With a week to kill before my next tournament in Barcelona, where better to kill it than France? I´d never been there before and for weeks had been excited about seeing Paris. I had no plans for tennis while there and, as it turned out, I probably couldn´t have played anyway; the weather was miserable. After three beautiful months, I was now paying for it. Still even in the rain Paris was as magnificent as advertised. From Paris I went to Marseille for two pleasant but tennis-less days and then rode a series of trains to Barcelona, yet another city I´d never seen.
Barcelona didn´t disappoint either. In most cities alleys are places to avoid. In Barcelona they are where life is lived. Barri Gotic, the downtown quarter where I stayed, is a warren of narrow streets whose stone buildings date from the Middle Ages. It´s not the only such neighborhood here. These exotic mazes are filled with a variety of shops and boutiques, bars and cafes, and are generally swarming with both tourists and locals.
Barcelona could serve as a model for successful urban planning. Most boulevards are super-wide with pedestrian malls in the middle and lined with tall plane trees. The city seems to have been laid out with as much concern for bicyclists and pedestrians as for motor vehicles. The red and yellow striped catalan flag, symbol of the province´s growing independence movement, is often seen draped from residential balconies.
The city of Barcelona is inseparable from the great Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, creator of numerous iconic structures here. His most famous work, the fabulous Sagrada Familia, is a church with eight towers that was begun in the 1880s and is still unfinished. Gaudi worked on it for over 20 years until his death in 1926. It is projected to have 18 towers when completed…in 2042. Gaudi’s whimsical buildings contribute to making Barcelona as distinctive as Paris or Venice.
On my first afternoon here, I went to the tournament venue to register. Club de Tenis Andres Gimeno is located in Castelldefels, an hour’s bus ride away. Andres Gimeno, a former French Open champion, founded the club in 1974. It´s a state-of-the-art sports complex with 24 red clay courts, as well as exercise classes, swimming pool, sauna and steam room. Castelldefels is not a suburb of Barcelona, as I´d assumed, but a city in its own right renowned for its beaches. Barcelonians, with many attractive beaches of their own, often go to Castelldefels for that purpose.
I met the tournament director, a short, gray-haired bundle of energy named Carmen. In such a modern-looking facility she operates out of a small free-standing log cabin next to the courts. I was poking around her office waiting to pay the entrants fee while Carmen examined her records. Gray T-shirts were piled everywhere. A brawny German was taping up his thigh and talking to Mike, the taciturn tournament referee. He glanced up at me.
“You are my opponent?” he asked.
“No, no, I am too old for you,” I replied, to general laughter.
I asked Carmen if I could schedule a session with a pro for the next morning. My ten days in France had been devoted to sightseeing, eating and drinking; I hadn´t picked up a racquet in almost two weeks and was itching to hit some balls. I suggested eight o´clock.
“Oh, that is too early for Spanish people,” she said, sounding horrified.
I settled for nine. Next morning I understood what Carmen meant. At seven when I left the hostel for the trek to the bus stop the sky was still pitch black. By seven thirty there was only the faintest glimmer of light. Prostitutes were strolling on La Rambla, Barcelona´s elegant main thoroughfare. Last evening when I explored the area I hadn´t seen any.
The pro I was an athletic-looking older guy named Antonio. He was less conversant in English than anyone I´d encountered in Barcelona so far. He provided lots of feedback, but all of it in Spanish. Especially the word “cuerpo.” I interpreted his comments to mean that I should get my body more into my shots.
After my lesson I went into the clubhouse and was immediately importuned by three older fellows who needed a fourth for doubles. It took me awhile to realize they meant a fun match and we weren’t about to compete in the mens 50s doubles. And we played three competitive fun sets. Afterwards I chatted with Manlio, the only one of them who spoke much English. He´s a slightly-built Italian and a very polished player. He told me he´s ranked 92 in the world in the 65s and journeyed here just for this tournament. He´d played in eleven of these ITF tournaments so far this year in Europe. I mentioned the grade 1 Klosters Switzerland event in which I lost badly to the Italian Marcello. The name didn´t register with him but Manlio had avoided that one.
“I only play where I feel I have chance to win,” he said grinning.
From what I´d seen he had a legitimate chance to win this one. As for me, I was hoping to notch my first match win. This event was a grade 4, like the ones in Sarajevo and Arad Romania where I had performed respectably. With a favorable first round match-up, maybe I could succeed.
The depressing weather had followed me from France. It was chilly and damp with just enough rain to make the courts unplayable for two days. On one of those afternoons, not wanting to pester Carmen with my calls concerning the court conditions, I grabbed my racquets and rode the bus to Castelldefels. I didn´t mind the wasted trip. I practiced my Spanish with the receptionists and examined the draw sheet posted in the lobby. One German was entered, I noted, the number one seed in the mens 40s; I had thought the guy too muscular to be a good player. The others were all Spaniards, except for a contingent from, of all places, Lithuania. As usual I was the only American.
Finally the skies cleared and the tournament got back on track. Alas, my first round opponent turned out to be another ringer, a dashing Spaniard with a solid all-around game. I played well but felt I was battling uphill the whole way. In one game he hit three consecutive serves in the deuce court that struck the back line of the service box. I never saw anything like it. Two of them bounced over my head and the third skidded along the ground. All three were unreturnable. Around then I realized that it might not be my day.
And it wasn’t. I lost again. So I would be returning home next week without a legitimate match win to show for my efforts. I had been victimized by some bad luck and lost a few close matches. Being on the road for eighteen weeks, far longer than I’d ever been before, had tested my resilience. Barcelona marked the mid-point in my Around the World Tennis Adventure. I would take some time off and then resume in February with tournaments in Asia and South America. The book that I planned to write about my experiences was beginning to take shape in my mind. Meanwhile I saw that my game needed some tweaking if I expected to compete with the top players. I was eager to get to work.
If you’d like to follow in Richard’s footsteps and play international tennis tournaments, check out the calendar to ITF tournaments.