Beads of sweat glistened on his eyebrows, and the ends of his hair were starting to turn damp as Chip whacked away furiously, like some demented woodchopper. "Top spin," he thought. "Hit the ball early. Follow through." His capering shadow was 20 feet tall on the wall as he swung his tennis racket up on the ball, sending it banging against the back of a supermarket. Behind him was a car, its front end pointed toward him, its lights on, its motor idling. It was 1:30 a.m., and Chip was in an empty parking lot behind a closed Publix in Hialeah, Fla., practicing against a wall, trying to keep from going nowhere.
The night before, he had slept on three chairs outside a Holiday Inn. It was the high season in Florida, and the motel was overbooked. So he had put on three warmup suits and a leather jacket, and he still froze. He had survived, though, and in the morning he had won his first-round match. Tonight he could sleep in the car he had borrowed—if his knee would let him. But first he would practice and get a little tired, perhaps too tired to remember who and where he was. Then maybe he could sleep. "Top spin," muttered Chip.
What he wanted to forget was that he was almost 24 years old, though he lied to most people and told them he was two years younger, that his knee hurt and that his father was waiting to hear from him back home in Texas. Most of all he wanted to forget about the Penn Circuit and that tomorrow would be only the second day of qualifying.
It was near the end of February, and Chip and more than 300 other players were in Hialeah for the first stop of the USTA/Penn National Circuit, the satellite tour that is the underground and minor leagues of tennis. On the Penn Circuit one rarely hears applause, only the anguished cry of a player missing a shot, because with each miss he gets closer to nowhere.
April 21, 1980
This is the circuit where one sees the game's fabric being woven—and sometimes unraveled; where a disgusted player will walk over to a garbage can and junk an armful of rackets only to have a solicitous girl friend retrieve them and hurry after him; where a young player can sit stock-still for an hour at a time, staring at a tennis ball, hoping to improve his concentration; and where groups of players discuss why they lost matches and conclude it was not because they failed to hit the right shots, but because they were reluctant to cheat.
The Penn Circuit travels a purgatorial network of public parks and small private clubs where some of the locker rooms have no lockers and where the players never pass the pay phone without checking the coin-return box. But despite the poor facilities, each week pros from all over the world crowd around the tournament desk to sign in. In Hialeah fully 40% of the participants had foreign addresses, and 13 of the top 16 seeds were from overseas. The entries included talented youngsters such as Gabriel Urpi of Spain, who won the 1978 Orange Bowl juniors tournament; Ecuador's Raul Viver, the 1979 Orange Bowl champion; and Ben McKown, a three-time All-America and current NCAA doubles champion from Texas' Trinity University. Also on hand were veterans like 33-year-old Ivan Molina, who once was ranked 54th in the world. And there was the group that included the likes of Chip, who is, in fact, not a real person, but a composite of a number of regulars on the Penn Circuit. These players are neither young nor old, and they are trying to live up to great but fading expectations. Rick Fagel, reputed to have one of the best forehands in the game, is one such pro. So is Van Winitsky, who, as a junior a few years back, was ranked on a par with John McEnroe. Neither of them, it must be said, contributed to the fictional Chip.
Chip came out of college three years ago as a two-time All-America and conference champion. He played the satellite circuit and did well right away, quickly moving up to the Grand Prix circuit, the high-priced habitat of Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. But then he stopped winning. He went four months and won only two matches, and his computer ranking plummeted. His confidence was down, as was his game, so he decided to go back to school and finish the work for his degree in physical education while he still had the time and inclination.
At Hialeah he was embarking on another try at pro tennis, only this time he had a greater seriousness of purpose, because he had seen the alternatives and hadn't liked them. For most of his life he had played tennis for the wrong reasons: because his father wanted him to, because it was easy, because it meant he never had to work during the summers. Now he would play it for himself. He knew that if he failed this time, if he didn't play well enough on the Penn Circuit to get back up to the Grand Prix, it meant that he would turn out like his father: teaching country-club ladies in dainty dresses, lying to them that their backhands looked improved.... In a few years he'd be a burned-out hack working 14 hours a day and leaving a little piece of himself on the court each night when he walked away.
