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how wimbledon ushered in the 80’s – by mike mantalos

Borg and McEnroe

Iconic moments in history always transport me back to whatever life I was leading when those memories were formed. I remember these types of days well and with the context of time providing perfect focus, reliving those moments reveal even more profound observations about how society at large was influenced by the events that resonate so strongly with me.

Last night, I returned home from an exhaustive work schedule and was greeted by my energetic puppy.  We wrestled on the living room rug until “Dad” got into a comfortable position and she fell asleep on my chest.  It was so tempting to drift off myself, but I had to wait for our guests to arrive and settle into our vacation rental in the front of my property.

In an effort to remain awake, I turned the television on and the set was tuned to the tennis channel.  A documentary chronicling the ultimate changing of the guard in professional tennis was in mid swing and I was instantly captivated.

My father was a tennis player. Captain of the US Army tennis team, his rackets saved him a trip to Korea. He played the major American tournaments following his military service. Looking back, tennis for him was almost a perfect mirror to surfing for me, except that he didn’t travel abroad to play.

Rumors within the family are that Pop didn’t work when I was born. He would leave the house on schedule, but hustle the tennis clubs of Chicago for money instead of work. He never admitted it, but my impression is that having our family ended his halcyon days and in his darker moments, resentment wasn’t hard to recognize.

As a boy, I was taken onto the back yard court and drilled on tennis. It was my ticket to scholarships, universities and the success that my birth didn’t allow my Pop to achieve for himself. Looking back, most of my memories of my Pop and my youth include tennis. Tough love with a racket and a hundred mile an hour balls bombarding me at the net, over and over.

My wife came home to find me mesmerized by the documentary.  She startled me and after kissing me hello, touched my cheek and asked why I was crying. I hadn’t realized how emotionally wrapped up I had become in the program, but I couldn’t stop watching  (reliving) a defining moment in my life.

The subject was John Mc Enroe’s ascension to the tennis throne through the stoic Bjorn Borg. It was such a profound time in my developing personality and I think about one match at Wimbledon way more than any surfer should.

I explained to my wife during a commercial break that I had watched this entire match at my dad’s small apartment that morning in 1980. He had caught me smoking pot and suddenly needed to have me near him constantly instead of his preferred absentee parenting.  He hated surfing and regarded it as a permissive failure of my mom’s penchant for needing summer beach homes.

The match was the quintessential changing of the guard. Bjorn had ruled the tennis world with a baseline game of immaculate precision. Johnny Mac was a gifted artist with the most deft hands ever witnessed in the sport and displayed a staccato mastery from his dynamic position charging the net. They were complete opposites wrestling for the state of the art of the game.

Pops was a Bjorn disciple, even though he unconsciously trained me to be a Mc Enroe clone. I was bored with Borg’s mechanics and conservative strokes. That July morning over 30 years ago was a battle on both the TV and on our small couch.

Within a year, Mc Enroe was undisputed king of the sport. His brash style and aggressiveness altered the congenial game forever.  Borg was the last remnant of the 70’s.

During that same year, I sold all my Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath albums.  I cut my long hair off myself and was becoming immersed in a violent punk scene that smashed the old guard like brittle eggshells. I shaped my first twin and started seeking out punchy beach breaks instead of my beloved points. I drank my first beer.  In my way, I too was eclipsing the 70’s.

All of these memories flooded my consciousness as the documentary continued. After retirement, Borg had sold all his Wimbledon trophies and paid a premium to buy them back years later. Similarly, I bought my Hendrix and Zeppelin bootlegs back for a premium some ten years after I had sold them (?).

How could such random similarities exist, I don’t know?  Was everyone of the precipice of such cultural change and this tennis rivalry only mirrored society at large?  I’m a surfer, how could tennis have sparked a rebellious streak in my personal dynamics?

Pops died several years ago. My whole family has gone, so I may be experiencing a delayed mourning.  And all that pain is so easily released by a tennis match.  Was it youth versus the establishment or punk versus a dark 70’s blues?  Or both?

