Racquetball Betting

McEnroe documentary brings him back to court – Hamilton County Reporter

By SCOTT SAALMAN
scaramouch

I thought of tennis.

I miss the “ker pock…ker pock…ker pock” on the long rallies of my youth, the ball bouncing on the asphalt (“ker”) followed by the rapid collision with the catgut (“pock”), the squeaks of sneakers and the wonderful beanbag at the opening of a new box of balls, each connection of strings tightened on fresh balls filling the air with shards of yellow fluff.

I thought of tennis because I just watched the great recent Showtime documentary, McEnroe. In high school, I wanted to be John McEnroe.

But before that, in 1976, I was given my first tennis racket on my 12e birthday. Mom wrapped the racket so as not to spoil the surprise. My parents must have thought I was really stupid, unable to identify a wrapped tennis racket. I bet kids who play the tuba experience the same thing. “Is it a Ferris wheel?” I asked holding the wrapped package, just to make mom and dad feel good.

I was excited about the tennis racquet, but was overcome with disappointment when I found out it wasn’t the Jimmy Connors-approved metal-framed T-2000 I wanted. Instead, it was a used wooden-framed racquet with the name Ann Jones written on it. A girl’s racket! I pretended to enjoy it, taking a few halfhearted shots in the living room, fearing every second I was starting to develop breasts. “At least it’s not a snorkel,” I probably mumbled. Luckily it was late November, too cold for outdoor tennis. In the summer, I forgot I even had a snowshoe. This is one of the advantages of winter birthdays.

A few years later, however, something changed his life. I watched the spectacular 1980 Wimbledon Championship between Bjorn Borg and McEnroe on NBC. Suddenly I wanted to be McEnroe. I loved his bad boy antics. I begged my parents for a new tennis racket. I assured them that I would reimburse them once I won Wimbledon. They fell into the trap. They didn’t even have a clue what Wimbledon was. With my new racquet, male this time, tennis has become an obsession.

Scott Saalman playing tennis in 1983. (Photo provided)

Two or three games on a single day in the summer was not unusual. Hand and foot blisters were common. The 90-100 degree days in July and August didn’t matter. To stay hydrated, I filled the box of tennis balls – they were metal then – with hot water from the nearby fountain, each sip tasting like rust and tennis ball chemicals. It probably slowed my growth. I let my hair down. Between games, I would grab a chili dog at the Dairy Queen and return to play with no gastrointestinal repercussions. My skin went from lobster red to bronze in just a few days.

I was a rambling, top-spinning, big-mouthed type of human backboard player. I had no setbacks. My second serve was so slow that it went in reverse. My canvas tennis shoes were tearing after just a few games and I was wrapping them up with dad’s electrician’s tape.

Without any prior lessons, I joined the sniper tennis team at Tell City High School. Our coach, also new to the sport, sat in his car and sipped a beer while we did some laps. He reminded me of the coach (Walter Matthau) on Bad news carries. We were the snipers of bad news.

I played number three singles my freshman year.

Inspired by McEnroe’s showmanship, I put on a show, growling and jumping with every punch, diving for out-of-reach shots like asphalt was Wimbledon grass (a little blood never does harm anyone), rolling, sliding like clay court specialist (this technique made me tear my ACL during a game in my thirties), climbing fences, yelling at myself for my stupid mistakes and swearing the tennis ball for his mischievous spirit when I lost a point. I held the ball to my face and exclaimed, “There’s one in every box!” My teammates ate it. They nicknamed me “Gazelle” because of my exaggerated jumps, like a ballet, during the returns.

Even though I was a local tennis bad boy, Mom never missed a game. She clapped zealously when her opponents double-faulted, making her, I guess, “the bad mother of tennis.” An Evansville kid, after hearing her scream in unsportsmanlike glee as he served a ball into the net, asked during the change, “Who’s that #$%&?” To which I replied, “This #$%& is my mother.” I killed him with an ax in the third set – in honor of mom.

Our team has never won a title, often thwarted by the fearsome Jasper Wildcats, historically one of the best tennis programs south of Indy. Every time Jasper was next on our schedule, we would beg our coach, “Do we really have to show up?” He was burping.

I only had one memorable match against Jasper. I fought my way into a third set. “Hit him in the back. Hit him in his backhand,” my opponent’s teammates then shouted. Even their parents shouted, “Hit him in his backhand.” It was such an infectious chant that I swore I heard my own teammates shouting it. Yes, every shot from my opponent went to my backhand. I looked to Coach for advice. I read on his lips: “I need a beer. The third set ended quickly. I lost.

In tennis, I was better than some but worse than most. I never went to Wimbledon. Sorry, mom and dad. Still, God loves you, Johnny Mac.

Contact: [email protected]. Buy Scott’s books on Amazon.