Growing up only two blocks north of the tennis courts located at the Marquette Senior High building gave me plenty of opportunities to play tennis. There were four more courts between the NMU dorms and the National Guard Armory just north of our house and many public courts sprinkled across town. Taking two free group lessons from legendary Marquette High tennis coach Mickey Johnson in seventh grade began my life long association with the game. Watching major tournaments like The French Open and Wimbledon, I often wondered what it would be like playing on clay or grass courts as they do in those events. The closest I came to the feel of a grass surface was in my freshman year tennis class at NMU. On inclement days, we were told to report to Hedgecock Field House for class instead of the dorm courts near the Armory where we normally played. At that time, Hedgecock had a synthetic rubber floor with a couple of courts lined on this multipurpose surface. We noticed the balls hit with force tended to skip as much as bounce. Lee Fredricks, our instructor said, “That is kind of what it is like to play on a grass court. Asphalt or cement courts will always make a ball sit up (bounce) more than it will on grass.”
The first summer that I worked at the Huron Mountain Club, I asked fellow kitchen worker John McDonald, “Who is the long haired skinny kid?” we saw crossing the compound one morning. John replied, “Oh, he takes care of the tennis courts.” That they had tennis courts was news to me. John surprised me again when he waved his hand to the east and said, “They also used to have a golf course where that big stand of jack pines is located along the lake. There is also a skeet range. Some days we may have to go to and launch clay pidgeons between kitchen shifts.” Once we discovered that we both played ‘fuzzball’, we resolved to try out the courts when time allowed (and when the club members were not using them. For some reason, the club members always got first dibs).
Soon enough, John and I found ourselves standing outside a chicken wire enclosure that was held up by what can only be described as small telephone poles. There were actually two courts with a gravel road between them. The look of surprise on my face finally registered with John when he asked, “Oh, did I mention they are clay courts?” Apparently the young man who maintained the courts spent most of the month of June raking and rolling the courts to smooth out the bumps that popped up from frost action. Once they were relatively smooth, he would line them and then repeat the raking, rolling and lining business periodically over the summer. The courts were located among a grove of very tall pine trees so if it had rained, it took a bit for the wind and sun to dry out the surface. To say the courts were a little slippery when wet would be like saying the ice on a skating rink is a little cold when frozen. The light coating of dust that covered the courts when they were dry acted like millions of small ball bearings when one put on the brakes and tried to stop. ‘Stop’ is a relative term here as one tended to slide to a stop. In the days before they marketed the colorful, fluorescent tennis balls, all tennis balls were white, at least until used on a clay court. The clay powder on the surface of the court turned the balls a reddish tan in very short order.
John and I ended up playing a lot of tennis over the next few years on both the clay courts at the club (for three summers) and on the hard courts back in civilization. John was the better player because he used a very effective strategy. He rarely tried to make ‘winning shots’. John’s philosophy was to frustrate his opponent by returning everything that landed on his side of the net. Oh, I did manage to win a game here and there, but we played tennis for several years before I claimed a whole match. Net play was never a strong point in my game. Any time I would rush the net, John would make me pay by deftly lobbing the ball over my head. He did this to me so many times that after years of practice (and studying how the pros handled the same situation), I got better at playing the net. Not only did my skills at retrieving lobs improve, so did my ability to trick him into lobbing the ball without actually rushing the net. A feint toward the net that caused an unnecessary lob resulted in a soft bouncing cream puff of a ball that could be returned with force. The skill didn’t help me much playing John as he was still ‘mister return everything hit his way.’ We had some epic battles and even though I lost a lot of games to John, it made me a better player. The first match I finally won was doubly satisfying because it made him angry to have lost. John’s strategy was to win the war, not necessarily every point, but he still didn’t like to lose.
It would follow that John’s tennis playing strategy mirrored his approach to what we affectionately referred to as ‘ganip-ganop’ around the club employee’s recreation room (ping pong by any other name). John’s habit of returning every shot hit to him as opposed to trying for outright winners usually prompted his opponents to try for higher risk shots to win a point. The reality usually meant John either made another frustrating return or his opponent completely missed of the table trying to slam it by him. Unlike our epic tennis matches (where I eventually won a few matches), I don’t recall ever beating John in table tennis. In one particularly annoying game, I banged my paddle on the table in frustration. I lost my grip and the paddle bounced out of my hand, flew across the table and winged John in the forehead. In his failed attempt to dodge the missile, he hit the floor with such force I vaguely remember thinking, “Oh boy, I hope I didn’t kill him.” He laughed as he picked himself up and continued to dismantle what little there was left of my ping pong player ego. I wasn’t a terrible table tennis player, but John’s strategy was just one nut that was too hard to crack. Undaunted, we all kept trying (not that I recall anyone else beating him, either). We suckered many a self proclaimed hot shot ping pong player into playing John by telling them up front that there wasn’t a shot that they could hit that John couldn’t return.
The biggest problem with playing tennis on a clay court stuck in the woods had less to do with the footing than it did with the bugs. At times, we found ourselves bombarded with huge deer flies that would circle around our heads in a most annoying fashion. It was not uncommon to see one’s opponent suddenly begin swinging their racket wildly about trying to nail one of those buzzing behemoths. It was always funny, but only if it was the other guy getting bug bombed.
