As tennis fans know, Garret Spencer is a complete player with an all-court game, ranked in the top ten for most of his career, and black. In tennis it’s rare that blacks get as far as Garret has. There are all kinds of rationalizations as to why, but it’s obvious that tennis is a game where the champs start at a very early age and there aren't too many opportunities for many black kids out there. You need access to courts, rackets, lessons, and the rest of the essentials necessary to help you advance through those important formative years. That same kid endowed with exceptional athletic ability needs nothing more than a pair of sneakers and a T-shirt to play basketball in a schoolyard and go on to a college scholarship and maybe even an NBA career.
But Garret’s situation was unique. His father was a chauffeur for a pretty rich dude, a decent guy with a son Garret's age who would get the kids to play together on his private court. Garret would often watch the kid take lessons, then go home and imitate what he had learned against a building wall. I know all that from an article I read in Playboy, probably the only article I ever read end-to-end in the magazine. Let's be real here -- who buys Playboy to read articles?
Just how good a tennis player is Garret Spencer? Let’s just say he could be Number One. He's not, of course, because I am. This year, anyway. In college he beat me in the National Championship semi finals, but the pro circuit is something else entirely. In the pros you have to deal with other levels of talent with individual styles of play, various playing surfaces (some of them hostile!), and unless you're playing doubles, no team support -- there's no one to take up the slack when you're having an off day. When you add all that to the kind of pressure that white players don't have to deal with, it's obvious Garret's a very special athlete.
Lucky for me, a lot of that pressure comes from black fans who want him to win so badly that you can feel its presence on the court, which is maybe why I’ve beaten him five out of the six times we've played. I think his loyal fans psyche him out better than I can with all my shtick.
I'm thankful that I never had to face the kind of crap he did from some of those mini-minded shmendricks in our elite tennis strata. With my sandy colored hair, blue eyes, and WASP name, I was spared the bigotry that Garret accepted with seemingly calm dignity. Very few knew or cared that my Plymouth Rock image was only skin deep. My father's parents emigrated from Genoa, an historical northern port where many Norwegian and Swedish sailors had married and settled, creating generations of blonde, blue-eyed Italian kids.
My father, Tom Rosselli was smart enough to WASP-ize his name to "Ross" when he established his tailor shop in a tight-ass small town in Georgia. The planets lined up nicely when he met Larry Ross on a buying trip to Atlanta. Larry had a small fabric importing business that my father, having a good eye for material which he then converted into quality garments for men, soon began to use exclusively. The two men liked and respected one another, and dad more than just liked Larry's younger sister Marion, who helped manage their small office. When he learned that Larry's father became a "Ross" from Rosenfeld, he figured it was bashert ("meant to be") in English, and in a few years both couples were joined, Tom and Larry became partners in Ross and Ross Importers in Atlanta; Tom and Marion bonded as Mr. and Mrs. Ross. When the latter became pregnant with me, my father made the name legal so there'd be no problems with birth certificates and school records later on.
But enough about me, although I know you're fascinated by my every word. My intention here was to recount what happened the night before the semi-finals at the National Indoor Championship in Memphis. I usually have dinner with Stanley, my cousin turned manager, but this time Stanley had his mother fly down for her birthday. I told him to take her out to a fancy dinner that I shouldn't be having the night before a big match, but an even bigger lie!. The truth is that I didn't want her bugging me all night about finding a nice girl for Stanley (as opposed to the kind of girls I usually frequent). So I stopped at a local diner the hotel concierge recommended and who’s sitting in a booth by himself?
“Good evening, Mr. Spencer. Mind if I join you?”
“I’d mind that very much, Ross.”
“Great. Then I’ll join you."
I sat down, knowing very well he's wouldn't create a scene- - Unlike me, Garret Spencer was a class act. He was already into his main course as the waiter took my order.
"Glad I caught you, Spence.. It’ll probably be the only chance we get to see each other again on this trip,” I said seriously.
“Why? Are you withdrawing because you’ve used up your allotment of obscene gestures and profanity?”
“No, I just figured you won’t get past Widmer. The kid's a killer indoors.”
“Widmer’s never been a problem for me. I've taken him in straight sets several times," he responded casually. "But you're facing Barrow and they clocked his serve over 125 MPH against Small yesterday. That’s even faster than your mouth.”
“Just by a few digits. I still have the fastest mouth on the circuit.”
“Too bad your mind was clocked at only 12 MPH.”
I had to laugh at that one, and he had to laugh at me laughing. He served an ace and I couldn't return it.
The waiter brought my tuna salad and the house specialty, Memphis sweet tea. What a disappointment - - sweet tea was all it was.
“Actually, I hope you'll still be around by Sunday," I said between bites.. It would be fun whomping you again. What is it now, four in a row?"
"Not this time around, my friend. I'm ready for you. I've been doing some serious study on your game and I've seen a few cracks in the foundation," he said in a way that sandpapered my stomach lining for a second. So I countered with a shot that I knew might strike a nerve.
"It won't help. You know why? See that man in the end booth? He won’t let you win. He’s black. And he’s sneaking glances at you and telling his young son about who you are. And he and his kid and his kid's friends are gonna be there watching every point. Even if you can’t see their faces you’re gonna feel their eyes on you, eyes wide with hope, Garret. You cannot fail them and let their dreams go up in smoke. Me? When I look in the stands all I see is a blur of faces that usually pray for me to lose. That’s what makes it so easy for me to win. I can afford to lose, you can’t."
I don't know if it was my words or Widmer playing a mile over his head that got to Garret the next day, but the poor guy lost in the fifth game tie-breaker. I didn't do much better -- Barrow's serve was on and my legendary return of serve wasn't. The bastard aced me 16 times.
Afterwards, one of the writers asked me why I played so “tentatively” during the match. I told him because I was afraid "if one of those serves hit me in the wrong place it would ruin my social life for a year." Naturally, he cleaned it up for his column.
Garret's write-up was descriptive and innocuous, but he was quoted as saying that he was surprised I also lost my match that day, and this I quote, “Ross has the all the weapons -- the shots, the speed, and the drive to be Number One. But more important, he’s learned how to make his mental deficiencies work for him.”
I love that line. And, actually, the guy who said it. Maybe someday I'll tell him so. After we're both out of the game, of course.
Nick Meglin is a writer living in North Carolina.