Our trip to Epps Sporting Goods would affect my life even today. Dad took me to buy my first tennis racket. I was about twelve years old and I had decided to learn to play tennis because my older brother played tennis and I wanted to be like him.
Dad checked out the cheap tennis rackets and found one that would fit into his budget. He didn’t want to buy an expensive racket because he didn’t know if my desire to play tennis was just a passing fancy. When we arrived home, Dad gave me my first and only tennis lesson. He took me out in the backyard. Then, he handed me a tennis ball and told me to keep hitting the tennis ball up in the air. This would get me use to hitting the ball as well as keeping my eye on the ball. I continued to do this every day. I began to imagine myself becoming the next Rod Laver.
By the time, I was in eighth grade, I would take my tennis racket to Ford Park and hit the tennis ball off the tennis court wall. The problem was that I would often hit the ball over the wall, which meant I spent more time retrieving my ball than hitting it. Eventually, I could hit the ball with some regularity. Now I was ready to hit with anybody who was willing to hit with a young person who had a great desire to play tennis, but not much ability.
One man, who took a special interest in me was Ed. He was a man in his late fifties or early sixties. I was always excited to see his large white Chrysler park in the alley behind the tennis courts. Ed patiently would hit with me, which soon gave me some confidence in playing tennis. There were others who hit with me because I was never shy to ask anybody who didn’t have a tennis partner to hit with me.
My first experience of playing organized tennis was in ninth grade when I played on the
U of D High School tennis team. I definitely was the low man on the totem pole, but going to the practices and hitting with others helped my game. My coach once encouraged me by saying the my serve was so slow that he could catch it with his bare hand. However, I wasn’t going to quit. I was determined to succeed in tennis.
In tenth grade, I was back at Highland Park High School, and I joined the tennis team. Tennis was not an important sport at the school; so I became the number one singles player in my junior and senior year. This may sound impressive, but when we played schools like Grosse Pointe South, it meant that if I won a game or two, I was doing well.
There were perks to playing on the tennis team. At the beginning of the season, we received three or four pair of tennis socks, four cans of tennis balls and the best of all, a brand new pair of Jack Purcells tennis shoes. These shoes were the top of the line. By this time also, I had graduated to a Jack Kramer Autograph racket. This was the top of line in rackets.
Another perk was that I received physical education credit for playing tennis. This was a big perk because it meant I didn’t have to take swimming class or gym class during my time at Highland Park High School.
One problem about being on the tennis team was that our coach never played tennis. We never did any drills. We never received any instructions on how to serve. He basically would go with us to matches and tell us to try harder. When we played schools like Ecorse, River Rouge or Ferndale, our lack of ability didn’t show; however when we played Grosse Pointe South, Monroe or Dondero, it was embarrassing.
Speaking of Monroe, this was our favorite place to play. After getting beaten by Monroe, the coach would take us all to a restaurant and we could eat all the chicken we desired. It definitely made the thrashing that we had received go down better.
In my senior year, Highland Park was no longer in the Border Cites League. This meant that our competition was more on our level. We actually won a few matches during the season. At the end of the year, the Detroit News selected me to be on the All-Detroit tennis team. My photo was in the Detroit News with the other players who had been named for this honor. Before I could get too proud, somebody in the school told me that the Detroit News writer who selected the All-Detroit team was a graduate of Highland Park High School. This took the wind out of my sails.
After I graduated from Highland Park, I would continue to play tennis. I played on the Olivet College team as a freshman; however, I soon played less and less tennis. It has only been in recent years that I have taken up tennis again. Playing tennis again brings back memories of those great days of playing tennis at Ford Park in the early Seventies.