In tennis, computer points are what life's all about. Each week the latest results are fed into the Association of Tennis Professionals' computer, which then spews out the rankings of the world's top players. Pro tennis is a very exclusive club and the computer is its membership committee, and if you don't show it the proper credentials, the computer doesn't let you in.
The top 110 or so players in the world play the Grand Prix circuit, the multimillion-dollar series of tournaments sponsored by Volvo. The rest of the players work the Penn Circuit, a satellite tour of 30 or so $7,000 tournaments spread over the year, where they try to earn enough computer points to scramble up into the big time. It's a tough, unrelenting chase.
Until this season there was another level of competition between the Penn Circuit and the Grand Prix, the American Express Challengers Series, whose events were worth $25,000 apiece. In 1979 Vince Van Patten, the ATP Rookie of the Year, used this series to propel himself onto the Grand Prix tour. But American Express canceled the circuit this year. This means the competition on the Penn Circuit this season will be even more fierce, a crucible that will either turn a player into tempered steel or leave him on the slag heap.
The Penn Circuit is broken up into six segments of five tournaments each and a grand-finale tournament of champions. In each segment the top 32 players over the first four weeks meet in a masters event in the fifth week. If a player appears in a match in the masters tournament, he's assured one ATP computer point. One point is good for a ranking of about 680th in the world, a position that some 50 or so players share.
There are other ways to show how tough the Penn Circuit is. Of the 345 entries in the Hialeah tournament, the large majority were excellent players, the kind that could give lessons to your teaching pro, and yet fewer than 90 of them had earned even one point on the ATP computer. Last year Bjorn Borg led the rankings with 1,497 points amassed in 16 tournaments. He averaged 93 points per event. The 250th player in the world, John Hayes of the U.S., had 34 points.
The competition is so fierce that the Penn Circuit remains virtually the only route in the U.S. by which a player can break in. The last one who didn't have to come up the hard way was McEnroe, who, as an 18-year-old in 1977, worked his way through the qualifying rounds at Wimbledon and wound up in the semifinals before he lost to Connors, thereby earning enough computer points to be eligible for Grand Prix events.
But McEnroe's story is so unusual that it is the tennis equivalent of Lana Turner being discovered in Schwab's Drugstore. The usual road is the one taken by Andres Gomez of Ecuador, who last year showed up as an unknown for the first stop on the Penn Circuit. Gomez waded through the qualifying and the main draw, and won the tournament by sweeping 11 straight matches. He finished the year ranked 64th in the world and early in 1980 went to the finals of a $50,000 Grand Prix event in Sarasota, losing to Eddie Dibbs. Similarly, young John Sadri played against McEnroe in the finals of the NCAA tournament in 1978, losing a close match, and then went on the satellite circuit. It took him two years to work his way up in the standings, until at the end of 1979 he was a finalist at the Australian Open. In March, Sadri was ranked fifth in the Volvo standings. Many of the players in Hialeah thought that if they stood in the rain long enough, they might catch the same sort of lightning.
The tournament was being played at the Goodlet Tennis Center, a public facility set among stark, empty fields of white limestone and coral. On the first afternoon of qualifying, Chip showed up early for his opening match, and while he waited he surveyed the players sitting in a covered patio area. Most of them had lost earlier, and they looked as if they had stepped out of one of those photographs of shocked and fatigued Vietnam combat troops, their heads drooping, eyes vacant. For a loser in the first round of qualifying, unless he had a high national ranking or was well fixed financially, the tour was in all probability over, because he couldn't enter qualifying for the rest of the circuit's Florida segment. Take the case of Khelil Lakdar of Belgium. Earlier in the week, while he slept in the Miami airport, his bag containing $3,000 in cash and traveler's checks had been stolen, he said. Now he was left with $850, but his airplane ticket home would cost $750. Lakdar's dilemma was that he would have to wait four weeks until the circuit began its next segment, in Louisiana, and he had only $100 on which to live until then. At that, he was better off than a doleful fellow from Panama who had stood in the tennis center parking lot earlier that morning, asking to borrow $7 so he would have enough money to pay his $10 entry fee.
