Tennis Prose



Tennis Characters

Since trying to become a serious player in 1997 I have encountered many unique, strange, nice and humorous characters through tennis.

The very first one was my uncle Lou who was a tennis fanatic in the 1970’s, unfortunately it was long before I understood and appreciated the complexities of the game. I remember his green Prince and red Head aluminum racquets sitting around his summer cabin in the Valley Of The Lakes community in eastern Pennsylvania, which we used to visit, which is probably my first real memory of tennis. I never saw him play but now I wish I did. Because he recently told me he used to carry a boombox playing the theme to “Rocky” on to the court before his matches. Imagine that! Imagine that kind of psychological warfare. Wonder what some of his other tricks were.

There was another musically-inclined player at in indoor tournament in Fairlawn, NJ. This guy Mendoza was singing, yes, Singing throughout the entire warm-up! I thought to myself, Wow, what a smart way to relax and feel good going into battle. It didn’t work for him though as the match wasn’t very difficult because his shotmaking was way out of tune compared to his falsetto.

There have been so many matches against so many different players in 13 years – I’d estimate the number to be around 500 – that it’s easy to think of various examples. One guy, who is a fantastic, nationally-ranked, tournament player, has a strange problem of burping non-stop during the match. One mutual opponent insists he does it on purpose but I disagreed. It’s a nerves issue he has. But then again, you never know. Maybe he does intentionally use it as a distraction, even if it’s subconscious.

Another talkative opponent named George would chatter away endlessly about this and that. When he missed volleys and other shots he would drone on and on about how he shouldn’t have had his strings tightened at that extra one or two pounds, it was throwing his serve and volley game off. Over and over he would let you know that his strings were the issue, not your accuracy or perfect placement, it was his doggone string tension. And he would use this same excuse every occasion you hit with him and started to beat him. Every time. Once in a while he would throw in the “wind” excuse, even if there was no wind.

Ken was a guy who was enamored with Pete Sampras. He loved Pete Sampras, collected and studied match videos of Pete Sampras, talked endlessly about Pete Sampras. Wore all the Nike that Pete wore including those Oscillates. He bought ten pairs of Oscillates so he would never run out. He used the exact Wilson Pro Staff that Pete used. He even bought about ten of them too, just like Pete had his huge supply, according to some article he read about Sampras.

Of course, Ken modeled his game exactly after Pete Sampras. Or tried to, let me put it that way. He tried that tilted foot thing Pete did on his serve, he tried to copy the same service motion with that same facial expression. He incorporated that loopy Sampras backswing on the forehand. Ken’s one-handed backhand was so weak that he tried to do a reverse Pete Fischer conversion to the two-hander which was more consistent for him. But he’d always go back to that one-hander which always failed. We won’t talk about his volleys or overheads. Ken also mimicked that Pete move of wiping the sweat off his brow with a single finger swipe. I have to admit, Ken parroted that move perfectly. And Ken played as hard as he could for every point. Just like Pete. Once I found an oversize Wilson and gave it to him to try and he clearly hit the ball better with it. But he refused to give up on the Pete Sampras Pro Staff. So many times I tried to suggest that he should just play his own style, be his own person on the court, Be Ken, not Pete Sampras. But it never resonated in his stubborn mind. He simply had to play the Pete Sampras style of tennis and nothing could convince him otherwise.

I used to be friends with a lefty named Jimmy who was a real cool guy, mellow, nice, successful owner of a cookie company. But I never heard any player feel and express such pains of agony after missing a shot. It was shocking because it totally belied his easy-going, cool, Seinfeld-like nature. The best Jimmy memory was in a three-set marathon in about 90 degree summer afternoon heat. Late in the third set, between games, suddenly, Jimmy, out of nowhere, decided to start doing pushups in the middle of his court. I told other friends, “Look Jimmy is trying to psyche out his opponent, showing him how strong he feels. Brilliant!” Jimmy ended up winning the match and I praised him about how clever it was to do the pushups and show his adversary his superior fitness. Jimmy corrected me – he said he did those pushups because he wanted to “get closer, feel closer to the court.”

One time I played a guy in a West Milford tournament. He was a big, strong football looking guy, about 6-ft.-2, 200 pounds. And he had a gameface that Ray Nitschke would admire. This guy was trying to physically intimidate me. During the warmup, when he was doing overheads, he tried to hit me, not once but TWICE! I won the match 62 60.

