Oct 08, 2021, 05:59AM

The Grapes of Racket

Disarming piss missiles on the tennis courts of Oklahoma City.

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“Every kid got a turtle some time or other. Nobody can’t keep a turtle though. They work at it and work at it, and at last one day they get out and away they go—off somewheres.” —Rev. Jim Casy to Tom Joad on the roadside, chapter 4 of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

The turtle, in this case, was signing up for a local United States Tennis Association league a few years ago. And after working at it and working at it, I was indeed off somewheres: to Oklahoma City for the National USTA 3.0 Championship  representing New York with nine other players at my side.

I joined the local USTA 3.0 (high intermediate) rated team a few years ago because I was revisiting tennis to continue my weight loss efforts after I was issued a diabetes life sentence by my young, attractive Lebanese doctor at a ghetto Medicare clinic in Kingston, N.Y. I stuck to her advice and gave up beer and the carb overload and everything has been good since she departed for a job in Binghamton, of all places. At 55, I dropped 55 pounds by eating better and playing relentless tennis. It’s an addictive “sweet spot” sport, much like golf. Despite your result or overall play, striking the ball perfectly on the sweet spot of the racket or club is a beautiful rush as you eye the result: a slice backhand down the line for a robust winner or a drive off the tee clearing the trees and splitting the fairway.

I’ve played tennis since I was nine, laying off the game during college in Ohio and while living in Brooklyn in the 1990s, though I did keep the racket at the ready for spotty rallies on the Fort Greene Park courts or in the bubble on the roof of Bowl-Mor on University Place in the village.

Needless to say, the muscle memory is somewhat ancient.

I like this local USTA team because it’s a diverse collection of part-time players with family obligations and no over-the-top obsessions. We’ve got a Spotify engineer from Stone Ridge, a tax lawyer who lives in the city, a personal trainer from Rhinebeck, a documentary filmmaker from Rhinebeck, a physical education teacher from Red Hook, a tech executive who lives in Hurley, a music teacher from Kingston, a software salesman from Kerhonkson, and a state employee who commutes to Albany from Kingston. There were also another four or five players who couldn’t make the trip to Oklahoma but helped get us there, so we curse and thank them simultaneously despite one of them having an extreme hamstring tear. The captain/coach is a 4.0 rated local Hudson Valley pro out of Red Hook who has watched this team gradually improve over the past half-decade. When I visited Ohio relatives this past summer, I asked my brother-in-law Ric, who introduced me to the game, to lend me one of his old racket bags. I wanted to take part of his gear to the Nationals in Oklahoma to honor his mentorship so many years ago. He obliged and also threw in a Babolat Pure Strike racket which has kicked ass since the minute I gripped it. I still hit with him once a year and relish the experience of his quiet intensity when it comes to tennis.

Making my way from the Hudson Valley to the Dust Bowl meant connecting at Chicago’s O’Hare. There was some gate confusion for the flight to Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers Airport. I spied a group of rotund dudes wearing “Extreme Hunting 360” jerseys and discovered I was indeed at the correct gate and those guys barely fit in the undersized jet.

At 57, I’m the oldest member of the tennis squad which is mostly late thirtysomethings sorting out things like kids entering middle school and home ownership and house maintenance and the various and sundry trappings of adulthood.

In this league you play your local opponents during the summer, then play a regional tournament in Westchester and then the sectional for the state title on the mean courts of Schenectady. It all went well this year and the Hudson Valley squad out of Breakpoint Tennis Academy in Red Hook, NY, had suddenly punched its own ticket to the Nationals in early October in Oklahoma. Team tennis consists of two singles matches and three doubles pairings. If everyone wins two out of three, the score is 5-0. If you split the first two sets, a 10-point tiebreaker is used to determine a winner in lieu of playing a full third set.

