I fell in love with tennis when I was very young after I saw Chris Evert on a Newsweek cover in my maternal grandparents’ home. I had no idea what the sport was as most everyone on that side of the family — the side of the family with which I most identified — loved baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates were followed more than the nightly news even in the off-season.
I later learned that my paternal grandfather, whom I never met, was a tennis champion on a state level according to family legend. I’ve Googled him several times, but have so far not found any archival results when he would have played several decades ago.
I did not really know how to play tennis. Except for two months in Austria in my early 20s, I never had formal individual lessons. So as a kid, I just emulated Jimmy Connors, a fellow lefty, Björn Borg, with whom I identified because of his blond hair and noticeable nose, and Chris Evert, who was my first real crush. All were baseliners with two-handed backhands, so that was my game and still is!
I played on the local concrete courts where I grew up in a small town. Though not yet a teenager, it seemed like most people in the town had me pegged as gay, so people my age stayed away from me. I would hit for hours against the backboard, pretending I was Björn’s younger brother. I even tried to teach myself Swedish!
But after I fell in love with Björn, Chris, and Jimmy, a year or so later, my mother, a teacher, was chosen to take part in a summer humanities institute at Bennington College in Vermont, a real honor for my mother. She brought me with her while my brother and sister stayed home that summer. When I was young man, I learned my mother wanted to take me to an environment where I would not be bullied. I hadn’t realized my mother knew that I was, but of course she did, and given the times, she tried to protect me as best she could.
Bennington was a whole new world. The adults at the institute were brilliant and open, many languages were spoken, and kids who joined their parents were invited to take part in workshops and cultural activities with them. I could have had crushes on many “real” people, but it’s probably a good thing I hung out at the clay tennis courts and took group lessons with kids and adults, the first instruction of any kind I had for the sport.
Clay is the best surface for learning tennis because it slows down the game, the ball bounces higher, and it’s easy on the legs for people who like to spend hours and hours on the courts. When you’re young in the summer, nothing is better! I learned whatever technique I have in tennis on the Bennington clay courts. I’ve loved playing on clay ever since, and was lucky enough to enjoy many years on the surface when I lived in Europe and worked at clubs in Baltimore.
But I never returned to the Bennington clay courts nor to Bennington for that matter. I wrote a poem when I was very young called my “My Lost Bennington Summer” that won a national award. Years later, when my husband was at Bennington College, I asked him to go to the clay courts, sacred turf from his spouse’s youth! Guess what? The clay courts are now hard courts which are much easier to maintain. So my early romance with tennis and Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Bennington, and clay courts — all intertwined — was replaced by concrete! But whether clay, cement or even grass, the ball still bounces!