I headed to Cologne, Germany, the city nearest the town of Bad Breisig, where my next senior tournament would be held. At the Klosters train station I expected to be embarking on a succession of trains and buses, such as I’d experienced getting here from central Italy. But the agent said the train would arrive in Cologne in only five hours. Without realizing it I had purchased a ticket for the bullet train; two hundred thirty US dollars had sounded rather steep. But it was fun standing in the rear of the car and watching the numbers on the odometer increase ever higher; our speeds reached almost 300 kilometers per hour.
In Germany for the first time during my six weeks in Europe the weather was seasonal. In the morning I wrote out a list from the Internet of the area’s tennis facilities and asked the hostel’s receptionist which one was nearest. Then I set out to try to find it. Bernd Schelling’s Tennislage turned out to be twenty minutes away on the efficient tram. It was situated on the edge of a clearing in a woodsy park. Its rustic setting gave it the feel of a campground as much as a tennis facility.
Schelling himself is a tall, genial Boris Becker look-alike who speaks fluent English. The titles proprietor and manager only hint at his responsibilities. Schelling is the waiter, bartender, cook, barista, dishwasher, and busboy; he also maintains the courts, handles the reservations, strings racquets, sells tennis gear and occasionally gives lessons. He arranges matches too. Which is what he did for me when I asked if he knew anyone who needed a hitting partner. His is a private club with around four hundred members. In Germany the outdoor tennis season runs from April through October and during this period Schelling works 16-hour days seven days a week. When I asked him what he does in the off-season he only chuckled. Rest, I assumed. His wife comes in and helps out in the evenings, he said, but it is primarily a one-man operation. Schelling’s father started the business in 1954 and Bernd took it over in 1982, adding several courts for a total of eight.
He made a phone call to his only American member, handed the phone to me and we made an appointment to hit the next morning. Jesse is an expatriate from North Carolina who had been stationed in the U.S. Army for five years in Germany and then stayed on. He’d lived in Germany most of his adult life. When I asked him if he knew any other Americans living in Cologne he had to think awhile and then said no. He keeps up with events in the States but has no desire to move back. Jesse and I had several relaxed hitting sessions. We were around the same level. He was amenable to my favorite form of practice: playing points without keeping score.
The TC Blau Weiss Bad Breisig tournament was a half-hour away from Cologne by train and one deep lob from the station. It was another professional-looking venue and on this Sunday afternoon, the first day of the tournament, a festive atmosphere prevailed. The place had a pretty layout and I walked around watching bits of some of the matches while waiting for my name to be called. I tried to initiate several conversations but no one seemed to speak much English. This tournament was graded a 2; I assumed that meant there would be top players, though perhaps not as many as at the grade 1 Klosters. None of the players I observed seemed as good as Marcello, my opponent there. The most compeling match involved a tall, very solid player and a short, scrappy one, who battled for every point as if his life depended on it. They were either 50s or 55s. It was an object lesson in how desire can compensate for a deficit of ability . I hoped that I could put up such a good fight against a superior opponent.
My opponent was Klaus, a sturdily-built, bespectacled lefty. We began rallying from the backcourt and I felt that I had never been on the receiving end of such hard-hit forehands. If he was trying to dent my confidence he succeeded. And we were on the feature court in front of a fair-sized crowd. Instead of a grandstand there was a long ridge rising above the courts where a row of white plastic deck chairs had been arranged for spectators. Other people were standing alongside our court’s low iron railing.
The match was almost identical to my debacle in Switzerland. I lost love and one, with one other game I probably could have won. Afterwards I trudged over to the large special events tent next to the reception area. It had a make-shift bar inside and it was apparently cocktail hour. I put down my things and stood by myself, feeling awkward in the unfamiliar surroundings and depressed about the match. Klaus wasn’t even one of the seeded players. Maybe I was just getting bad luck with the draws. I had thought that as a newly-turned 60 I might actually have an advantage. Klaus was the best player of any age I saw that day, possibly the best older player I’d ever faced and one of the best players period.
Klaus appeared in front of me holding two glasses of white wine. He offered one to me and we clinked glasses. We tried to make small talk but his English, though better than my German, was very limited. He told me he was from a nearby town whose name I didn’t catch. If I understood him correctly, he said he was ranked in the 700s in the men’s 60s. I hoped I had misunderstood him.
A couple of days later I logged on to the ITF’s website to check the tournament results. Klaus had lost in the second round in straight sets to the number three seed. But the website contained another surprising tidbit. Yours truly now has a ranking. According to ITF rules, any player who wins a match in a sanctioned tournament receives a ranking. I had been awarded two walkovers in earlier events in Sarajevo and Arad. Thus I am number 1,182 in the world. It raises the question: Is there anyone ranked 1,183?