So we had 10 lads making their way to Oklahoma City, not an easy destination to reach by any transportation option. OKC is also a weather slot machine in the post-summer weeks. But we soldiered on, and I borrowed my daughter’s copy of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath in preparation for my first journey to the Dust Bowl. I also made the bad joke that we were playing the Timothy McVeigh Open, so we apparently wouldn’t need license plates on our rental vehicles. Due to proximity to the Oklahoma City Tennis Center, the host facility for the tournament, our rag-tag squad booked rooms at a soulless, spartan Courtyard by Marriott. Like most hospitality venues pandemic-wise, there is barely a staff. Housekeeping hands you a note stating up front there will only be one service of your room during your four-night stay. The front desk workers shrink behind plexiglass shields and their masks. There are blood droplets in the bathtub and a solitary soap bar the size of a Lance saltine cracker beside the sink. No free lotions or other amenities. No stationery or pen. No television guide. In fact, the television is pretty much expired, getting only four stations in HD, the rest in analog meaning it’s scrambled like old school soft porn on Cinemax. The date in the corner of the screen reads Jan. 4, 2021.

There’s “no signal” for NBC, so the Manchester City vs Liverpool soccer match is apparently out of the question. It’s okay, I can deal with these first world problems, though it was painful not to watch the televised endings of the MLB regular season over the weekend.

Reaching the hotel by car was no picnic. Driving in OKC requires traversing an abundance of service roads leading to access roads to more service roads. So it takes 15 minutes and four U-Turn stoplights to reach the Wal-Mart that’s 40 yards from the hotel. Oklahoma City bills itself as “The Modern Frontier” but in the northwest section where I was ensconced was a nightmare of anti-pedestrian measures and manning a Conestoga wagon is not a bad idea. The city has three Interstate highways, but they are hamstrung by a massive grid of side streets which are inexplicably called Expressways. There are, of course, dead strip malls galore, but many are anchored by nascent marijuana dispensaries, such as Bud’s Route 66, which was near the tennis center yet never seemed that busy. Rebirth by weed just might be possible for many of these retail abominations.

Oklahoma City is basically Greta Thunberg’s worst nightmare. Recycling bins don’t exist. Everyone drives a massive truck or SUV. There are burning smokestacks dotting the flat geography. The extremely low horizon looks like a poorly-painted school play backdrop in which the kids misjudged all perspective when it comes to a non-existing vanishing point. It can be disorienting for people who live amongst Catskill Mountain scenery in upstate New York.

I didn’t see one Prius during the visit, though there was an occasional Tesla. The tallest building is the central business district is the 50-story Devon Energy tower, which looks dark and lonely amidst an otherwise unspectacular skyline.

But back to the tennis. The tournament had 16 national regions representing, including Puerto Rico, which has the most vocal fan support with flags and other noisemaking memorabilia urging them to victory. No rules against tennis passion, even in football-crazed Oklahoma. Every team was assigned a color to wear from the USTA, some obeyed, some did not. Ours was a Manchester City sky blue. The Washington state team was decked out in Seattle Seahawks/Oregon Ducks style football jerseys. The squad from Nevada wore red from their Red Rock Country Club in Las Vegas where they hang their testosterone-soaked glittery hats.

The Ohio team couldn’t seem to unify on their color, and I had a rough time in that match playing alongside the state employee who gets to every ball on the court. In warmups, one Ohio opponent staggered around as if he was looking for the lavatory in a London pub, which involves lots of staircases and narrow hallways and tiny doors. But when the match started, he was transformed into Rod Laver. Unfortunately, my second serve was suddenly the ghost of Tom Joad, and we couldn’t overcome their aggressive net game and were taking one for the team with a turtle wrapped in our coat in the blazing sun. Our teammates all prevailed, and we downed Ohio 4-1 in our opening match.

Later that afternoon we’d beat Florida 3-2, indoors because of the rain. Florida was an Orlando-based team of Central Americans who brought FEMA style coolers onto the court full of food and other tennis accessories and survival goods. They also disputed every other call by their opponents, forcing the senior citizen USTA officials to appear in their red hats and scowl at the lines and overcome the language barrier to make sure baseline justice prevailed.

Unfortunately we’d drawn the “Intermountain” qualifying team which was Nevada. Las Vegas, to be specific. The land of Agassi. We were up against overconfident, fit twentysomething ex-Division 1 college athletes who were also pro poker players. Their elite country club had made the papers recently because of a racial discrimination lawsuit involving a tennis instructor. They were all jacked up, as you’d expect. Their Vegas swagger made them the loudest players at the tournament. As they finished off our second doubles pairing, one of the Vegas players requested his partner serve up “an absolute piss missile.” Which he did, handcuffing our music teacher. I’d never heard this term before in sports. Apparently, it has origins in golf slang, describing a well-struck laser style shot executed with exuberance and a particular degree of brawn. They celebrated their win with a leaping chest bump, something I’ve never seen in person, and their gold necklaces almost got tangled during this manly moment.