There are a million sad or absurd stories on the Penn Circuit. One of the favorites is the tale of Charlie Owens and the telephone. The courtside phone began to ring during a match Owens was playing, and he hit a high lob, ran over, picked up the receiver and said, "Hold on." Then he scampered back to retrieve his opponent's return. Owens hit another high lob and ran to the phone. "I'll be right with you." This sequence was repeated several times before the other player finally smashed away one of Owens' lobs. The players laugh whenever the story is retold, but they most enjoy the kicker—that Owens is now on the Grand Prix circuit. He got off the street to nowhere, and that's the best part of all.
According to the players, none of them belongs on the Penn Circuit, or ever suspected he would be there. Each is waiting for his big break, getting together a portfolio and hoping for the day when his "look," or playing style, will come into vogue. Until then, each anticipates "a lucky draw," a succession of opponents so ineffectual that his ensuing series of wins will propel him upward. Borg hits with top spin, so Chip was trying to change his game from the classic, hard and flat shots his father taught him back at the country club. On the satellite trail, an inordinate number of players use oversized Prince rackets because, as with vitamins and religion, there is no evidence that they hurt you, and there remains the possibility they will help.
Because Hialeah was the opening tournament of the season, anyone with a racket, tennis shoes and a dream could enter. After five rounds, 16 qualifiers would join the exempt players, those ranked about 200th or better on the computer, in the 64-man tournament the following week. Qualifiers would have to pay $10 to play the main event, and they'd be happy to pay it.
Money was of minor consideration for those entering the qualifying, perhaps because they generally had so little of it. Thus, fans who find the hyper-inflation of big-time tennis prize money disturbing should find solace in the Penn Circuit. No money is awarded for victories in the qualifying. In the main tournament at Hialeah, first-round losers were to be paid a piddling $28, and the winner of the tournament could count on only $1,120, which, if he happened to have worked his way up through the qualifying, meant he would earn about $100 for each match won. "It's a one-way street for most guys," says one of the circuit's officials. "They think it leads somewhere, but it doesn't. All they do is keep going up and down the street."
From a distance, tennis appears to be a wonderful world of strawberries and cream, of royalty at courtside and Cheryl Tiegs on the disco floor. The satellite circuit offers a chance to sneak in the back door of this dreamworld, and John Lackey was representative of the players in Hialeah who thought they could crack the game's exclusivity—if only he could get past the security guard at the gate.
Lackey is 35 years old, and his most recent residence was Williamson, W. Va., a small coal-mining town, where he worked for the Federal Government on a disaster-relief team. Lackey, a lawyer by profession, associates the times and places of his life with disasters. Louisville, 1974, tornado. Detroit, 1976, flood. He decided to take up tennis the year of the Detroit flood. He taught himself the game out of an instruction book.
He arrived in Hialeah driving a 1964 truck with, he said, about 120,000 miles on it. He was worried, not because he had to sleep in the truck each night, but because it had snowed in Williamson a month before, and he hadn't practiced since then. Lackey reckoned that he was the first touring professional Williamson had ever had, because there were only four courts in the town. "Five, if you count the one an accountant has in the back of his house," he said.
After a few days of practice in Florida, it became apparent to Lackey that the competition was tougher than he had expected, that the opposition had almost as many tennis miles on them as his truck's odometer. "I couldn't believe these young boys' legs," said Lackey. "They were so strong, a lot stronger than mine. So I started doing knee bends, and after two days I could hardly walk." He also developed a severe case of sunburn, and his forehead was blotched and peeling.
