A Tennis Racket

Employment opportunities have never been abundant for 13-year-olds in Point Clear. After my position as fly killer at the Grand Hotel snack bar was eliminated, I found other employment watering and mowing the neighbor’s lawn. But I despised yard work and desperately sought opportunities with more upside potential.

One week, Mom signed me up for a tennis clinic to broaden my experiences beyond boating and playing in the woods. I soon found the tennis court was where most of the cool kids were going in the afternoon when they left the hotel pool. Suddenly I felt as though I’d been let in on a big secret.

I couldn’t afford private lessons, so I decided to approach the neighborhood’s second largest employer, Point Clear Tennis Club, about a job for my 13th summer. I figured the rest would work itself out.

“The Club” was started in the early 1980s by Point Clear resident and tennis enthusiast Nan Arendall. It was quick to become one of the premier tennis facilities in the South, boasting the only covered courts in the area. For many years it was home court for some of Alabama’s most promising juniors, some of whom Nan sponsored in competitions outside the region.

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The Club was about a two-mile walk from my house, a journey that I would make many times before I got a driver’s license. Jeff Combs, the tennis pro, agreed to credit me $3/hour to groom the eight clay courts each morning and throughout the day as players finished using them. When I built up sufficient credit, Jeff gave me an hour-long lesson for $20. In this way I was able to get about two private lessons per week.

In addition to learning the game, I also made friends with the other junior players. But despite my efforts, I never rose above being something like the caddy who occasionally gets invited to play a round with the real members.

My eccentric grandmother from Texas heard that I was interested in tennis and asked one of her friends in the know about a good tennis camp. The next thing I know, I’m on a plane to Bradenton, Florida, for a two-week stint at a then little-known startup called the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.

I soon found myself in barracks with about 30 boys close to my age. Outside our windows was a long line of courts. My first impressions were that the place appeared more like boot camp than my idea of summer camp, and everyone else had a lot more rackets than I did. The next morning, instructors got us all together on the first court and fed balls to us while Mr. Bollettieri looked on. He was a silent, serious-looking, artificially tanned man in his mid-50s. He wore dark sunglasses and drove a red Ferrari. He always wore a tennis outfit, but I never saw him play.

The instructors assessed our abilities, and the more advanced players were moved down the courts, with the most talented ending up at the very end. Finally, it was just me, this boy named Bill and an assistant who didn’t seem much older than us. Mr. Bollettieri had moved to the far court to watch a couple of our campmates, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. Over the next couple of days, the instructors videotaped our strokes and critiqued them on a movie screen, like reviewing a football game. We were placed on a steady diet of water, fruit, grains and protein drinks. Bill and I plunked endless tennis balls in the broiling Florida sun.

“What is this place?” I asked Bill. “I mean, I’m just the court boy at Point Clear Tennis Club.”

Bill agreed. He was also in over his head.

“Man, these guys are way serious, ” I said. “They don’t even talk to us anymore.”

“No kidding, ” Bill said.

“We’ve got to at least get some real food, ” I said.

“How?” Bill said. “It’s like a prison.”

“I saw a 7-Eleven store up the road before they dropped me off. I’ll bet they’ve got hot dogs or something. I’m gonna have to jump the fence on this place before I starve.”

That evening, Bill kept lookout while I climbed the chain-link and hiked to 7-Eleven. I came back with a sack of Cokes and hot dogs. We sat on our bunks and had a feast while the others looked on in horror.

The next morning, Mr. Bollettieri called us into his office. It was the first time he’d ever talked to Bill and me directly. He asked us if we’d like to be sent home. I appreciated the opportunity and started to answer, but Bill interrupted me and said, “No, sir.”

A few years later, I began seeing my old camp mates on televised tennis tournaments, with Mr. Bollettieri watching them from the stands. I wasn’t a bit envious. I knew what they had to eat to get there.

In fact, I meant to send Andre a note of congratulations when he won Wimbledon in 1992, but I forgot to get his address.

Watt’s next novel, Terror at Bottle Creek, releases January 6 and will be available at bookstores everywhere. 

Text by Watt Key

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