Wednesday, July 15, 2015

THANK YOU CITI OPEN - GUILLERMO VILAS 1984

Everything about it was blistering hot - the seats, the air, the sidewalk, the parking lot - the kind of heat that makes you want to hide somewhere dark, the kind of heat that makes you feel that one more second of sunlight is going to put you over the edge of your sanity.  It affected everything we did - where we parked, the matches we chose to watch, where we sat in the stadium,  and how long we waited for autographs afterwards.  I had trouble keeping hold of my father's hand as we walked through the complex because the sweat dripping for his hand, mixed with mine, made it more like holding onto a newly caught fish.  And there were so many people walking around here and there, that I worried I would let go of the grip and get lost.

He never did let go, though.

I remember the stench of stagnant, standing water everywhere - it's been long since resolved, but back in the day, it just wasn't well irrigated, and after frequent DC midsummer deluges, the combination of heat and trash and ever-present insects, made it oppressive.  It was so pungent, I swear, I could taste it.  And as we walked towards the stadium for the first match of the DC National Bank Tennis Classic in 1984, my first time at the tournament, and in the stadium, my thoughts were invaded repeatedly by the fear of taking one wrong step and placing some part, god forbid any part, of my body in that repulsive stagnant water that had accumulated near the concession stands, under the admin tents, and even at the entrance to the stadium seating.

But the minute we entered that makeshift colosseum, the sensory overload of seeing Guillermo Vilas, languidly stroking backhands from 12 feet behind the baseline in the warm up, left no room for the potential revulsion that had consumed my mind 10 minutes earlier.  Already drenched in a full sweat, with his barrel chest protruding ominously through the fibers of an almost effeminate Carolina blue and white striped Ellesse shirt, and his feet twitching endlessly as the sound of the har-tru crumbling under the weight of his mammoth legs and tiny feet, the sight of Guillermo Vilas on a tennis court, was enough to make a 10 year old boy feel like he'd seen the other side of the galaxy.

He didn't so much hit the ball as bully it - an abusive muscling of it hither and fro, the racquet disappearing in a blur of wood, fiberglass, strings and grit.  And although I had played tennis already for 6 years, and had seen it on television for four, I didn't truly comprehend the full extent of the human capacity to manipulate something, anything, in such a violently balletic way, until I saw him run around a backhand return to hit inside out to the opposite corner of the court.  

Sending his opponent, one Jimmy Brown, scrambling comically to his right to retrieve his opening salvo of the point, the racquet head disappearing behind his head in my first live sighting of a reverse forehand, Vilas made a kind of music with the slide, the grunt and the melodic pinging of the ball against his strings, that belied the overbearing nature of his strokes.  By the end of the point, Vilas was at the net hitting a drop volley, and Brown was lampooning some cartoon characters whose slipping feet take all the power out of their desperate lunge forward, only to remain in the same place and watch the ball bounce two, then three, then four times before it was retrieved by a ball boy.

How I wanted to be that ball boy!  How I longed to be on that court!  

I had read about Vilas, even seen him lose to Ivan Lendl in the semi-final of he US Open the year before, but here in person, he seemed enormous, nothing more so than the bulging meat hook masquerading as a left forearm, that I imagined being strong enough to lift me in one fit of dismissive brute force.  His sultry black locks  bounced perpetually off his shoulders, with each shuffle to the left, and shuffle to the right, then up above the back of his head as his body contorted mercilessly to apply the finishing touch on another forehand, this one hit inside-in, up the line, for another winner.  There wasn't a moment of hesitation in him, nor a hint of expression on his face, such was his concentration on the minutiae of hitting a tennis ball, and this too was a revelation.  Because it never dawned on me, until that moment, watching Guillermo Vilas pummel some poor American kid from Florida, into a dusty green oblivion, that a tennis ball could be hit with such apparent abandon, but actual precision.

And as he galloped timidly towards the net at the conclusion of this match, despite evidence to the contrary (the heavy breathing, the sweat and the strings of his racquet askew in every direction) Guillermo Vilas looked more like he had finished a practice session than a three-set victory over a woefully overmatched, but resolutely committed opponent, that poor Jimmy Brown from Florida.  He looked like he could have played three more sets, like he wanted to play three more sets, and in that moment, my understanding of just how incredible these athletes really are, exploded like a little big bang in my mind, that continues to expand and expand to this very day.

And then I felt that damn heat again.

There are moments in my personal history with tennis that are etched indelibly in my mind - moments that if I close my eyes, and lose myself in thought, are as rich and vibrant today as they were some 31 years ago.  For one of those moments, watching Guillermo Vilas play a tennis match on clay, and the inspiration that it continues to provide me to this day, I owe a debt gratitude not easily repaid, to this marvelous tournament - I'm damn well going to try.

Thank you Citi Open.

I've just received word that I have been approved for press credentials at the Citi Open in Washington, DC, from August 1-9.  And during the tournament I'll be posting my impressions, and interviews, and images from the William H. Fitzgerald Tennis Center at 16th & Kennedy.  So be sure to check in daily to The Tennis Column for updates.
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