By Jon Wertheim, Tennis Magazine, June 2004

The working conditions were awful and the hours were worse. My subterranean workspace was a dimly lit room that reeked of the confluence of Bengay, sweaty socks, cheap cologne, and “eau de body.” I think I was paid $300; even for a college kid with economic needs that didn’t extend much beyond pizza and the occasional CD, that amounted to bupkis. And for 10 days it was a dream job.

While in college at Yale, I taught tennis in Connecticut elementary schools as part of a grass-roots program sponsored by the Volvo International, a U.S. Open tuneup event held on the Yale campus in New Haven. In August of 1992, a few weeks before my senior year began, my boss called with a frantic request. The man who was going to manage the locker room during the Volvo event had backed out of the job. Would I be willing–please!–to fill in?

I had been planning to while away the final days of my last college summer with friends on Cape Cod. Instead, I was being offered a chance to spend that time picking up the sweaty towels of Ivan Lendl and a hundred or so of his colleagues. Naturally, I accepted.

Although I received a 30-minute tutorial on ‘locker room etiquette’ from an ATP official before the tournament–just to make sure I wouldn’t do something as gauche as toss a towel at a player, but instead offer it, palms up–my real training came during the qualifying tournament. Many of the players were my age, so there was something demeaning about tending to their lavatorial needs. But I did my job dutifully.

On the final day of the qualies, a shy, skinny Russian teenager with a terminally uncool bowl cut and a halting command of English offered me a “tall five” after he made it into the main draw. In ensuing years, I’d see a lot of Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

On Monday, the main-draw players arrived and my job began in earnest. In addition to dispensing towels–palms up–I cleaned the benches, vacuumed the floor, and threw out used grip tape, Gatorade bottles, Odor-Eaters, and other tennis detritus.

But the work was far from tedious. I delivered what might euphemistically be called a ‘mash note’ from a female admirer to a young American doubles player. He read it, laughed, and crumpled it up, as though having women offer to prostrate themselves before him was a common occurrence.

I also helped Leander Paes stretch his arms before a match and Pat McEnroe find dinner when, after losing a night match, he wanted to eat away his sorrows with several slices of New Haven’s famous pizza. Now this was something I knew about. And as Pat had forgotten the name of the place recommended by his brother John, I commandeered a courtesy car and dropped him off at Sally’s on Wooster Street.

I was surprised by how little correlation existed between the players’ rankings and their dispositions. At once regal and casual, Stefan Edberg walked into the locker room on the first day of play and plopped down his duffel near my spot on the bench. Instinctively, I snapped to attention, much like when I passed one of my professors on the quad. Edberg just looked at me, extended his hand, and said, warmly, ‘I’m Stefan’–as if I needed an introduction to the best player in the world.

I was awestruck, so Edberg picked up the conversational slack. He asked, “You go to school here?” I nodded. He added, “I’ll try not to make too much work for you,” and then patted me on the back.

On the other hand, a curly haired Californian who was, at best, ATP marginalia, lit into me when I committed the sin of handing him an insufficiently fluffy towel. “If you’re going to give me crappy towels,” he barked, “at least give me two.” Because I am large-souled and don’t hold grudges, I won’t reveal that it was Jeff Tarango.

As a writer at Sports Illustrated, I frequently get asked, “What is so-and-so really like?” Invariably, I serve up a lame answer–“Andy is a cool kid” or “Venus is nice but can be distant”–while the unvarnished truth is that we in the sports media often have no real idea. Our access is limited, and our subjects have control over every aspect of how we perceive them. British novelist Martin Amis was once assigned to go ‘behind the scenes’ at a tennis tournament. He later remarked with frustration, “All you get when you go behind the scenes is another scene.”

But my stint in New Haven was different. I was a fly on the bench, so to speak. Some players interacted with me, others didn’t. But no one bothered to adjust his behavior on account of my presence.

Unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, who was disappointed when she peeked behind the curtain and discovered that the wizard was really a pitiable old man, my own backstage experience fueled my passion for tennis. It also served as a catalytic event in my decision to write about sports for a living.

I saw firsthand the intense individualism of tennis. The players were superficially collegial, but ultimately they sat alone, tackling their thoughts and fears in isolation. I also saw just how international the sport is: With no trace of irony, players spoke of meeting up or having dinner in Madrid or Tokyo. I saw just how physically grueling the pro game can be: After 90 minutes on the tennis court, these world-class athletes required lengthy rubdowns.

And I saw that the glamorous cast of the ATP tour is not so different from most work forces, an omnium-gatherum of wallflowers and social animals, eager rookies and jaded veterans, jerks and gentlemen.

Indeed, on my last day of work, Edberg beat MaliVai Washington in the final. As I scoured the locker room one last time, I came across an Adidas bag near Edberg’s locker–strange, since he had already taken his check and trophy and skipped town. I looked closer.

The bag was stuffed with new shoes, an Adidas sweatshirt, and a racquet. On it was a note: ‘Jon, thanks for everything. Good luck at school. Stefan.’

I never had a chance to thank Edberg (who, incidentally, went on to win the U.S. Open a month later). And by the time I started covering the sport for SI, he had retired. But if our paths ever cross, I’ll make it a point to express my gratitude and explain how meaningful I found his gesture.

And then I’ll extend my hand to shake–palm up, of course.

Henman disqualified at Wimbledon

From Alan Mills’ autobiography, Lifting the covers: (Alan Mills was Wimbledon tournament referee from 1982 to 2005).

There were three major incidents that year, all of them utterly extraordinary, dramatic and traumatic in their own way. The first involved a young Tim Henman, then playing in only his second Wimbledon. I had known Tim since he was a young teenager when I was refereeing junior tournaments in Surrey. Although he was largely unknown to the British public at this time, he was a player of outstanding promise and those who had watched his development, with the help of Jim Slater and David Lloyd, were convinced that Britain had finally managed to produce a player of truly world-class potential – the best since Perry, many claimed. In my association with him up to that time, I had found Henman to be impeccably courteous, even-tempered and good-natured character – the last person on a tennis court you would expect to have to throw the book at for a breach of the rules.

Henman, who had lost in the second round of the singles to the defending champion Sampras in straight sets earlier in the day, was involved in a doubles match out on Court 14, now situated outside the new broadcasters’ complex between Centre Court and the new Court 1. He was partnering his fellow Britton Jeremy Bates against Swede Henrik Holm and a live-wire character called Jeff Tarango who I would get to know all too well by the end of that fortnight.
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