Essay: Big Hit Tennis

Peter Fleming (left) and John McEnroe, 1983 (photo –

CHATHAM, NJ (c. 1980) – To write at all of the poor tennis I played in my youth is to unduly elevate it, but it was marginally elevated by its context in something of a tennis town. Our small boro of Chatham, New Jersey, produced Peter Fleming, the lanky blonde whose own considerable talent was both enhanced and obscured by that of John McEnroe. Fleming and Mac won four doubles crowns at Wimbledon and three at the U.S. Open in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In all, they landed 57 doubles titles together.

During his career, Fleming also scored isolated singles victories against Mac and other tennis greats such as Bjorn Borg and John Newcombe.

Around Chatham, there was a distinct Fleming-awareness that drifted down Main Street and diffused across the town’s plentiful tennis courts. In the younger players, Peter instilled a zeal for the put-away winner that bordered on manic. From the same courts upon which we labored, Fleming, all 6’5” of him, had smashed his way to the upper tier of tennis’s elite. If he hit a drop shot en route, word of it never made it back home.

Tennis town or not, we were in northern New Jersey so summers were replete with sweltering humidity, the steady drone of cicadas, and town courts laid bare by the relentless sun searing through hazy summer skies. With flat tennis balls, worn-out Stan Smith’s, and the occasional big hitter’s groan we’d play match after endless match in the stifling heat.

One summer, when Mac and Fleming were mid-doubles reign, my friend Chris and I played daily at a place called Minisink, a swim and tennis club named after a Native American tribe. I liked the name and mused, as a smirking teen, that local scout leaders must have somehow snuck the name past the same dozing town elders who saw fit to loftily dub our other modest town pool the Chatham Fish & Game Club in the late 1800s.

We would belt all day, relentlessly, and the dead balls would wedge into the fence twenty feet behind the baseline with regularity. We would hit overhead smashes that would go the entire summer without catching the baseline, and we’d spit in disgust as if we had reason to expect otherwise. We would sweat profusely and pursue the same string of big shots: the blistering serve that we could never master, the snapped, low-to-the-net, cross-court forehand that never cleared or never landed, and the passing backhand that rocketed sideways in a menacing, flared trajectory towards unsuspecting players on the adjacent court. Lobs were not part of our one-track repertoire.

In a weak moment, drained by summer vacations, Minisink named Chris and me second doubles for an upcoming match. We were erratic singles players at best, terrible at worst, and to my recollection never played a set of doubles. We regularly scattered other disgusted club patrons to distant courts under a shower of errant shots when they played in our vicinity. “Sorry” to a nearby player covers three to four mis-hits; after fifteen or twenty near-incidents it’s as useful as shouting, “Get my ball!”

A doubles opponent to practice against simply could not be had. So to prepare, we discussed the technique of Fleming and Mac, and we played poolside ping-pong to sharpen the finesse game we fancied a skilled doubles player possessed.

Finally, match day came, and we showed up at Minisink, poised to represent the club. Our opponents never arrived. Forfeit, victory to the untalented big hitters from Chatham and a doubles record of 1-0 on our career  a tally to hold unchanged for a lifetime. No matter. The club had fronted two tins of new tennis balls, and before they could grab them back I took my spot across the net and the balls flew wildly that afternoon, our only fresh cans of the summer. It was August, and the twentieth year for the twenty-year cicadas, and they were a raucous audience, whirring to a roar as we drilled smash after smash.

Between matches in those summers, we would adjourn to a nearby house, and if it were Grand Slam season, we’d scan the dial for doubles matches. In the pre-sports channel era, doubles matches were parked in the vacant lots of television coverage or skipped altogether. If you were going to catch a doubles set, you looked early and often.

With enough persistence, the effort would pay off, especially during the fortnight of Wimbledon. Its manicured lawns rendered everything on our ailing TV screen a shade of green, including the players. The tennis whites were overlaid with green shadows, and only Mac’s budding Afro, a cloud of smoggy brown pinned to his head by a straining terry-cloth band, could hold its color. The blonde Fleming, garbed in white, was a hard-hitting extension of the grass.

