At the All England Club, it was now 5:40 p.m. The temperature was in the low 70s. The sun, if no longer at its peak, remained high enough to cast its rays onto the grass courts – a delicious golden, yellow tint that when bounced off the green of the lawn left one feeling that there was no better spot on earth to hit a tennis ball.
We had been hitting on Court 7, immediately south of Centre Court. Yes, we, in the form of my Tennis Channel colleague, Justin Gimelstob and myself. “Get your whites and meet me there at 5:30,” he’d told me.
A fortunate byproduct of my work in tennis media – or at least the way I’ve often pursued – is that I’ve had dozens of chances to hit with world class players. Another Tennis Channel colleague, Martina Navratilova, once played a round of doubles with several of us at a club across the street from the All England Club. Andy Roddick and I played twice, including the time he beat me left-handed. Versus Jimmy Connors and another amateur, John McEnroe and I won a Pro-Am, proving McEnroe partner Peter Fleming’s line that the best doubles team in the world is McEnroe and anybody.
But this now, with Justin, this was Wimbledon. It was also grass, the surface with all sorts of those bewitching bounces. For the first few minutes, I could feel myself breathing more deeply than usual. It is always bracing, hitting those first few balls with a pro. And I’m not talking about your local instructor, or the hotshot junior from your club.
It’s a whole other deal with someone who’s been in the top 100 in the world. Certainly there is the sustained power, of a ball struck hard and smoothly – the Gimelstob ball has many gears. Then there is the matter of depth. Just about every ball Justin struck landed within a foot of the baseline. Add to this consistency. With the people I play with – a range from 4.0 men to 5.0 women – it’s usually the case that after six or eight balls (most of which barely pass the service line), someone will miss. Not so with Justin, as one ball after another came my way. No respite, except for when he carved a slice backhand so heavy, deep and low that I recalled how Gimelstob had beaten Gustavo Kuerten here in 1997, just weeks after Kuerten had won Roland Garros.
Within seven minutes, I was sweating. But from the start, I recalled the lessons I’ve learned from hitting with players of this supreme skill level. Watch the ball as closely as possible. Turn your shoulders. Don’t try and swing hard. Instead, swing smooth. After all, the person across the net has brought plenty of pace to this party. So instead, focus on consistency, footwork, a complete swing. It sure helped that one of my tennis assets has always been the ability to absorb pace; my slice backhand sure came in handy. And also this: Run to pick up balls. Justin had generously and graciously offered to hit with me. The least I could do was make his time as productive as possible. As my childhood rival Howard used to say, no lollygagging.
There was also a pattern to the session that any of us could follow. Groundstrokes, volleys, overheads. “OK, let’s go crosscourt,” Justin said, him standing at the net on the ad court side, me at the baseline. Then from the deuce court. Then, me at the net. And finally, practice serves and a few points. All of it in a half hour. As we turned back to look at Centre Court, Justin said, “Pretty amazing to be here, don’t you think?”
He was so right. This wasn’t just about hitting tennis balls. This was Wimbledon, tennis’ cathedral. Less than 48 hours after I’d been on Court 7 with Justin, it would be one of many courts alive with the sounds and efforts of the world’s best, kicking off their Wimbledon campaign. Technically, I work in tennis as an observer. But thanks to Justin, for 30 minutes I’d been something else – a player. As the poet Robert Frost said, “And that has made all the difference.”