Lackey is a bearded, serious fellow with long hair that brushes his shoulders, and while playing he wears a thick hairnet to keep his locks in place. And that isn't his only idiosyncrasy. He employs a bizarre, self-taught grip in which the racket handle extends several inches up his wrist. "I learned on my own," he explained. "I figured I could make the racket an exact extension of my arm, so I could swing it like I swing my arm. It's just like I've grown the racket from my hand to my elbow."
Playing in his first-round qualifying match with a racket he had picked up for $19 at a local discount store, Lackey lost 6-0, 6-1. Later, he was philosophical about his plight. He had forsaken his girl friend and a job paying about $30,000 a year to play tennis. But losing in the first round meant he wouldn't even be eligible for qualifying during the rest of the circuit. For the rest of the week he slept in his truck, ate his meals in a cafeteria and hung around the courts, watching tennis and hoping for some practice time. For him the week was just another disaster, and, after all, he pointed out, he was accustomed to those.
Chip and the other players knew that to avoid disaster on the Penn Circuit you had to give to get, and so out in the parking lot of the Goodlet Tennis Center were an array of vans, campers and tents, many of them with extension cords connected to the main building's power supply so their inhabitants could cook on hot plates. And when they weren't eating, playing or resting, the players were working out, running wind sprints or doing leg kicks, stretching tight muscles. It was a Spartan existence. Every morning at eight o'clock Mike Jula, the tournament director, was confronted with a line of players, half of them waiting to charge onto the courts for a few minutes of practice, the others about to rush into the locker room for showers that would wash away the sweat of a three-mile dawn run.
The parking lot was the tournament's shantytown; the dilapidated state of many of the mobile homes made it look like something out of Grapes of Wrath. In fact, Brian Earley, the Penn Circuit tour director, said he almost felt embarrassed to drive his Mercedes into the lot each morning. Even so, the players there were better off than those sleeping six to a room at motels for $9 a head per night, to say nothing of those who simply took their sleeping bags out into the surrounding fields and bedded down.
One of those traveling by van was Mark Rath, 27, who had a cottage industry going in the parking lot—stringing rackets. This is Rath's third year on tennis' back roads, and he admits the trip has been rough. He gauges his progress by noting that last year, "I missed getting an ATP point by one match in two different segments."
Rath, who is originally from Detroit, has curly black hair, a mustache and a thickening middle that he explains away by saying, "It isn't that my waist's so big but that my chest's so small." In his van are cartons of low-fat milk, peanut butter and strawberry jam, plus the obligatory book on concentration. He said he was holding his expenses to about $50 a week, partly by changing the oil in the van himself and making sure his engine was in tune. "There are a lot of players out here, and all of us are hungry," he said. "I lost today, but I shouldn't have. I had a 4-1 lead in the first set, then I let up a bit and he got a little confidence back. I blew it. Never give a sucker an even break. I gave him a break and it hurt me. Now I'm trying to decide whether to go back home and practice with my coach or stay here and string rackets. I do about three rackets a day. Any more, and I wouldn't have time to practice. And if I don't have time to practice, what's the use of being here? Right now one of my big problems is that I'm almost out of gut. When it goes, that's it. I just can't afford to buy more of it."
Many satellite players cannot afford to use gut, which gives a better "feel" than cheaper nylon stringing. To compensate, some of them string their rackets half with gut, half with nylon. These tend to be the same guys who put glue across the toes of their tennis shoes where they show wear, and at each tournament the first consideration of these impoverished players is picking up the free T shirt to which they are entitled.
Chip has never wanted to learn how to string a racket or put on a new grip. Club pros like his father string rackets. Players like Borg have someone do it for them. And Chip doesn't have to worry about getting equipment, because he is a member of the ATP, his world ranking having once been better than 200. That means he still receives free clothing from Adidas, and manufacturers remain fairly generous with rackets and balls.
From his relatively exalted station, Chip cynically regarded the young players milling around the tournament draw-sheets posted outside the locker rooms in Hialeah. They were figuring the odds, which said that for every John Sadri who made it out of the parking lot, 1,000 players didn't. And so they sifted through the drawsheets, checked the dog-eared computer standings and studied the entry lists for the next tournament. Circuit players sarcastically refer to this as "piling up indirect wins," figuring out that the player who beat them once beat someone else who beat someone else.... In reality, they were searching for a shred of evidence that what they were doing made sense.
