Fifty years ago, Australian Fred Stolle arrived in New York to play the 1966 US Championships. Though Stolle had been ranked second in the world at the end of 1965, the tournament committee that year opted not to place him among the event’s eight seeds. Somewhat miffed, Stolle went on to win the tournament, his run capped with wins in his last two matches over Roy Emerson and John Newcombe.
When it was over, Stolle flung a term into the tennis atmosphere. “Not bad,” he said, “for an old hacker.” Of course, Stolle was anything but. That victory was his second Grand Slam singles victory. In 1985, Stolle was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
The term “hacker” endures. Among many, it’s the proper definition for the millions of racquet-toting men and women who trek to the courts a few times a month for a bit of exercise, escape and friendship.
But what about my friend BJ? He is 75 years old and one of the top 10-15 players in his age group in the country. BJ studies videos, takes lessons, hits hundreds of balls against the ball machine, practices serves and in the last two years has worked hard to master the chip-charge service return.
Tennis boasts thousands like BJ. These people take their tennis seriously. When they play practice matches, they say hardly a word on changeovers. They might keep a notebook, work with a physical trainer, seek out instruction, head to events like Tennis Congress to sharpen their technique. When they attend pro tournaments, they most love the practice courts, taking close notice of footwork and swing shapes.
Hackers? Hardly fitting.
A more benign term: Recreational players.
Recreational, a word that carries the implication of leisure, perhaps even hedonism.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is a vast difference between the skills of pros and we civilians. One day, as I played against a man who’d won several national age group titles, I watched him strike a fine approach shot and volley. He then informed me that, “I’ve made a living with those shots.” I countered: “Really? You sent your daughter to Stanford from the money you made from that volley?”
No, we are not pros. And at heart, tennis for the vast majority is a leisure activity, a form of exercise, education and relentless engagement.
But surely, we deserve a better term than “recreational.”