Rallying in Middle Age

A tennis neophyte chucked his career to try to make it onto the pro tour. He's still trying
October 18, 1992

My friend Jerry Friedman is 45 years old. He is a good citizen who until recently had no history of dreamy gambles or starry-eyed folly. He has been married to his college sweetheart for 21 years; his two kids, Zoe, 18, and Zach, 14, are doing well in school; and he's a big-time photographer and television-commercial director in New York City. Jerry's professional specialty is food and liquor. You name it, he has shot it, and you've probably seen his ads in magazines and on TV. He's an artist with a product, a man who can make chuck steak look like filet mignon. And the work has paid him very handsomely.

Jerry has stayed in shape over the years, too, working out in a gym, cross-country skiing, and playing a little ice hockey with his kids on winter weekends. Jerry is six feet, 155 pounds—almost exactly what he weighed when I first met him at Bard College, where he starred as a fast right wing on the soccer team.

He is very normal, we all thought. So when he shut down his studio in December 1990 to pursue a career on the pro tennis tour, we were all a little taken aback. When he quietly announced that he was abandoning his business to become a pro tennis player—on the tour, no less—the word among his friends was that here was a man in dire need of psychiatric care. "I'm giving myself a year and a half to make it," Jerry said.

His wife, Diana, called him "wacky." Zoe said that her father was "nuts, absolutely nuts. He has gone crazy." Diana told my wife, Claire, "If it's his mid-life crisis, at least he's not out chasing 20-year-old models."

In a lot of ways the new quixotic Jerry seemed like the old Jerry. He was still home every night; he was just doing something different during the day. He started getting up at 5:30 every morning to stretch for 20 minutes before heading off to the indoor courts at Stadium Tennis in the Bronx for three hours of drills and lessons with a young teaching pro named David Gilbert. He gave up coffee, went on a high carbohydrate diet, began drinking fruit juice by the quart, ran wind sprints and lifted weights in the late afternoons and studied videotapes of tennis matches at night.

But at the tennis club in Manhattan where Jerry and I sometimes play, he took a lot of heat. "You'll get bored and quit in a month," this big-shot corporate lawyer told him when a bunch of us were hanging around on the patio. After Jerry went off alone to a court with a basket of balls to practice his serve, the lawyer said snidely, "He ought to save the time and effort, call someone like Connors and see if he can buy a fantasy weekend. It'll be cheaper."

The lawyer was right about that. Gilbert, 23, a former player for Tulane, is a nice guy, but he wasn't donating the 15 hours of lessons a week to Jerry, and nobody was sending Jerry free rackets, sneakers or strings. Still, the way I looked at it, Jerry had started in the photo business by sweeping floors as a studio apprentice and had worked 12 hours a day to get to the top of his field. Now that he was well off and his family was provided for, why not let him spend his time and his nickel as he wished?

But another guy at the tennis club, Bernard, did voice a particularly brutal truth. "Let's put age aside for a minute," he told Jerry. "I don't care what kind of shape you're in; you can't play."

That was not an exaggeration. I could easily beat Jerry. And if I could beat him, imagine what the hundreds, thousands, of kids who had been playing since they were six would do to him. Jerry's response to this observation: "I don't care what anybody says, I'm doing it."

I've got to confess that I'm partly responsible for Jerry's venture. One day in the fall of 1989 he was beefing about how the recession was killing the advertising business and how work had slowed down for him. I persuaded him to come along with me to Harry Hopman's tennis facility near Tampa for 10 days. "Take up tennis," I said. "It's something you can do to unwind, and you can play until you're 80." I swear, that's all I told him.

I warned him that Hopman's was a nofrills experience. It is five hours a day of running, hitting forehands and backhands down the line and crosscourt, smashing overhead after overhead and retrieving drop shot after drop shot until you're ready to drop. "So you start out with a crash course," I said. "Come on down." As I said, work was slow, so he did.

The Hopman teaching pros put him in the beginners group, in which they work you almost as hard as they do in any other group, and Jerry loved it. But even he can't explain exactly what sucked him into the game. If he had visions of glory, of holding a trophy aloft while thousands cheered, he didn't tell me, Suffice to say that Hopman's was different from his studio, where the silent subjects of his attention never moved, except occasionally on or off a platter.

By the time we got back to New York City, Jerry was hooked and looking to play at every opportunity. It was several months later, right before Christmas 1990, after several ad agencies had been forced to cancel assignments because of the recession, that Jerry closed up shop. He was tired of the business anyway, he said, recalling the day when a fickle client insisted that he and his assistants pick through 2,000 hamburger buns to find the one that was just right for a commercial, "It's not like I've been making Citizen Kane or Apocalypse Now," he said. Then he changed the message on his answering machine to "I'm off playing tennis."

The first day of his new life, Jerry told Gilbert of his ambition and asked for his help. Gilbert raised an eyebrow, wheeled out a shopping cart full of balls and said, "O.K., let's see what you can do."

It wasn't much. Jerry was ferocious and not particularly awkward, but he hit more balls out than in. Gilbert told Jerry straightaway that the pro tour was an absolute impossibility. Six months into his training, though, Jerry was hitting topspin off both sides, his double faults were down, and he was developing a second serve that had a nice twist to it. However, when he started to play some casual matches, instead of trouncing the local hackers, he had mental lapses and blew sets in which he had held commanding leads. He double-faulted in tiebreakers and overhit easy putaways.

But Jerry was learning. He added a slice backhand to his repertoire of shots, and he started beating some decent club-level players. He could handle the dread junk-ballers now, and the stare he developed for opponents who cheated him on line calls seemed to be effective in discouraging further attempts at deception.