The show concluded and I found myself in my garage. In the deepest recess of one corner lies a pile of tennis rackets of varying age. I sat on my carport cement, beer in my lap, clutching all the old racket frames. Running my fingers over the rough shafts and shoddy grips, memories flooded every nerve ending in my body. The collection itself represents a changing of the guard.  My oldest wooden rackets transitioned into graphite. My dad’s bag is even more eclectic and I found the genre of rackets he used to drill me with.

I have not held a racket since Pop left. I have too much reverence for our bond. I love the game while I’m playing it, but it doesn’t offer the residual buzz that I get from surfing. The moment I exit a tennis court, I forget what happened inside the chain link fence. Conversely, one good surf can resonate within me for weeks.

Pop never could understand my passion for surfing or my poor definitions of the word “stoke”.

My grandfather never watched my dad play tennis. My dad never watched me surf. Funny how people perpetuate actions they view themselves with resentment.

When I got to the bottom of Pop’s tennis bag, I found a zipper. Inside the pocket were letters I had written from my surf trips abroad. Australian stamps mostly, but one from Tahiti that I signed, Love Mike… I didn’t sign any of the other letters.  I had a close call at a notorious surf spot and was probably missing home at that point. I still can’t believe he carried this stuff around with him for decades.

All the death in my family has been a tortured responsibility for me. My sisters are a mess and I’ve had to run the funerals. Everyone assumes that because I produce events, I’m the natural with memorial planning. It’s entirely possible that I’ve never had the chance to mourn properly and create my own closure.

A stiff south wind picked up fresh and cold and I piled all the tennis gear back into the garage, but close to the door this time. I can’t escape my past by burying it.  I wiped the last tears from my eyes and remembered an invitation I was offered at a party.

My wife’s friend invited me over to his house to play tennis with Mc Enroe when he comes into town.  Wow.  I was blown away with the offer, but didn’t consider the emotional ties that the documentary made me so painfully aware of.

I’d better find the strength to enter a court and practice.

My Pop would be so blown away watching me volley with John.

If I could just talk to him one more time….

written by mike mantalos

more from the same writer

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for this Mike,

    June 13, 2011
  2. Buccaneer #

    Mike, that was moving.I can relate, but I was lucky my dad understood the surf stoke and always had my back.

    Miss him.

    June 13, 2011
  3. Excellent job Mike. And thank you Pete for putting this up. I’ve been keeping up with your blog whilst abroad and have enjoyed it as usual. Keep up the good words ol’ chap. The Beating was an excellent post.

    June 13, 2011
    • just mention the name m mantalos around here and everyone comes to visit – even biggles and satchmo – bastard can write though can he not ….

      June 13, 2011
  4. luckyal #

    Nice one Mike. The observations on social change maybe a bit thin and mystifying (why was a “baseline game of immaculate precision” emblematic of the 1970s?), but overall a really beautiful and moving piece. Have you read Kawabata’s The Master of Go?

    June 13, 2011
  5. Mike #

    Hey Luckyal, Borgs game represented the most refined technique, developed in the 70’s and considered “best”.

    More than that, his dominance gave the conservatively inclined a purist champion to applaud. Several characters languished in a second city role (Geraulitis, Conners and Nastase ), but all were more fascination than performance.

    Borg won. Smoothly.

    Kinda like Parko.

    June 13, 2011
  6. Davo's Liver #

    When you are a kid you have no clue what your parents give up to have your snotty little nose around. When you are a parent the operative is “wow, so this is how it’s gonna play out?”. Good piece Mike.

    June 13, 2011
  7. satch #

    Yeah dig. there is always more going on than you realise at the time cheers for that mike

    June 13, 2011
  8. granfallooner #

    Your article just might have provided incite not just in your relationship and history with your father, but the recent reactions by Andriano De Sousa in his winning Rio.

    Good piece Mike. Very good.

    June 14, 2011
  9. Oldman #

    A genuinely moving piece Mike.

    Dads! I have two kids, my Mum and Dad had nine. I have gone through periods of despair as you see your own life plans going down the gurgler, and you realise that your value in life is now to be the strong foundation for someone else to achieve something.

    A passing of the baton, a change of the guard, and eventual acceptance of a role you didn’t know you were signing up for.

    June 21, 2011

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