My second year at the club, a former neighbor of mine worked as a guide in the children’s program (guides organized hikes and campouts for club kids and their ‘keepers’ (club slang for their hired vacation babysitters)). This former high school QB (also named John) turned out to be a tennis player who joined our little circle of clay court fuzzball action. Kitchen John’s good friend Stu Bennett was the head of the guide program. Apparently Stu and Guide John had engaged in some banter about who would beat who in a tennis match. Instead of simply playing each other, they dragged Kitchen John and I into the conversation and it suddenly became a doubles grudge match. It didn’t start out as a grudge match because I was a little miffed that I got stuck playing with Guide John against Stu and Kitchen John. It became a grudge match when I realized that both Stu and Kitchen John shared the same passion for winning. The first time out, Stu and Kitchen John waxed us pretty well.
The second match started out much the same as the first until Guide John and I made a couple of unusually good shots. Guide John had a better backhand than I did so he played the left side and uncorked some winners from far off the back corner of the court. Once I realized that Stu and Kitchen John were always trying to serve wide to my right side, I began cheating that way and was able to short court them on the server’s side of the court. It only took a few of these winners before Stu and Kitchen John started blaming each other. Guide John and I were just having fun but when two very competitive people like Stu and Kitchen John play together, getting beat doesn’t go down lightly. Guide John and I won and couldn’t leave the court until we agreed to a rubber match.
I do not remember much about the third time we played because we never got to finish the match. A foursome of club members showed up a few games into our match and insisted that they wanted to play on the court we were using. We obliged and moved across the road as club rules dictated. After we played a couple of more games, the foursome on the other court decided they wanted to play singles and booted our butts off the second court. We tried to convince them that we could all play if we played doubles against them on both courts (they had the high ground – they were members and we were just employees), but they were having none of it. We weren’t even out of sight yet when they went back to playing doubles on one court so it seemed to be more of a power struggle than anything. Guide John didn’t return the next year so we ended up playing more singles my third year at the club, but even that was a bit limited. Kitchen John ended up working as a guide the next year (thus becoming ‘Guide John 2’) and our schedules didn’t always match up. It was also a colder, wetter summer which cut down our court time even more. Beating a couple of the new busboys wasn’t nearly as much fun as losing to John. I still like to think of the year of the doubles grudge matches as the Huron Mtn Open. The other years, we were just playing for the fun of it.
When I returned to civilization in the fall, it took a little bit for me to get used to playing on hard courts again. Even when dry, one had the tendency to slide a bit when trying to stop chasing down a shot on a clay court. On hard courts, the stop is usually much more immediate and I found it took me a couple of weeks to adjust. Having my foot actually stop in one spot combined with my forward momentum caused me to take a hopping step or two until I got used to hard courts again. One of my regular tennis playing buddies (Numby Wayne as we used to call Wayne Nevala) watched me crashing about during one match and inquired if I had been drinking before we played. One part of me wished I could have found a clay court to play him on so he could see how playing on that surface for three months messed up one’s center of gravity.
Wayne and I were pretty equally matched on the tennis court. I could never in my life beat him at a game of one on one basketball, but I had a better than 50-50 chance of beating him at tennis. The last year I was at the club, Wayne doubled down on his game with the intention of surprising me when I got back in the fall. Where my service game had been my biggest advantage against Wayne, we were pretty evenly matched in how we played our ground strokes. When we played that fall, I discovered that lefty Wayne had honed his serving game to the point where I could not return his first serve. When he had to make a second serve, I had a chance but first serve after first serve rocketed by me like my feet were encased in cement. “I’ve been practicing,” was Wayne’s explanation. It wasn’t an exaggeration and the only chance I had to beat Wayne hinged on whether or not he was on his service game that day. Unfortunately for me, he never seemed to have an off day. When he went off to medical school, I stopped losing so many matches.
My other in-town tennis foil was buddy Jim. We had only played each other a few times early in high school and I had the upper hand for most of our matches. We really did not get much chance to play after my first year at NMU (Jim was a senior at MSHS that year). When we resumed playing tennis the next summer, it became apparent that like Wayne, he too had been practicing. We were so evenly matched by then, we played some long games trying to break tied games (one must win two consecutive points to finish off a game). The Marquette Senior High School’s numerous courts were almost always busy, so we would ride around until we found one of the smaller courts that were open. We would play anywhere we could, but our favorites turned out to be the court near the old zoo at Presque Isle Park, the courts near the Parkview School, and the small court behind the Sandy Knoll School. If there weren’t standing puddles on the surface, we were ready for more epic battles.
Kitchen John and I continued to play tennis occasionally after we were done working at the club. Whenever we got together, talk would always turn to those clay court battles that we engaged in at the Huron Mountain Club. I haven’t played on a clay court since and have never had an opportunity to play on a grass court. For me, it is much easier to read the bounce of a tennis ball on a hard surface, especially when I am not switching surfaces in mid-season.
Top Piece Video: Cream with Anyone for Tennis which appeared in the movie The Savage Seven as well as the movie soundtrack and as a single release. Probably taken from a 1968 TV spot. Did they take this seriously? On another program, they strummed tennis rackets, so you decide!