The delightful weather followed me from Germany into the Czech Republic and then to southern Poland, where my next tournament was scheduled for the town of Bytom. The nearest city is Katowice, a gritty, likeable working-class city with a population of around 300,000. Pope John Paul II first rose to prominence in this area as the archbishop of nearby Krakow.
I had stopped for a few days of sightseeing in charming Prague. But it was there that I received incorrect information via the Internet concerning the bus schedule to Katowice; when I got to the station I learned the route had been discontinued. The alternative bus left the next morning and went instead to Krakow. So I arrived in Katowice late for the tournament. From now on, I vowed, I wouldn’t cut it so close with my travel scheduling. The next afternoon I rode the tram to Bytom hoping to somehow talk my way back into the event. But what could they do—rescind my opponent’s first round walkover win? By now he might have already played his second round match.
The Klub Sportowy Gornik was another surprisingly professional-looking facility where you wouldn’t expect one: a poorly maintained public park with a tall piney woods overlooking the eight clay courts. I sat on the veranda next to the feature court and watched the match being played. I became curious about the player I had taken a dislike to and examined the draw sheet and discovered he was the number one seed in the men’s 60s. He was a moonballer, every player’s nightmare; a tall, flabby guy with a full head of black wavy hair and a Howdy Doody face. He also grumbled incessantly, both to himself and to his stolid opponent. He seemed like bad news in any language.
I found Berta, the tournament director, in her cubbyhole of an office. She was an attractive, blonde, simpatico sort of woman who spoke passable English. She apologized for what had happened but said there was nothing she could do. But did I want to play in the doubles, either men’s or mixed? They would try to find me a partner. I’d been reluctant to sign up for doubles because of possible language difficulties. But now I decided that any tennis was better than no tennis. I left the place feeling they would find someone for me and that I would play tomorrow. After all, to them it was money.
When I got to the the courts the next afternoon I was introduced to Stanislas, my partner in the men’s 50s doubles. He was a compactly built fellow with thinning blonde hair, probably a few years my junior.
“Backhand or forehand?” he asked me.
“Backhand,” I replied.
Those words of his, I would soon learn, nearly exhausted his knowledge of English. My Polish vocabulary also consisted of two words–prosze (please) and dzekuje (thank you)—so I was in no position to criticize. And the above exchange was our most effective communication of the afternoon.
But as I had been learning, some tennis terms seem to be universal, among them “out,” “net,” “double fault,” “seed,” and “mixed.” This tournament was another lower- grade event and a relaxed attitude toward the rules prevailed. With no chair umpire, foot faults abounded. When Stanislas caught an “out” ball instead of letting it bounce, no one objected. And the match was deep into the second set when one of us noticed the singles sticks were in place; we’d played all that time with the net at an incorrect height.
Our lack of communication began early. It was only when a game reached deuce, for example, that I was informed we were playing no-ad scoring. Stanislas, without a word to me, took it upon himself to be the returner. Which he did on every subsequent deuce point. Wanting to be deferential in the unfamiliar surroundings and handicapped by the language barrier, I said nothing. When I tried to poach and missed a makeable volley, Stanislas let loose an utterance that sounded like “Meeeeyaaigh!” and which I translated as “Mine!” After that I stopped poaching. My decision might’ve cost us the match, as our opponents hit many crosscourt floaters that I probably could have volleyed for winners. We lost in a third set super tiebreak. We were playing standard one-up one-back recreational doubles. When he was at the net, on the other hand, he often crossed the center line to hit a volley. But he would fail to cross all the way, leaving me in no-man’s land unsure which side to cover. We lost several points in that manner. And once I slipped and fell, getting covered with Polish red clay.
I attributed much of Stanislas’ behavior to his unfamiliarity with English. Perhaps he was selfish or felt he was a better player than I. But I earned my share of “Bravos” from him too. There were no hard feelings between us.
Afterwards Berta said she hoped I enjoyed the match. I told her I did. Then she handed me a small plastic bag. Inside were a pair of Polish grooming products; a shampoo and conditioner. It seemed an odd choice, even assuming the club had no more tee shirts. Why not a bottle of the vaunted local vodka?