Chip thought back to his first pro tournament and how naive and unsuspecting he had been. He had changed. The Penn Circuit does that to you. Chip knew that good friends would cheat each other for a computer point. He had observed it, had seen buddies almost come to blows during a match. In qualifying, there are no umpires—except when a player requests one to arbitrate a disputed call—and the players call their own lines, which sometimes leads to cheating. Some players have even been known to sabotage an opponent's racket by pouring a soft drink on the strings just before a match.
Looking back, Chip could see how it was almost preordained that he would win in Hialeah on this particular week. Sure, his father had stuck the racket in his hand when he was five, but Chip realized now that he hadn't played only to please his father, though the old man certainly was proud he had. No, he had enjoyed it, loved the feeling of the ball coming cleanly off his strings. But he had never liked the competition, right from the time he played in his first tournament, a local 10-and-under event. He was seven years old, and after he won his match he felt like crying because he knew tomorrow he would have to play again. It was the fear of losing that bothered him. Winning never could erase tomorrow.
But he played because, after all, he was a natural. Anyone who knew anything about tennis saw that. He was always highly ranked as a junior, and he played well in college. So few people suspected what he knew—that he lacked the killer instinct. He didn't want to make the commitment to get out there and fight and scrap and, yes, even hate, to do whatever one had to do to make it to the top. Part of the reason he went to college was to delay the decision to turn pro for a few years. And when he did go on the circuit and moved up to the Grand Prix, he refused to let the subsequent losses bother him, because if he did he knew he would have to change. He would have to make the game an obsession or give it up, and either way, he didn't know if he could live with himself. And so he'd come off the court and go to a telephone and call his father to tell him how he did. Week by week he could hear the disappointment growing at the other end of the line. And as his ranking continued to drop he came to realize that he wasn't good enough. So he went back to college, as much to hide as to finish the work for his degree.
It was while practicing with his old college team that his right knee started to bother him. At first he paid it no attention. But finally one morning he could barely walk. It was swollen. A doctor drained it and said that the cartilage was disintegrating and that he probably would need an operation. But that was the last thing he wanted. A knee operation would be the end of him. At his age, he couldn't afford to take a year off, and besides very few players fully recover from such an operation. With all of its cutting back and forth, the sport is simply too strenuous. So, just as he had disguised his fear of losing, he now hid his knee injury. No one knew about it. He didn't wear a brace on the court, and after matches he sneaked off by himself to ice the knee, because he knew that if the other players found out about his injury they would be like sharks around blood. They would work on this weakness, hitting drop shots and lobs, moving him around the court, hitting behind him when it meant he would have to plant his right foot solidly. The important thing was to get through the qualifying this week and into the main draw. The Hialeah tournament was being played on hard courts, the worst possible surface for his knee, but for the next two weeks the tournaments were scheduled for softer clay. If he could do well this week he was sure he would be all right on clay.
On the satellite circuit they say that you can check a player's wallet and predict whether he'll make it on the tour. If he doesn't have any kind of credit card, he's probably underfinanced and doesn't have a chance, because the nights of sleeping in his car will eventually wear him down. If he has an American Express card, his parents or a sponsor are funding him, and he won't be hungry enough to make it. The players to watch out for, this line of reasoning goes, are those with one bank charge card. They are sponsoring themselves. A bank card was the only one Chip had with him. And he was watching his expenses. In fact he had hit upon a scheme to get his meals half price, a proposition based upon the premise that, to busy waitresses, all tennis players look alike. Chip and another player of similar height and coloring used the scam at motel buffets. One would go into the dining room carrying a tennis bag and be seated. After finishing most of his food, he would walk out, leaving behind the tennis bag. Then the other player would sit in the same seat and go through the buffet line as if he were the first guy getting a second helping. The waitress wouldn't give him a second glance when he paid the bill.
