Did you ever play a match where you hit twenty winners and your opponent hit zero winners and you still lost? Neither had I until the first round of the Club de Tenis´Copa Santa Cruz when I encountered the opponent who will be known here as Miguel the Moonballer, a fellow I´ll doubtless be dreaming about for weeks. The match was yet another reminder for me, as if I needed one, on the importance of unforced errors. I did win a pair of consolations matches, but even if I hadn´t I still would´ve left Bolivia with some wonderful memories.
Before arriving in Santa Cruz, Bolivia`s second-largest city, I wasn`t sure what to expect. To me Bolivia is synonymous with mountains but Santa Cruz is in the Central lowlands and only slightly above sea level. It`s La Paz that`s in the Andes Cordillera and where, I was told, they drill holes in the tennis balls to prevent lobs from ending up in Peru. I´d arrived in Santa Cruz after an all-day bus ride from Cordoba Argentina. Cordoba, among its other charms, is David Nalbandian’s hometown, and I got in a few sessions with a “professor de tenis” (actually he fobbed me off on his teenaged son hitter) at a private club located in a beautiful park not far from my hotel. They even waived their court fee for me after I mentioned I would only be there several days.
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world but you´d never know it from the Club de Tenis. It has twenty-plus well- maintained red clay courts, but that´s just the start of its attractions. All the courts are equipped with floodlights for night play as well as thatched roof gazebos for the players´seating pleasure. The extensive grounds included several large swimming pools, a sauna, gym, handball courts, a medical facility and more. On the slope fronting the courts there´s even topiary shaped like a tennis racquet. Of all the clubs I´d been to so far on this trip, this was the most impressive, as sumptuous as anything this side of Beverly Hills. As is generally true of such facilities, the employees seemingly outnumbered the members. Was I really in Bolivia?
Over the next few days I met many of the members including Ramiro Benavides, The Grand Old Man of Bolivian Tennis, who played on the pro tour in the 1960s. He´s an elfin fellow and down-to-earth to a fault.
“You´re famous,” I said to him in greeting.
“Famous in my own house,” he scoffed.
Ramiro competes in the 65s and his matches were always on the feature court. I would sit on the restaurant’s veranda overlooking the courts and watch. He´s one of the last of the old-fashioned continental forehand players, though his backhand slice is his primary weapon. He waddles around the court like a cartoon character, has the precision of a surgeon and plays like he´s double-parked. I wasn’t surprised to learn that, unlike some former pros who charge guys money to be their doubles partner, Ramiro doesn´t stoop to that. He has a regular partner and they almost always win.
The club was founded in the late 1940s, though with all its lush greenery it has a more venerable feel. Its 1200 members join for a lifetime at a cost of around $US 25,000; there´s also a nominal monthly fee. Membership is so coveted that it is generally passed on to heirs, like Americans do with NFL season tickets. And Club de Tenis is not even Santa Cruz´s most exclusive club. That would be the more golf-oriented Las Palmas, which has 300 members.
Santa Cruz was full of surprises. It´s a city of low-slung stucco buildings and cobblestone streets, with a pretty central square in the shadow of the main Cathedral. For some reason optical stores outnumber all the other retail businesses; every block seems to have three or four. On my first day I walked to the bus stop for the short ride to the club when I noticed a Head tennis shop. I went inside and bought a can of Penn balls that, incredibly, cost only three times as much as they cost in the States. However the biggest surprise in Santa Cruz was the tournament site itself. (The tap water being potable ranks a close second.)
Their welcoming cocktail party also put the others I´d been to to shame. Held in the club´s spacious ballroom, it featured unlimited wine and endless platters of food, everything from cheese to cold cuts to quiche to chorizo. (Though why did it have to begin at 8:30 pm?) Several club officials made brief opening remarks. I didn’t understand what they were saying, presumably expressions of amusement that the rest of the world thinks Bolivia is poor. The friendliness of the attendees, many of whom had lived and worked in the US and spoke good English, impressed me. I met a woman who had lived in Forest Hills , a man who worked for many years on Sixth Avenue and another man who played college tennis in Texas and Alabama. I left the party with my pockets stuffed with business cards (and empanadas).
When I arrived at the club, I hoped to schedule a hitting session with a pro for the next morning, but I quickly fell into conversation with a Chilean guy entered in the tournament. We walked over to one of the many empty courts and were able to play three fun sets.
The tournament was big-time in every way. Ballkids worked all the matches; for me that was a first, and you better believe they are much appreciated. And after every few games a groundskeeper would appear and give the lines a quick brush. I also enjoyed listening to the professional-sounding PA girl announce the upcoming matches.
“Reeechard Earveeeng Estados Unidos cancha ocho,” she´d intone, drawing out each syllable like she was working the U.S. Open.
If only I´d been able to defeat the Moonballer the week would´ve been perfect.