One of the most exciting matches I ever played was with a guy named Dominic in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. Dominic is from Long Island originally. We’re just about carbon copies of each other, baseline grinders, around the same age, both in very good condition, I’m a righty, he’s a lefty. This guy didn’t miss, I didn’t miss, every point was a war within the war. If I found a pattern that worked, he’d then adjust and I’d have to try something else. And it was the same with him. I’m telling you, every point was a fight. You couldn’t find two evenly matched players. Our mutual friend told me he prides himself on being “the Nadal” of the Lakewood Ranch Country Club. Dominic hasn’t lost to ANYONE in two years. He used to play with Sekou Bangoura Jr., who played in this year’s U.S. Open junior boys doubles and received a tennis scholarhip from the University of Florida.

At first, it was hard to set up the match as Dominic kept making excuses, apparently unsettled by being challenged so brazenly. He wasn’t accustomed to being challenged by total strangers. Finally, I jokingly said during about our fifth phone conversation that he sounds like a coward which instantly sparked his New Yorker ego and he suddenly wanted to play that afternoon. We would set the match up for the next day at 4.

He took the first set 6-2 and showed a remarkable consistency and patience and ability to slap some winners. I was able to raise my level and we were at 5-5 in the tiebreak. I’m at the edge of the cliff but somehow I managed to win those two points and forced the third set. Dominic jumped ahead 4-1. But I fought back and got it to 4-4 and was up 30-love when he suddenly quit. I pulled him wide to his forehand, then had him running wide to his backhand when he apparently ran into the fencing and supposedly suddenly got a cramp in his calf or foot. Yeah, sure. He lost the momentum and he sensed defeat and couldn’t face it. It was dark and after seven by the time we finished this marathon match. And we had a great time talking after the match. We both had such high respect for each other’s competitiveness and determination, not to mention consistency and patience.

We set the rematch a week later and I finally figured out how to beat him. Crosscourt, slow, topspin and or angled balls to his backhand which he hit with two hands but could also slice with one. That was the pattern he did not like – being pulled out wide and having to generate his own pace. I won the set 6-2 and early in the second, he quit again over my arguing of his line calls which clearly hit the sideline. That was it, we never talked again or played again. One of the best matchups ever, but Dominic is the type of player who will quit before he loses. He can’t lose. In his own mind, he is unbeatable like Nadal on clay. I tried to set up a rematch the next year but never reached him by phone.

One of the greatest competitors I ever saw was a guy named Jim Berger. He was a musician, with average 4.0 skills but this guy would try harder than anyone. He’d actually dive three or four times in a match, like a stuntman – on the hard court. He’s the only guy I ever saw play that hard. Nice guy, gentleman, soft-spoken, clean player. But he’d do anything to get the ball back. You have to admire that kind of intensity. I mean, Daryl Strawberry would pussyfoot for fly balls at Shea Stadium with a million-dollar contract and this guy Berger would dive for volleys on a hard court in meaningless USTA league matches. Amazing.

A beauty about tennis is that it attracts so many diverse personalities and characters which amplify and blossom during the heat of competition. Do you remember any unique people you played tennis with or against? There must be countless other characters out there that you can hopefully share memories of…


  • RIP · October 19, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    Great article Scoop.