We’d have smoother sailing against Minnesota in what would be our last competition. They were predictably very chatty during the match. I didn’t mind, I had as my partner the personal trainer with pinpoint left-hand destruction control of his opponents, while I scoured the net with old third-baseman hot corner reflexes enhancing my game even at my age. The Minnesotans truly had the Fargo movie accents, especially the guy sweeping his already-plowed driveway as he talks to the detective. So I called it in. End of story, says the guy in the movie. We beat them 5-0 and the stoic Lutherans would finish the tourney winless in the basement, where they probably enjoyed refreshments and fellowship.

The Piss Missile guy would later be heard berating his wife for not recording video of his final point in the championship round the next day, which the Vegas meatheads won over the squad from the Pacific Northwest 5-0. At least we got a point off of the chooch squad from Vegas. The Piss Missile guy said he was a former Kansas University basketball player. I checked the rosters. He did attend Kansas, but there was no record of him as a roundballer playing in front of the student section doing the “waving wheat” at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. Among their singles players was Kyle Knecht, a lanky kid from Ohio who makes flat contact, covers the whole court, and rarely makes unforced errors. He’s also a professional poker player, and as he and the Piss Missile guy explained it, they decided to “take up tennis” during the 2020 lockdown with the aim of claiming the USTA 3.0 National Championship. Which they did at 12:50 pm CST Sunday October 4, 2021, when Knecht put away his opponent from the Pacific Northwest and screamed to everyone in the facility “That’s three Red Rock!”

So we missed qualifying for the finals thanks to one 4-1 loss to the eventual card-counting champions from Vegas. There’s solace and some degree of consolation in that. But the true beauty of this trip was the unlikely journey to an oddball venue for a diverse group of upstate New Yorkers who didn’t practice four days a week like the Vegas guys. I enjoyed immensely a team trip to the famous Cattleman’s Steakhouse in the Stockyard district where you park your car, exit the vehicle, and smell the cow dung before you eat one. Fried lamb testicles were proudly served as appetizers, though I didn’t partake.

In the Bricktown nightlife district, I couldn’t find a goth club but still had a great time hanging out with the documentary film dude on our team. In the wee hours, I somehow managed not to insult the Uber driver he summoned to get us back to our Courtyard by Marriott tennis gulag.

When we all first arrived in OKC, there was a kooky idea of going to a local Goodwill to purchase cowboy hats for ironic/zany credentials. Perhaps the hats would throw off our tennis jock rube opponents we hoped to destroy. We arrived at an airplane hangar-sized Goodwill distribution center near downtown OKC. Inside, we saw a riot of people who’d wait for giant wheeled bins heaving with donated items to emerge from an enormous side door and then wrestle over the contents. There were no shelves or “vintage” sections marked off. There were no dressing rooms or mirrors. Painted on the wall was the credo “Everything is Sold As Is.”

I saw a spirited tug of war between two Mexican dudes vying for a pair of wooden Marantz stereo speakers. There was an air of urgent desperation, and there were no cowboy hats to be seen. This Goodwill was a combination of a Moroccan souk and a WWE cage match. We quietly exited the store. Back in the car, I noticed the highway underpasses nearby were dotted with crispy white guys in homeless encampments made up of cardboard boxes, like the ones mentioned in the Bruce Springsteen song “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” It was for real and outside the tinted car window. It was a modern-day Steinbeck scenario. Every other intersection had a person holding a cardboard sign etched with their economic woes and lack of fortune. They collected stray dollars or granola bars from lowered driver’s side windows. I stared at them, realizing I’d come to their historically-challenging land to compete in a country club sport invented in 12th-century France.

A sense of gratitude came over me, thankful for my health and ability to be among teammates who aren’t homeless and who also like to compete, especially in doubles, which is my specialty. In the late chapters of Steinbeck’s masterpiece novel rooted in Oklahoma, the preacher Casy is remembered for a particular Biblical reference that reminded me of playing doubles tennis. It’s Ecclesiastes verse 4: Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.


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