The player who is probably the reigning authority on satellite-tour life is George Lea, a 33-year-old pro from Vancouver, British Columbia who has played the circuit for seven years and never survived the qualifying, which means that he never has cashed a check. The other players regard a match with Lea as a workout on the light bag.
Lea doesn't much care how they feel. For him the circuit affords a chance to escape Canada's harsh winters, an opportunity for competition before he returns to a summer of lifeguarding or teaching tennis. He thinks many of the players ought to pack up their dreams. "There are only four or five guys here who are going to make any money," he says. "There's no circuit as tough as this one. Most of the guys aren't being realistic. If you haven't made it by 18 in tennis, you don't have much hope of earning a living by playing. Down here, you're a little fish in a little pond." As he spoke, a fellow on a nearby court was losing a match 6-0, 6-0. After the player blew the final point, he walked over to a low mesh fence, smashed his racket on it and then stalked off, carrying the racket as if it were a dead chicken with a broken neck. Bystanders could hear his girl friend running after him, yelling, "That was my racket. You owe me a racket." She didn't sound pleased.
Lea has witnessed two occasions when players fought on the court. "It's one on one, survival of the fittest," he says. "When it gets near the end of a segment and the matches are really important, a guy will try to help others beat someone ahead of him in the standings. He'll give them advice, or practice with them. And there are a lot of ways to intimidate players and get them uptight during matches. You can sit on the sidelines and clap when the guy you're rooting against double-faults. Stuff like that.
"When you're in a big match you can intimidate a guy easy. Every time the ball is close, give him a suspicious look when he makes his call. Then you make him feel like a heel for questioning one of your calls. Just keep him on the defensive the whole match. Don't talk to him at all. Just ignore him. Never call a ball 'out,' simply signal instead. And if you're going to cheat, do it late in the match. If you do it early, the guy will complain and call for an umpire. Or worse, he'll turn around and cheat you."
There is a theory that the amount of glamour attendant on a sporting event is in direct relation to the number of beautiful women in the stands. Using this formula, the Penn Circuit, especially during qualifying, is a no-glamour event. Despite the fact there were several hundred young, athletic and attractive men in the Hialeah tournament, there wasn't the slightest hint of perfume in the stands during the qualifying. In fact, except for a few travel-in girl friends, the only unattached female within miles was a poor creature who had been sentenced to sell hot dogs and soft drinks in the temporary concession stand outside the courts. And even she didn't pay the players much attention: after all, she was earning more selling hot dogs than they were playing pro tennis.
For the most part, the Penn Circuit attracts only the hard-core tennis wacko. The casual tennis enthusiast not only doesn't attend the tournaments, but doesn't know they're being played. At Hialeah there were few spectators. In fact, for the early days the only person on hand who wasn't a relative or close friend of a player was a tall, shirtless fellow who wandered around outside the courts, peering through the windscreens at the action. Asked his name, he said, "Have A Name. That's my last name. My first is, I Don't. Actually, you can call me 'Tennis.' Boy, this game keeps you alive. I play every day. I start playing at six or seven in the morning. Play here a lot, but I didn't enter the tournament because I don't want to interrupt my schedule. How old am I? It doesn't matter. I get up each morning and start over. I figure it's death when I go to sleep, and it's life when I wake up."
"Tennis" had picked an appropriate alias, because he could rattle off tournament results and recite statistics as if he had written the USTA handbook. Moreover, he knew many of the players at Hialeah by sight, a fact almost as odd as the balls of cotton stuck in his ears. These, he explained, were "to diffuse the sound waves. Too many sounds in this country. You don't need 'em. What we need are more tennis courts. I'd like to bulldoze that school over there and build 100 tennis courts."
"Tennis" was interrupted by arguing voices. By looking through the windscreen it could be determined that there was a debate over the score of a match. Said one player to the tournament official who had arrived to mediate, "Someone's spaced out and it's not me."