John McEnroe Peter Fleming
A study in hairstyles. Mac & Fleming, 1980 (photo – Tony Duffy)

I remember early one July weekend heading down to a friend’s who lived a convenient 100 yards from the municipal tennis courts. When I got there, he was mid-battle with his father over the need to mow the lawn before playing tennis. I stood with my racquet by the front door, listening to the neighborhood lawnmowers fire up to a crescendo around me and hoping they wouldn’t inspire Mr. Johnson into holding fast.

Then, miraculously, onto the living room television screen slowly strode McEnroe and behind him our Fleming. The English roared their approval of the bratty American and his partner.

The argument simply ceased midstream, Dave no longer wishing to play tennis and Mr. Johnson forgetting altogether the encroaching grass or any relationship it had to his son. He stopped talking, crossed his arms, ignored us, and stared at the screen. We stood and watched, and the first hour passed and then a second and then the 1979 Wimbledon crown was won, and part of it belonged to us.

With time, we drifted into the back of the local tennis pack as pickup players with fading interest and skills, contentedly spending less time with the game. As the sport moved to the periphery of our lives, Fleming began to fade from the national scene, and my peers and I left our small town for colleges across the East.

For a brief while, a handful of us were stirred again to interest when Colin Dibley, the talented Aussie who once held the record for the world’s fastest serve, moved next door to a close friend of mine. It was a passing fancy, however, as our college diversion by the time of his arrival was Wiffleball, a game in which hitting towering shots is the primary accomplishment, and an avoidance of aerobic activity the secondary. Our interaction with Dibley was largely limited to extricating without incident from his yard the errant Wiffle balls that nightly littered it. He will never write nostalgically of those lazy summer evenings and the loud roars of “It’s outta here!” from over the hedges.

My last class of college in the late 1980s proved to be a one-credit introductory tennis class. I’d miscalculated my transfer credits tally required to graduate, and I needed to take a single-credit class to don the cap and gown that same month. Rather than panic, I saw it as a small bit of good fortune that I would graduate while playing tennis every day.

For a complete month, I awoke early each morning and hit one big forehand after another and rallied at length with a like-minded student from Ohio. They played unskilled big hitter’s tennis outside Cincinnati too, apparently. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that with a little tutelage I was a much-improved player and still loved the game.

Tom Flynn JMU
  Reckless morning tennis, quick photo, afternoon diploma. (JMU, May 1989)

Returning home that summer, my last in Chatham, I found that a small-circuit pro tennis team had set up shop on the edge of town. The team was an entry in a league headed by Billie Jean King, and our local club featured Tracy Austin, the one-time teen phenom who won the U.S. Open at the precocious age of sixteen. She was in her late twenties now, and like Fleming her tennis star had dimmed considerably.

I drove with a high school friend out to the small outdoor court illuminated by the cartoonishly oversized lights brought in for the pro team. We sat in the temporary bleachers, sipped our tepid beer from plastic cups, and watched the incessant rapping of the team’s hitters, the pace a considerable amount slower than that of the power hitters of the day. All the while, hundreds of moths tapped at the lights above, the court bordering a murky seasonal bog known locally as “the freshet” and now inundated with its summertime residents. They were a quiet, vaguely adult version of our long-ago cicadas.

As we watched, an appreciation for Austin’s ability to maneuver around the court – she was nursing a foot injury at the time – set in. She was undoubtedly still a skilled player, and seeing her set up and polish off shots without any true velocity was in its way an awakening to the many subtleties of the game, including courage. It was uniquely timed with my pending departure from town and ultimately, the tennis of my youth.

Tracey Austin, 1978
Tracy Austin, 1978

In the intervening years between seeing that match and now, I’ve played an increasingly infrequent game much more akin to Austin’s. Age has proven a whole-body replication of Tracy’s foot injury, something to be worked around and pushed through, your shots placed to account for its hobbling effects. Occasionally I still go for the big hit with the same youthful lack of acumen. But going for the kill and slamming it loudly off the back fence, fun though it may be – and it is  smacks of Wiffleball rather than tennis. Done with salt and pepper hair among the mid-40’s set*, it also smacks of arrested development.

I still like to think Fleming would approve. – T. Flynn

(*written in 2008)