    I used to play doubles with a guy who had played college tennis and had a big serve. He did not have a second serve – he had 2 first serves. Anyway, he was a good player, really nice guy but somewhat erratic as he played less than even me.
    We’re playing these other 2 guys and just before my partner (the big serving, but erratic guy) would start his motion the non-returner on the other team would suddenly stick his head in the service box and kind of stick out his tongue with a Bart Simpon sort of smirk.
    Almost like a horizontal jack-in-the-box move.
    Anyway, I didn’t say anything because I figured they knew each other and I have enough problems just trying to hit a volley without worrying about this guy’s game face. But he kept doing it. Suddenly, my partner, a mellow guy, yells “if you stick your face in the box one more time I’m gonna take your head off with the next serve…”
    Had never even heard this man raise his voice let alone get pissed. But he said it and the guy wisely did not do that anymore. The entire incident seemed to fire him up as he did not lose serve the rest of the match and we wound up winning. I was the weak link in that one and the guy just got so fired up by the shoving-the-face-in the service box move he refused to lose.
    Our own Dan C. Weil has the habit of saying “Whoopsie” when he misses a shot if you play doubles with him or if an opponent hits a winner Dan will often say “Well played, well done!” He told me an opponent once got upset with him doing that as he thought it was overkill (shades of Fred Perry’s famed “Very clever” line when a guy hit a winner against him).
    I was once playing a guy indoors. He was better and should have beaten me but for some reason I got up on him and whenever I would win a point instead of hitting the ball back to me he would hit it (intentionally) into the corner and I’d have to go walk 20 feet to pick it up so I could serve. Finally just asked him directly “what’s the deal? Can you just hit the ball to me?”
    The guy kept doing it though. Total gamesmanship move and a dumb move at that as he was losing and we only had the court for 90 minutes so it limited his own comeback time as the clock was running and I began walking very slowly to pick up the ball. I guess he was just so angry that he knew he should not have been losing and he was.
    Once played against the legendary Fred Stolle during a pro-am. It was so hot you’re just dripping sweat one game into it. Stolle, during nearly every changeoever, drained a beer in one gulp.
    Granted, it was so hot you’re sweating it right out but we played a set the guy probably drank 4 or 5 beers (h was drinking beer like I was drinking water) and the scary thing was he was playing better and better ever after every beer. He also talks to the opponents during the game – not a trash talker but good nature joking kind of talk so that’s always interesting.
    Use to play a friend of mine, Alberto, and he would get so upset he would destroy a racket a match (if he lost). I don’t mean toss the racket. I mean this guy would hammer the racket to the court, smash it to smithereens and break it so badly it looked like you tossed it through a wood chipper.
    He was so temperamental people on adjacent courts would actually move away from us when we were playing because the F word (and racket) would be flying after 1 game. He once threw a racket off the back fence, it bounced off the fence and hit him in the shin.
    Told him “that’s the tennis gods giving you a kick in the shins for your antics – next time it’s in the groin…” He was not amused. You and him teamed up in Florida in February but he was on good behavior that day.

  • Scoop Malinowski · October 19, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    “Kind of like a sideways jack in the box” LOL that is HILARIOUS! what a character! I can’t believe it it’s so funny. You play wiht some wingnuts! And the reaction of the server ! Our own Dan C Weil has his court eccentricities that’s for sure, that WHOOPSIE is incredible. He also uses after bad misses- the incomparable “FIDDLE FADDLE” instead of that other four letter F word. he also uses “shuttlecock.” But “Whoopsy takes the cake. Alberto should try adopting those words in February. Damn, still can’t get over that head in the box move is unbelievable.

  • RIP · October 20, 2010 at 12:40 am

    Indeed Dan C. Weil will go to the “Fiddle Faddle” shout early and often in matches. I think he adopted that rather than screaming the F word. Once, when Pat Riley was coaching the Miami Heat, Dan, sitting a few rows back from the team bench apparently got Riley so upset with his incessant, derisive “Riles! Riles!” chant that he and Riley got into a bit of an argument.
    But on the tennis court, Dan C. is always a sportsman. Somehow, his trademark “fiddle faddle” battle cry doesn’t sound right unless he is the one saying it. He told me he once played a pro am against Cliff Drysdale and he said Cliff took great delight creating an opening on court, hitting a winner into the open court then exclaiming “there’s nobody home baby!”
    My favorite character-study story is the time Dan (Redhead) hit Connors with an overhead during a pro-am match and an irate Connors stared him down and said “you’re gonna pay for that.” And then Connors exacted retribution a few games later, drilling Dan.
    Just about everyone I know at some point has played someone who will come out and strap on the big bulky knee brace invoking the “this guy can’t move” vibe only to see the guy running like the wind once the match starts.
    We used to play doubles with a guy who was an extreme flat ball hitter – every shot just skimmed the top of the tape and this guy would purposely bring dead balls because the combination of his flat shots and the dead balls meant if you didn’t take his shots out of the air it was very, very tough to return them because the ball would bounce to like ankle height. Soon, people would just take the dead balls and hit them over the fence to get rid of them. He never really argued about that as I think he viewed as a tactic it like spit baller Gaylord Perry loading up his cap with Vaseline to doctor the baseball.
    About 10 years ago I was playing Alberto in Yonkers, loser had to buy dinner and it was a tight match. Additionally, this guy is a huge trash talker before, during and after the match. He’s trash talking during changeovers yelling “don’t choke” before you hit a second serve, etc.
    On a set point I hit a running pass down the line. He called it out. I thought it was good but because I was on the dead run when I hit it, really could not tell so I didn’t argue. But the 4 guys on the court next to us immediately said “he hooked you – that shot was good.”
    He proceeds to tell them to “mind your own f—ing business. We’ve got dinner on this match!” and starts arguing with those 4 guys while he’s arguing with me. And I wasn’t even really arguing, all I asked was to replay the point. It escalated to the point where someone went to the club management and asked them to kick us off the court for bad behavior.
    So after a 5 or 10-minute outburst we go to resume the match and he tries hooking me on the score saying “that wasn’t set point.” He tries to claim it was deuce rather than ad but I knew he was wrong.
    Will never forget that – the only time almost actually got into an altercation on court. I couldn’t believe this guy, a good friend for years, first he hooks me on the call then almost gets into it with the 4 guys on the adjacent court then he tries to hook me on the score after he gets caught for the bad call.
    Talk about winning at all costs. It would make Attila the Hun look like Stefan Edberg in comparison.
    We can both laugh about it now years later but I remember at the time just could standing there thinking “I can’t believe this guy….”
    Even though we’re just two hackers, at that moment it’s no longer about tennis it’s about just trying to keep a hold on your fragile sanity.

