, enjoyed the fantasy that they "could 'a' been a contender." If only they had started younger, or if only they had taken the game seriously, or if only they would find just the right racket (prices for top of the line rackets are now in the $400 range), they could have been out there with the big boys (or girls).

Having taken up tennis when I was 25 (just a few short years ago), I use the first excuse. If only my parents had put an old Doris Hart racket in my hand and pushed me onto a tennis court at a tender age, I might be a tennis broadcaster now (as that's what some female tennis pros seem to do when their careers are winding down).

The next best thing happens to me when I just watch professional tennis. Whether it's on television or if I'm at the stadium, I begin to think that I hit just like the pros. No need to spend years practicing. In my mind's eye, I can see myself hitting perfect topspin lobs, cross-court forehands, and down-the-line backhands (unfortunately, even in my wildest fantasies, I still can't hit a decent overhead). In spite of that one defect, I convince myself that my game isn't really that far off that of the pros (well, maybe Martina has an edge on me).

After watching a few days of the tennis action at the Mt. Cranmore Racquet Club Stadium in the Mt. Washington Valley International Tennis Classic, featuring my kind of tennis player -- those that are 35 and over -- I thought, "no problem," when tournament officials said I would get to play in the pro-am tournament following Friday's regular action. I could play with those guys!

They were such a friendly bunch that it never entered my mind to be nervous. I completely forgot that each one of the players -- Mark Cox, Eddie Dibbs, Ray Moore, Syd Ball, Jaime Fillol, Dick Stockton, Sherwood Stewart, Owen Davidson, Colin Dibley, and Lito Alvarez -- had accomplished some major feat during his tennis career or he wouldn't be playing on the Grand Champions tour. I also overlooked the fact that, Bobby Riggs versus Billie Jean King notwithstanding, most male pros, even those ranked in the numbers with more than three digits, can beat the top women pros.

This Pollyanna attitude of mine evaporated as soon as the matches began. As I sat and watched some of my fellow amateurs duking it out with the pros, my only thought was that I must have been crazy to have wanted to do this.

It wasn't as though the pros were exercising their superior skills and making mincemeat of the lowly amateurs. On the contrary, the amateurs appeared to be doing it solely on their own. With each team made up of one Grand Champion pro and one amateur, the majority of whom were representatives of the tournament sponsors, the pros gamely kept the ball in play, never putting it away, even though the amateurs gave them every opportunity. Somehow, the pros smooth strokes made those of their partners, no matter how good a player, look choppy, rushed and clearly executed incorrectly.

Throughout each four-game match, the pros were bantering and making wisecracks to entertain the audience. On the other hand, most of the amateurs had a John McEnroe look about them, rather tense and unyielding. Bob Murphy of Carroll Reed was an exception to this. I watched in disbelief (as did his partner) as Bob repeatedly stepped in front of Dick Stockton and took shots away from him. I've heard of poaching, but hogging shots when your partner is a professional with such doubles titles as the WCT World Championship and the U.S. Open Mixed Doubles under his belt borders on the absurd.

By the time it was my turn to step onto the court, my former confidence had disappeared so completely that I introduced myself to Dick Stockton by saying, "Hello, I'm nervous." Warming up before the match, I hit with Lito Alvarez, whose nice encouraging smile made me forget that not only was I going to make a fool of myself, but that I was doing it in front of an audience.

Being the only woman who got to compete in the 1st Annual Mt. Washington Valley International Tennis Classic Pro-Am Tournament, I had an instant cheering section of those representatives of the distaff side. I had to keep my eye on the ball, though, which made me afraid to turn to acknowledge my fans lest I lost my concentration.

The actual play of my match with Stockton against Alvarez and Dave Bailey of N.H. Distributors, and a subsequent one with Jaime Fillol against pro Syd Ball and amateur Ace Parker, was a complete blur. Contrary to the unwritten rules of normal mixed doubles play, my pro partners took a back seat and left me to cover more than my half of the court (except for running back for lobs, which I don't do). After diving and stretching for a few difficult volleys, my nerve returned enough for me to ask Stockton when he thought he might be able to hit one.

I did make some good shots, in spite of myself, or should I say thanks to Alvarez and Ball whose returns were perfect set ups to make me look good (if I kept my head and just hit them back). My amateur opponents were a different story. Every time they got hold of a ball, they did their best to put it away, hitting it at my feet (and bringing boos from my fans) or past my outstretched racket. Parker's screaming forehands were the toughest shots I had to handle all day and forced my partner Fillol to say, "No more forehands to him!"

Despite a preponderance of nervousness, all of the amateurs had a great time playing with the pros, which really was the whole point of it. The best time seemed to be had by the youngsters -- ballboys Carl Swenson, Jay Murphy, and Andy Kirk, who represented the White Mountain National Bank. All three of them had learned when they were young and had forehands and backhands that almost mirrored those of the pros. Even though Jay's partner Eddie Dibbs threatened, "If you double fault, I'll kill you," and Kirk's opponent Dick Stockton tried to heckle him into missing a few, the boys hung in there, making some think that it might not be the last time these kids would get to play with the pros.

As for me, my high point came later that evening at the Pro-Am dinner at the Red Jacket. Laughing with my fellow "ams" over our ineptitude on the court, my ego was forever bolstered when Syd Ball came up to me and said, "Karen, that was really an amazing forehand you hit at one-one in the second game."


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