||Net Name Dropping
By John Hinterberger
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I didn't catch his name when he introduced himself on the way to the tennis court and that became part of the problem. Later, in retrospect, I was glad I missed it.
Tennis is a game of imponderables that you can spend a lifetime pondering. For example, several years ago in a major tournament at Forest Hills, the great John Newcombe found himself down two sets to love to a lesser known, older European pro. A butterfly flew into the face of the European pro, whose name was Ulrich. Ulrich, who had been playing brilliantly, lost the next three sets and the match.
When asked afterward what had happened, he replied that he was suddenly and profoundly struck by the ancient Chinese essential problem posed by Chuang-tzu, who wasn't certain upon awakening from a dream, whether he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. You can enrich a lot of life that way - and lose a lot of tennis. But I digress. Maybe.
It was a brilliant, cloudless Saturday morning at Rusty Fenwick's court in Lake Forest Park. I mopped up a couple of puddles left over from an overnight shower. Fenwick was up changing and our partners for doubles: Molly Martin, a Times sports editor, and her friend, whom she described as "kind of a pro" hadn't arrived yet.
As I ran the sponge roller over the puddles, Fenwick's aristocratic standard poodles set up a ruckus in the driveway. They were howling at Molly's partner, a man with large, gentle eyes, cut-off sweat pants, a gray beard that bifurcated down over his chest and a Willy Nelson headband. I blinked. I called off the dogs.
"I'm Tobin," I thought he said.
I wondered what Fenwick would think. Rusty is somewhat conservative and has little use for middle-age hippies in general and on his property in particular.
We walked down to the court. "Why don't you and Molly warm up," Tobin said. "I have some things to do."
Molly and I began to hit. Tobin reached into a large bag and took out what looked like a giant billy club with a powerful spring in the middle. He flexed that for a while. As Fenwick was arriving, Tobin reached into the bag again and extracted a tennis racket that had the head sawed off.
Where the racket head should have been was a weight covered with a leather pad like an amputee's stump. On the sidelines of the court, he began a slow series of motions with the headless racket. My jaw dropped. Fenwick, carrying a towel to completely dry the last puddle, shot him a look of extreme suspicion.
I was relieved when Tobin finally walked onto the court. Unfortunately, he forgot to bring a racket with him. He stood next to Molly, with whom I was exchanging forehands, with empty hands.
I returned Molly's shot. Tobin took the racket from her hand, hit the ball back, and gave the racket back to Molly. As Fenwick, glowering with disbelief, mopped the puddle, we continued to warm up: three people with two rackets.
Rusty stood up and cleared his throat. "Would you like to borrow a racket?" he asked carefully.
"No, I have one," said Tobin. He went back to the sidelines and rummaged through his bag.
He took out a ball. And an umbrella. He began to bounce the ball vigorously. With the folded up umbrella. Fenwick regarded him pop-eyed.
Finally, Tobin took out a tennis racket (a real one) and joined Molly on the court. We warmed up for a few more minutes and began the match.
Fenwick stretched up his full 6-foot-8 and cracked a cannonball that hit me squarely in the back of the head. I staggered but didn't fall. It seemed to settle Fenwick down, however, and he began to play very well. Unfortunately so did Tobin and Molly. They beat us 6-zip.
We changed sides. Tobin hit dazzling returns and sharply angled volleys. His sliced serve would land and bounce 2 feet sideways. For the next two hours he - as the saying goes - cleaned our clock. As we shook hands and left the court, Fenwick leaned down and asked: "What did you say your last name was?"
"Ulrich," he said. "Torben Ulrich."
The world's record for the most number of Davis Cup matches played is 98. It was set between 1948 and 1968 by Torben Ulrich of Denmark.
I am going to play him again some day. I swear it. And I will bring my own umbrella. And a butterfly.