“You will need luck to survive in Albania,” Nikos the personable manager of the Athens hostel I stayed in said to me as I left.
But I survived five days in Albania and felt little luck was involved. I probably could have have survived even longer. In my experience, the nation bears no resemblance to its reputation as a harsh, backward land of retrograde gangsters. Only in Albania, for example, when I stopped someone on the street to ask directions, did the person log onto their smart phone and consult a map. That happened several times. Once I boarded a local bus having only euros, which the conductor wouldn’t accept. Before I could even protest, a young woman sitting nearby paid my fare. I was embarrassed until she said, with a smile, “It’s only twenty cents.”
I even got to play a fair amount of tennis in Albania. Before leaving Greece I had googled “Albania tennis.” A single name popped up, one Genci Cakciri, a 30 year-old male with no ATP ranking who had won a total of $0 in prize money. Whether he still competed on the tour was unclear. It’s a country without much of a tennis tradition. But Albania was on the way to Italy, where I planned to spend a few days sight-seeing before heading to my next tournament in Klosters, Switzerland. What did I have to lose?
My guidebook recommended Freddy’s Hostel in Tirana, whose website stated: “You might be fortunate enough to have a power outage for a true Albanian experience!” I immediately booked a room. Why not stay in accommodations run by someone with a sense of humor? Like most ironists, Freddy turned out to be a rather dour fellow who never smiled. But he was helpful enough, spoke fluent English and his pleasant hostel was situated conveniently in central Tirana. On my first day’s wandering, I discovered the luxurious Rogner Hotel Europapark, which has one tennis court. The surface was a tacky synthetic grass but it would do. I arranged a lesson for the next day.
Similarly, they had one instructor, an ebullient, dark-haired young woman with an infectious laugh named Elonia. She was a good player though far below the level of the pros at the Maleevas. But I knew what I needed to work on, so I used Elonia as a hitter. I asked her for no feedback and she provided none. Still I felt it was a productive session. During one rest period, I mentioned Genci Cakciri, the ATP tour´s winless Albanian. “Ah, Genci!” she exclaimed. They were friends, she said, though she hadn’t seen him recently. “He works at the other court,” she added.
I booked another lesson with Elonia for the next day. In the meantime, I explored Tirana, the country’s quirky capital. It’s a low-key city with the extremely wide boulevards typical of postwar Communist architecture and a lively bar-and-nightclub district called Biloku. Tirana is notable for what it lacks: autos are not prevalent and I saw not one American fast food restaurant. For Albanians fast food means spinach pies, cheese pies, and meat pies, which are sold in bakeries.
People had told me about another tennis court located near a lake in a park not far from downtown. The next morning I went in search of it. A sign indicated the direction to an “artificial lake,” and soon a large lake came into view. Next to it was a tennis court far more impressive than I expected: a fenced-in, well-tended red-clay court with a stone bench for spectators, lights for night play, even an umpire’s chair. Outside the court were three flagpoles flying the Albanian, EU, and American flags. This remote place situated in a woodsy park was obviously intended as a feature court. The attendant was Isa, a fireplug of a man in his late 40s with longish blonde hair and a ruddy complexion. He referred to himself in his limited English as “professor of tennis.” Nearby was a two-story cottage with wash hanging on the railing. So he lived here too. He said he charged 1,000 Albanian lek or around 7 euros. How could I go wrong? Wearing his backwards baseball cap he at least looked like a real player.
He wasn’t. But he worked for his money, chasing down my shots as best he could. I felt that I got my money´s worth.
I hoped for more as I moved on to Naples, Italy and another hostel. The next morning at breakfast I fell into conversation with an older, bony Brit who said he worked on the city’s outskirts. He mentioned there were tennis courts nearby. A non-tennis player, he didn’t know what surface they were or if they were public or private, only that he’d seen them.
Half an hour later I was standing in front of the venerable Naples Tennis Club. A nameplate identified it as founded in 1905. Clearly it was a private club. I was unsure what to do. But when the gate opened automatically to allow a car to enter I walked in. Immediately I was put in mind of Forest Hills. It wasn’t nearly as large as The West Side Club—only six courts—but it had the same leafy elegance. Several employees were sitting on the clubhouse steps waiting for the eight o’clock opening. As I strolled the grounds, workers passed me by without comment, so I felt more comfortable. I was beginning to like the relaxed European attitude towards trespassing. I noticed that the clubhouse door was open and went inside. It was furnished in a plush, tasteful, understated style. Trophies and plaques filled several large glass cases. More hardware sat on the ledge running along one long wall. The large window looked out onto the shimmering Bay of Naples.
Outside two older guys had taken a court and were warming up at mid-court with little tennis. I walked back to the main building and discovered that the office was now open.
I was let in by a friendly twenty-something woman. This was Adda. She had long flaxen hair, a perfect tan, and a wonderful smile. I told her that I was traveling the senior tennis circuit and writing about my experience. She said she had visited New York City several years ago, staying on “Lexington Street” and loved it. I asked her if there was a “coach” that I could hit with. She excused herself to make a phone call while I waited in the office. A flyer on a desk advertised the upcoming Davis Cup tie between Italy and Chile, to be played on these courts. Adda soon returned with an espresso and croissant for me but bad news. No one was available today; this time of year many locals are away on holiday.
“Would it be possible for me to use a court for a little while to practice my serve?” I asked.
No, she said, it’s a private club, she couldn’t allow it. I said that I understood. But then she relented.
“Is okay,” she said, flashing that dazzling smile.
I offered to pay but she brushed it aside. I thanked her and went outside and over to the show court (it was the one furthest from the office), wondering what the odds would be against this happening at Forest Hills. Millions to one or billions? I hit my hundred serves, then carefully brushed the court. I bid Adda goodbye, wishing there was some way I could repay her.
From Naples I went to Rome, where one morning, armed with a list of the city’s tennis facilities, I found my way to the Tennis Club Garden, which is as pretty as its name suggests. The Rome Open, I learned, an important lead up to the French Open, is held here. Its ten clay courts are open to the public for a reasonable feem although there’s no staff pro. I walked around the grounds searching for a stray player to hit with but saw none. Then I set a plastic lawn chair beside the court where a pair of 4.5 women were playing and watched. One of them smiled at me in what I hoped was a prelude to an invitation to hit with them. It wasn’t. Still it was pleasant sitting in the shade watching good women players, though I left disappointed at once again not getting to play.
Leaving Rome I decided to go to Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower—a serious tactical error, since it turned out there was no direct way to get from there to Davos, Switzerland, near the site of my next tournament and where I had a hotel reservation. So began a series of five bus and train rides over a period of nearly 24 hours, plus a sleepless night in the Milan train station. The Klosters Tennis Open was scheduled to start in two days, though as usual no tournament official had contacted me regarding the time of my match. I checked into the hotel hoping that after a day of rest I’d be ready to play my best.