When I consider this four-plus month tennis odyssey I’ve embarked on, I tend to divide it into four separate trips of roughly one month each: the Balkans; central Europe; nations of the former Soviet Union; and the Mediterranean triumvirate of France, Spain, and Portugal. The third leg was the one I was most apprehensive about, knowing little about the region and worried that few people would speak English..
Now I was headed for the Ukraine, where my next tournament would be on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea resort town of Sudak. I spent a couple of relaxing days in L’vov, an elegant city in the country’s more westernized area; it had been a major Polish and Jewish cultural center before being annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II. From there I rode an all-day train southbound through endless plains and wheat fields punctuated by the occasional nondescript village. The heart of the Ukraine is the most boring landscape imaginable.
Sudak, unlike its more well-known neighbor resort Yalta, is primitive and tacky. Most of the streets are unpaved. Though the seashore is set pleasingly in a cove between two rocky peaks, the beach itself is narrow and gravelly. Instead of a boardwalk there is a concrete walkway marred with cracks and crevices. The commercial strip is pure honky tonk. Nevertheless the place was extremely popular; sunbathers flocked there early in the morning and most stayed until dusk. My own enjoyment of the beach is limited to a quiet morning or evening stroll. But no matter what time I arrived it was thronged. Both residents and tourists speak primarily Russian rather than Ukrainian, and English is not much heard. The Crimea’s many Black Sea resorts are Russians’ prime summer vacation destination.
The tournament venue, TRC Sudak, was around a 30-minute walk from my hotel. It actually belonged to one of two gated, well-landscaped sanitoriums which are set back from the strip. Both sanitoriums had several red-clay tennis courts open to the public. As best I could determine these were the town`s only tennis courts. One facility was said to be for Ukrainian police officers and the other for Ukrainian military personnel.
The pre-tournament registration inexplicably took several hours. Afterwards I hung around on the veranda overlooking the courts and watched the locals play. I fell into conversation with a tall distinguished-looking fellow around my age who was also entered in the event. This was Vladimir, who said he lived in Moscow. When I expressed surprise, he told me that probably one-third of the participants were from Russia’s capital. Many drove the twenty hours to get here. It sounded crazy. Would I drive from Manhattan to Florida just to play in a tennis tournament? Well, I had traveled much further than that. Vladimir had visited the New York area recently to see his daughter, who was attending Fairleigh Dickinson University on a full tennis scholarship.
“She must be a good player,” I said.
“We spend twice on her lessons what college gives us,” he replied with a smile.
We were silent for awhile watching a spirited singles tilt on the near court. Vladimir gestured to one of the players whom I’d pegged as a scrapper, and said they played a match not long ago.
“I won,” he said, “but he drank my blood.”
I nodded in sympathy. I’d had my blood drunk numerous times over the years by those kind of guys. The next day I arrived early for my scheduled 11 o’clock match and explored the grounds. There were six well-maintained clay courts but the facility was low key, with none of the advertising and sponsors’ logos prevalent at my previous tournaments. Next to the far courts stood three netless ping pong tables; one of them had been converted into a chessboard. The pieces looked like a collection of custom-made salt and pepper shakers.
A heavyset man who had been standing with his family approached me and extended his hand. He wore a long undershirt that reached to mid-thigh and concealed a skimpy bathing suit. Apparently this was my first round opponent Gennadi. As “the American” at these tournaments, I’d gotten used to people knowing who I was. Gennadi looked more like a wrestler than a tennis player, with a gut that was one holiday platter of pierogies away from embarrassing. But if I felt a twinge of overconfidence, the way I’d been playing recently scotched it.
When it came time for our match, Gennadi’s family trooped out to the court with us and seated themselves on the parapet just behind the players’ bench. A chair umpire, a pretty teenage girl, was overseeing the adjacent court with responsibility for both matches, but I felt that I’d wandered into the lion’s den.
After he’d changed into a stylish tennis outfit, Gennadi looked considerably more like a tennis player. And played like one. He proved to have a strong forehand, respectable serve, moved well enough and was tireless. Plus he had his own cheering section. When I briefly questioned his “out” call on a serve, his son dashed onto the court and pointed out the mark for me. I protested to the chair umpire and she admonished him, but my problem with the hometown officiating was just beginning.
In the second set there were two disputes and both rulings went against me. In one Gennadi and I disagreed about the score after playing only two points. The umpire ruled we must start the game over instead of going back to the last agreed-upon point, which I had won. In the other, I called a shot of Gennadi`s out and circled the ball mark. But she gave equal credence to his opinion as to the correct mark, saying we must play the point again. Both times I grew frustrated at being unable to make myself understood and gave in. After the second incident I pretty much went straight downhill.
I lost a close, hard-fought match. The umpire’s bad decisions aside, I had only myself to blame. If not for my double faults I would’ve won easily.
The next afternoon I went back to the courts and watched as Gennadi lost in straight sets to the number one seed, a guy who wasn’t that good. I was kicking myself because I missed a chance to advance deep into the tournament. Still, nothing to do but suck it up and move on. Next stop: Batumi, Georgia. Maybe I’ll have better luck on the other side of the Black Sea.