John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the October 20, 2010 Providence Journal.
NEW YORK— If, like me, you’re an occasional tennis player who once harbored dreams of competitive glory, you might understand why I feel sorry for tennis pros.
Think about it: the patient teacher endlessly hitting the ball to undistinguished players of middling ability, knowing that his livelihood depends on a polite consistency that never reveals his true talent. A sudden, unrestrained forehand smash or devastating cross-court backhand by a normally gentle instructor might produce an edifying sense of shock and awe— but it also could demoralize the student.
I had never really considered the frustrating, potentially debilitating effect such restraint might have on a tennis pro until I watched my teacher, Roger Dowdeswell, hitting with an assistant pro this past August at a club on the East End of Long Island. This wasn’t the easygoing Roger I face in my lessons. He was hitting the ball really hard, with a certain refined savagery I’d never seen.
It turned out that Dowdeswell was tuning up for the United States Tennis Association grass-court tournament for players 65 and older in Seabright, N.J., and, later in September, the over-60s tournament at Forest Hills. I’d never asked him his age, but I figured he couldn’t be much over 60. Now I was amazed to find Roger, all of 66, smashing the ball at a woman in her 20s, looking like he was preparing for a grand-slam tournament.
To describe Dowdeswell as courtly may seem clichéd, but there really is no better adjective for such an old-school player. Raised in Zimbabwe when it was colonial, then renegade, Rhodesia, he possesses all the good manners and understated style that I associate with the pre-Connors, pre-McEnroe era of small-money, amateur tennis. Roger was ranked 64th in the world in 1974, played in the Davis Cup, and competed at Wimbledon twice, which is more than enough to impress me. But I was taken aback, after watching his startling practice session, when he casually remarked: “When you teach all the time, you forget how to hit the ball hard” — in effect, how to play to win.
That confession pained me— it conjured up the image of a fettered thoroughbred racehorse trying to sprint — so I resolved to watch Roger play to win at New York’s historic West Side Tennis Club, unfettered, as it were, on good old-fashioned grass.
When I arrived at Continental Avenue in Queens on Sept. 14, Forest Hills was an elegant wreck. A micro tornado had recently torn up the gracious Tudor-style neighborhood and I wondered if, amidst the whine and rip of chain saws cutting up downed branches, the famous clubhouse would still be in one piece. But there it was, at the end of Tennis Place, in all its faded, romantic grandeur.
Unfortunately, romance doesn’t pay for upkeep, and the down-at-the heels atmosphere extended to the grass courts themselves. A tournament official, Dina Ingersole, explained to me that scorching temperatures in July had damaged the courts and that the maintenance crew had been busy putting back up the fences around the club that had been knocked down by the storm. But even with so much exposed dirt, the sight of all those older men playing in immaculate tennis whites on mostly green turf was extraordinary. Gone for the moment was all the hype and nonsense I associate with modern tennis, and not just the flashy shirts and shorts.
There was no money at stake, just ego and honor.
Roger made it to the singles semi-finals at Seabright, narrowly missing an all-Rhodesian final with his old friend and Davis Cup teammate Hank Irvine. But at Forest Hills the draw was younger, and his second-round match was against the tournament’s ninth seed, a very fit and personable 60-year-old named Michael Harvey (Roger was unseeded because, unlike Harvey, he doesn’t play the senior circuit regularly).
Adding to my sense of nostalgia, the match was a homecoming for both players. Harvey told me he hadn’t played Forest Hills since 1966, when he won a USLTA (back when Lawn was part of the name) 16-and-under singles title. Roger had last been here in 1975, when he made it to the second round of the U.S. Open on clay; the previous year, when he also competed, was the last in which the U.S. Open was played on grass. That was the year that for me launched the modern tennis revolution— when souped-up, loud-mouthed Jimmy Connors crushed the low-key, stylish, and much older Ken Rosewall in the singles final.
I remembered that match as Roger and Michael warmed up on Court 8, shouting distance from the decrepit old stadium, now closed, that hosted so many center-court dramas. Roger was tired. Besides his easy first-round singles match, he had been obliged to play two doubles matches the day before. Harvey has his own Internet nutrition business — “I got smart”— and doesn’t have to teach, so I figured he had an advantage based on age and tournament experience.
But starting out, it was Roger who was clearly dominant — the former tour player just looked better and more in control than his opponent, who never tried to go pro because, as he put it, “five to eight years later is when the real money came in” to the game. When Roger aced Michael he reminded me a bit of Arthur Ashe; when Michael won a point it looked like he had just hustled harder and that maybe Roger had lost his concentration. When Roger placed stunning, feather-touch drop shots— all the more aesthetically pleasing because on grass the game is so quiet— he looked like a man half his age. When Michael ran so hard he fell, he looked liked the older player. But more than three hours later, under a hot sun and after Roger staved off six match points, Michael carried the day, 6-7(5);6-4;7-5.
“I thought of defaulting,” Roger told me later, because “I used up my legs” the previous day. But, he said, “I don’t like to default and I love the sound, the smell of playing on grass.”
And anyway, Roger’s “main focus” was on the upcoming Super-Seniors World Championships in Antalya, Turkey, where he would be reunited with Hank Irvine and two other former Davis Cup teammates. I wished him well, far, far away from his students.