At the same time, his wife and kids and those close to him began to accept the new Jerry. He looked great, and he actually got home earlier than he had when he was working at the studio. "I gotta admit he's got guts," said Bernard. However Diana confided to me that because Jerry was so intent on making it, she was afraid of what would happen if he failed.

In January '92 Jerry entered an Eastern Tennis Association-sanctioned event at Stadium Tennis and lost 6-1, 6-1 in the first round. A few weeks later, at another tournament at Stadium Tennis, he tried again and got waxed love and love by an 18-year-old college player.

Nevertheless, Jerry refused to lower his sights. After another series of first-round losses in local tournaments, he decided the time had come to make another push. His deadline was only four months away. "I'm going back to Hopman's for at least six weeks," he said. He would drive down, stay in a small condo and concoct his own training meals.

Diana had reached her limit. At least for the last year, Jerry had been home every night. This was taking things too far. "There comes a point when you've got to figure out what you want to do with your life," she told him.

Jerry said tennis was what he wanted to do, and he reminded her that she had gone off to Europe with her sister for a month the year before. Finally Diana softened, but she warned him. "You better be back in time for Zoe's graduation."

It was at this point that I butted in again, telling Jerry he ought to stop off in Baltimore on the way to Tampa, to spend a couple of days with Steve Krulevitz, a 41-year-old veteran of the tour who had played in the U.S. Open 11 times and at Wimbledon nine times. Krulevitz, whom I know through a friend, was once ranked 42nd in the world and now coaches other pro players. So Jerry called him, and Krulevitz agreed to see him.

A maniac for fitness and mental preparation, Krulevitz added yoga, vitamins, sports psychology and concentration exercises to Jerry's daily regimen. He also fiddled with his grip, put him on a strict organic diet and showed him extensive footwork drills. By the time Jerry arrived at Hopman's, he was jumping rope every morning and eating breakfasts of egg whites, oranges, plain toast and water.

This time at Hopman's, Jerry was placed in the most-advanced group. "Nobody can believe I'm going to stick this out six weeks," he told me on the phone soon after he arrived. Then, in response to a question from me, he said, "No, no, I haven't told anybody I want to play on the tour."

By his second week there, despite marked improvement, Jerry began to miss his family and friends. He spent the evenings alone, cooking his rice and beans and baked potato for dinner in the kitchenette of his condo and then falling asleep by 9:30. "It's worth it," Jerry said. "Definitely worth it."

When he pulled a groin muscle and had to sit out for a couple of days, he didn't complain. Later he hurt a knee and lost two more days. "Part of the game," he said.

After three weeks at Hopman's, Jerry challenged Hopman teaching pro Jim Gray, who played No. 1 at Purdue in the late '80s, to a match. "You get a case of beer if you win a game," said Gray. "Beer for life if you take a set." Jerry was not to get so much as a sip. Love and love, in 40 minutes.

"I know, I'm not mentally tough, that's it," Jerry told me on the phone. "You can't dwell on the negative; you've got to cheer yourself on. Desire isn't enough, fitness isn't enough, strength isn't enough. I gotta say, I take my hat off to anybody who survives on the circuit." Jerry survived all six weeks at Hopman's.

When he got back to New York, he looked like an iron man on the court. He was pumping out first serves that must have hit 90 mph, and his ground strokes were finding the corners. After checking him out at the club, Bernard conceded, "He can beat me. No question."

I told Jerry the moment of truth was at hand: "You gotta deliver with a real win."

On June 12, at 6 p.m., Jerry showed up in Armonk, N.Y., for an Eastern Tennis Association tournament for players 40 and over. A good showing could put Jerry en route to an age-group ranking in the Eastern section of the USTA. It wouldn't be an ATP computer ranking, but it would do for now.

His opponent was Marc Stromberg, a 45-year-old pharmaceutical salesman from Rockville Centre, N.Y., the 15th-ranked 40-and-over player in the East. Stromberg is ambidextrous, hitting one-handed forehands from both sides and serving righthanded into the deuce court and lefthanded into the ad court. Flummoxed during the warmup by Stromberg's style, Jerry settled down after the match began. He went up 3-1, but his mind began to wander, and he blew his lead by overhitting. He dropped the first set 6-3. In the second set Jerry bore down and won the first four games. But then, for no apparent reason, something snapped and he began spraying balls again. Stromberg caught up, and Jerry lost quietly 6-3, 7-6.

"I had him, but I let him off the hook," Jerry said. "I was playing great, then suddenly I became aware of the spectators, the people on the next court. I just didn't know how to close it out."

I didn't see Jerry for about a week after that. I was busy, and he was occupied with Zoe's graduation and sending Zach off to camp. I figured he had had it, that he would settle for hacking around the club like the rest of us. After all, the recession couldn't last forever, and Jerry could open another studio and go back to his ads and commercials, his broccoli and hams.

"No way," Jerry told me. "I'm giving myself another year. I talked to Krulevitz—he's going to work with me. There's a satellite pro tour segment in Alabama that starts next April, and I'll be playing."

So my friend returned to training. On the patio at the club, the big-shot corporate lawyer practically knocked himself out laughing when he heard about Jerry's plan to keep training. "Hey, I told you guys," the lawyer said. "What a jerk. What a waste of time."

There was silence for a moment, and then Bernard shot the lawyer a hard look. "You wish you had what Jerry has," Bernard said.

"Oh yeah. What's that?" asked the big shot.

"Forget it," said Bernard. "You wouldn't understand."

On June 26, 18 months and one week after he closed his studio, Jerry Friedman defeated Ron Gelles 6-3, 6-2 in the first round of a small tournament in New York City. That night he went out and had a few belts.

THREE ILLUSTRATIONSTERRY WIDENER

William Sherman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in New York City.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)