That afternoon a reporter from a local newspaper came out to interview a player. Mike Sassano, the circuit's assistant tour director, suggested he speak with Chip, who had breezed through the first three rounds of qualifying and, almost as good, finally had found a motel room. Chip told the writer, "I hate this circuit, to put it mildly. It's so competitive that it'll either make you or break you. If I can't be in the upper echelons, I don't want to do this. I'll give it two good years, and if I'm not top 50 in the world, I'm going to bag it."
Just then a frustrated player sailed a racket over a fence. Chip and the reporter watched it windmill through the air. "See," said Chip. "That's what the tour will do to you."
It felt good to talk like this, to reaffirm, in his own mind at least, that for him it would never come down to throwing rackets. Chip had won his first three matches so easily that his bad knee felt as if it had undergone successful therapy. Of course, his opponents had been young and inexperienced. That would change the following day when Chip would play a tour veteran with a history of engaging in outrageous antics. Other players had given this fellow a wide berth ever since the time in Europe when he lost a match, took all six of his rackets and broke them over his knee, and then stood on his head for five minutes. At Hialeah, someone had asked this player what life on the Penn Circuit was like. He answered softly, his words punctuated with intermittent silences: "It's hard here to keep a conception of what reality is.... Sometimes you get a thought on this circuit and you think it has some context or relation with reality.... Then later you look back...and realize you were wrong and say to yourself: 'I was really out of touch with what reality is.' You realize...that you're not in reality at all."
Chip beat the eccentric easily, although throughout the match his opponent acted as if there were some alien being inside of him. After a missed shot he would yell, "Get out of me!" Later Chip told friends, "It was like something out of The Exorcist."
The next day Chip faced a young player from a local college who had entered the tournament as a lark. Early in the match the younger player made several suspect calls, but Chip didn't protest. He was playing well, and as the match progressed, his opponent came to realize the inevitability of the result.
Chip rolled through the first set, and his confidence was mounting. Then it happened. He ran for a ball he should have let pass and managed to get his racket on it, at the same time making a sharp stop and scrambling to get back into position. His bum knee reacted as if it had been kicked. It didn't collapse, but it felt as if it might, and now with a 4-2 lead in the second set, Chip knew that the throbbing would only get worse.
Even more disturbing was the certainty that if he lost this set, he could kiss off any chance of winning the next one because in about 40 minutes he was barely going to be able to walk. Indeed, Chip's opponent seemed to sense that something was wrong, and now he was jerking Chip around the court, hitting soft dinks and lobs, moving him up and back.
The only thing Chip could do was try to end each point as quickly as possible: using this strategy he won one of the next three games, making the score 5-4. Now his knee was really hurting. In fact, he couldn't disguise his slight limp when the players changed sides. The only thing he had going for him was that he was serving for the match.
Playing aggressively, Chip quickly knocked off the first two points with sharp volleys, but then he netted a low return and, on the next point, got involved in a baseline rally that he lost. He won the next point, and now he could wrap up the match. He breathed deeply as he prepared to serve and, taking his time, carefully hit the ball down the middle, hoping to nick the service line. He was wide. On his second serve, Chip was startled to see his opponent take a couple of steps forward and catch the ball early. The return, powerful and flat, headed for the corner of the deuce court. And Chip's opponent was following the shot to the net. All of this happened, of course, in a second, but later it seemed to Chip as if time had slowed almost to the point of stopping. He remembered moving to his right and realizing that he could get to the ball, but to do so would mean hitting it off the wrong leg, his right one, and then trying to scramble back to the middle of the court. He knew his knee wouldn't let him do it.
As he went for the ball, all sorts of things flashed through his mind. Or maybe they really didn't, maybe he had been thinking of this moment for a long time, because he had changed. The shot was close, right on the edge of the sideline, in fact, and Chip did the only thing he could, because he had been up this road before and back down, and now he was going up it for the last time. His father, and anyone else who played the game the way you had to play it, would understand. In a loud and clear voice, Chip yelled, "Out!"