  • Dan Weil · October 20, 2010 at 1:18 am

    Whoopsie indeed. Thanks for including me in your entertaining commentaries guys. First, I must add some more of my catch phrases — I’m sure you’re breathless waiting for them. “Fiddlesticks, shuttlecock, out of boundaries, first service attempt shall be forthcoming (fsasbf), competition shall commence upon the first ball struck, oh shit, let’s get ready to ruuumble.”

    The most entertaining person I’ve played with is David Tankin, who played No. 1 doubles for Evanston (IL) High School. He hollowed out the handle of his racket (a Kramer autograph I believe), put a cork in the end and said that’s where he kept wine. I don’t think he’d consumed a drop of alcohol in his life yet, but that created great hilarity for many. One time Tankin showed up to tennis practice clad only in his undergarments. That created hilarity for a select few. Tennis anyone?

  • RIP · October 20, 2010 at 1:53 am

    Dan’s greatest hits 🙂

    Thanks. I had almost forgotten about “out of boundaries” and “Shuttlecocks.” They are worthy additions to fiddle faddle, whoopsie and the classic “he shall pay for his transgressions.”

  • Scoop Malinowski · October 20, 2010 at 2:47 am

    That’s good stuff! How about a future column about this character David Tankin? There must be more good memories from this shenaniganmaker

  • Sid Bachrach · October 20, 2010 at 4:39 am

    Grinding out a match on any level can be brutal. I wonder how the pros felt when they were watching DelPotro at the US Open in 2009. While even great, great players like Nadal and Federer were grinding out tough matches along came DelPotro, six feet seven and long long arms and ballistic power. Guys playing DelPotro thought they were in a long grinding point with DelPotro when suddenly DelPotro would decide to end a point and strike a monstrous forehand. The point is suddenly over. Even Federer, all time great that he is, was having fits with this style of play. Maybe all that power and the way DelPotro strikes the ball caused to have such a severe wrist injury. But one can only imagine what it does to a player on the other side of the net when you planning for a long rally and looking for any angles and all of a sudden, DelPotro does not especially care about angles and positioning. He has the talent to hit a ballistic shot from just about anywhere. It has got to be so demoralizing to play a guy with this much talent. The flip side is that all that power and shotmaking power takes a terrible toll on the body and at age 20, DelPotro already has a bad wrist and maybe something else now. Sorry for the digression but the conversation about grinding out a match got me thinking of how lucky (and good) DelPotro is to be able to avoid that.

  • Scoop Malinowski · October 20, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Delpo is a very interesting character in the mix and his unique presence makes the majors more entertaining. He is so dangerous for any player with his explosive game, he can just dominate and destroy people like Federer, Nadal at times. Sort of like a gentle giant too, doesn’t say much but he certainly carries a big stick. Let’s hope he does turn out to be another one of those super talented big guys who has his bright career cut short by injuries/ailments like Mario Ancic and Joachim Johansson.



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