When I began this second phase of my Around the World Tennis Adventure I planned to start by playing in tournaments in Bangkok and Tel Aviv. But though I went to both cities I didn’t get to play much in either place, for various reasons. My next tournament was in Punte del Este Uruguay, but I had time to kill and decided to visit Buenos Aires, Argentina´s cosmopolitan capital. However its tennis clubs are private and either don´t allow non-members to play or are prohibitively expensive. One gorgeous Sunday afternoon I went to four different red clay facilities in the same park in upscale Palermo and came away without stepping onto a court. Two of the clubs were private-only and the other two (one of them owned by Guillermo Vilas) wanted around US$200 for one hour. I did find another facility not far from my hotel in funky San Telmo barrio that was recommended by an overweight policeman, but it turned out to be situated beneath a highway overpass, poorly lit and had a ceiling almost low enough to touch. No wonder nobody was playing there. I couldn´t even tell if the place was indoors or outdoors. The upshot is that I didn´t play tennis once during my two weeks in Buenos Aires. Which meant I had plenty of time for other activities. I went to museums, dined well in restaurants, attended a polo match and visited a nearby community located on a canal where every town service, even the sanitation, must be done by boat.
So I left for Uruguay a few days earlier than I planned, wanting to get in some practice time at the tournament site in Punte del Este. It´s a three-hour ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo and then two hours by bus to Punte, a small city with great beaches and not much else. Even after being in Israel I was astonished at the prices, such as $12 (that´s not a misprint) for a McDonald´s-style hamburger. My first day the weather was dismal but in the afternoon I decided to check out the courts anyway, which were only a short collectivo ride from my hotel. Since beginning this project last year, I´ve gotten accustomed to beautiful tennis clubs and The Tennis Ranch was no exception: It´s in a sylvan setting on a gentle rise with an inviting swimming pool and a restaurant deck overlooking the expanse of red clay courts.
There seemed to be only two other people on the entire grounds: Lourdes the pretty restaurant manager, who was getting ready to close up shop at three pm and a smiling middle-aged attendant who seemed to run the place. She spoke not a syllable of English and over the next few days I would greet her as “El Jefe.”
As Lourdes and I were chatting on the veranda, we were joined by another tennis player, who had shown up for the same reason I did; we had nothing better to do. Doug´s a Canadian who now lives in Florida and spends part of the year in Buenos Aires with his Argentine wife. If you didn´t know that Doug was a commercial airline pilot, it would take you at least two seconds to guess it. He´s lean and handsome with well-coiffed blonde hair and a weathered all-American look. Actually Doug is a retired airline pilot and full-time tennis bum. As we chatted (about tennis-what else?), we discovered we had an acquaintance in common: Brian Squire, the former “Prince of Central Park,” whom Doug had competed against in Florida and I had played years ago in a Riverside Park 45s. Doug is ranked 88 in the world in the men´s 70s and had played this tournament last year, winning the singles. He considered it one of the most disorganized events he´s played in, an opinion I was coming to share. On the day before the tournament was scheduled to begin neither of us had even been contacted by anyone concerning our start time..
When the drizzle finally stopped Doug and I headed down to the courts. Miraculously the court was perfectly playable, as if it hadn´t rained at all. We hit for an hour, the only two people nutty enough to be out there, and it was great. When you get to play when you weren´t expecting to, it makes the experience sweeter. Over the next few days we had several more good sessions.
As two footloose English-speakers alone in Punte we took to spending time together. Doug would drive me around the area in his rental Lexus, showing me what passed for the sights: Punte´s beautiful seashore which attracts well-heeled vacationers from around the world.
I had to admit Doug is more serious about his tennis than I am. Maybe that´s why he wins tournaments while I get eliminated in the first round. He said he uses his two racquets on alternate days to ensure that their tension remains the same. That´s something I don´t even consider. I just keep using one racquet until the strings break, so as not to have them both broken at the same time.
Doug also told me of a practice neither of us was familiar with. A contingent of Chilean players who had flown up from Santiago for the tournament were staying at the same hotel as he. In talking to them Doug learned that guys pay former touring pros to partner them in doubles. The going rate was five hundred dollars. At least that´s what Jaime Pinto Bravo, a pro for many years in the Sixties who once defeated Ilie Nastase, had charged a countryman. As the saying goes, we were shocked but not surprised. I´ve known recreational players who would sell their mother into slavery for a chance at tennis glory.
“Wait´ll the poor guy finds out they don´t even give you a trophy here,” Doug said chuckling.
The event never did get better organized. Trying to get any information from the tournament director was like pulling teeth. They didn´t even provide the complimentary sponsor´s t-shirt that every other tournament routinely provides. In fairness they did throw us a nice cocktail party one evening with plenty of the beef which this part of the world is justly famous for, grilled as only they can do it.
Oh, yes, my match. I lost again, this time to an Argentine guy whom I felt I absolutely, positively should have beaten. What else is new?