I think many of us in Youngstown grew up dreaming of being sports heroes. A pro football running back. A major league pitcher (I did have dreams of becoming the next Sam McDowell at one time). A boxer. And not a few Youngstowners went on to become those heroes. George Shuba, Dave Dravecky, Ray Mancini, Kelly Pavlick, and Matt Cavanaugh, just to name a few, as well as legendary coaching families like the Stoops or the Pelinis. And I know a number of you could add to the list–it’s a long list!
I wasn’t big enough for football. Couldn’t hit well enough for baseball. But for a while I had dreams of tennis fame. It all started out at the tennis courts at Borts Field. In the beginning I was borrowing a racket and knocking the ball around with some friends, both guys and girls. Borts had two courts. One was concrete. The other was clay. Not groomed clay. Rough clay. Balls would take all kinds of crazy bounces that would keep you on your toes. Sometimes, that’s where you played if the court was occupied.
I had some friends who played on the Chaney tennis team, and in retrospect, I think they used me to train on! I played the most with Tom, who introduced me to the tennis coach, Mr. Wendle. He taught me how to hold a racket, and how to come over a ball on a forehand or backhand stroke to give it spin, which often kept it in the court and made it harder to hit. I played with Tom a lot, either at Rocky Ridge, or at the courts at Volney Rogers park. I always loved those because the trees provided some shade.
The tennis dreams started when I began beating Tom, and some of the other guys on the team. Not all the time, but enough that it made me think I could be good at this game. It was suggested I try out for the team. For a while, I’d read everything I could get my hands on by tennis pros. I’d religiously watch the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and dream of being Rod Laver or John Newcombe, who seemed to be the big tennis names until Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe came along. I paid attention to strategy, and when did you lob, or try a drop shot. I worked on my serves and tried for a smoking first serve, a twisting, hard to get to second serve.
All this was back in the days of wood rackets like those in the picture. Some of the pros were just starting to use aluminum alloy rackets. There was still a debate then of which was better and how the ball came off the rackets differently. In the end, the light weight composites won out and our wood rackets became antiques.
Actually, my tennis dreams got relegated to the closet long before the wood rackets. College dreams meant getting a job and working rather than playing on the tennis team. While I had those moments on the court where I surprised myself, the reality is that I was a bit flat-footed and not that quick on my feet. The stars started playing ten years before I did, and were coached by pros for much of that time. Still, I wonder. I came across a Vindicator article about Mr. Wendle and discovered his teams were undefeated in City Series play from 1965 to 1981. I was at Chaney from 1970-72. Maybe I wasn’t that bad. I’ll never know.
For a while, tennis was something I continued to play for fun. When I was dating my wife, she lived across from Ipes Field, and we would go over to their courts and play sometimes. After marriage, with busy work schedules, I played less frequently, and realized that the tennis player I remembered in my head wasn’t the guy on the court. Eventually, the rackets gathered dust in the closet. My wife said she was keeping them for a decoration.
For some reason we’re still keeping them for a decoration. Today, that is the extent of my tennis dreams. Except for the memories of the exciting rally, the impossible shot, or winning a hard fought, back and forth match. Those are the only tennis dreams I have these days.