Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Match of a Lifetime

Grappling on court for more than half their lives, two brothers have taken sibling rivalry to a whole new level.

My brother Dave and I grew up in Tampa, Fla., playing all the usual sports. Five years older, I taught him the basics of base ball and other games, and I prevailed over him in most head-to-head competition. One day in 1971, while I was a student at Trinity College in Connecticut, Dave called, all fired up because he had seen an unbelievable tennis match between the best high school girl and boy players in Florida, and the girl had won. Her name was Chris Evert.

This was a huge story in Florida--comparable, locally anyway, to Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs. Dave had been so inspired by Evert's game that he had flung himself into tennis; he even laid claim to a reputation as a "pretty good player." I understood what he really meant. It was a challenge, tossed out to a dominant brother. But I knew I could beat Dave in any sport.

When I came home from college months later, Dave and I, both dressed in whites, went to the Davis Island Tennis Club to play. Surprisingly, everyone seemed to know Dave. He cracked open a can of balls, grinning.

I knew from the start that I was in trouble. I lost the first set 6-0. In the second, I suffered the worst humiliation of my athletic career. Instead of winning points quickly and efficiently, Dave began to toy with me. He ran me from side to side, keeping the ball just within my reach. As my face grew redder, his grew increasingly gleeful, until he became bored and closed me out.

When we shook hands, I felt disgraced. My kid brother hadn't just beaten me, he'd done so in front of his friends. A part of me was proud for Dave. He knew that tennis required practice, he had worked diligently, and had every right to win. But I vowed to get even. I decided I'd become a better tennis player than Dave.

I became obsessed with tennis that summer, abandoning my former sports of choice, football and crew. I took a job at the Palina Ceia Country Club, where I arrived at 6 A.M. every day to water, roll, and sweep the Har-Tru courts. Starting at the bottom of the ladder, I worked my way up. Someone was always willing to play, and Tommy Mozur, the club's teaching pro and a two-time college All-American, kindly hit with me now and then, gratis. I improved a lot but at the end of the summer Dave beat me soundly again. He had a two-year head start in the game. How was I supposed to catch up?

Back at college in the fall I kept up the pace. I found practice partners and entered local tournaments. But the next summer Dave still had the upper hand in our matches. It didn't matter to me that he was better at playing guitar and golf. The thing that really counted for both of us was the rivalry on the tennis court. That's how much we'd come to love the game.

The year I graduated from college, I came home more confident than ever. When we played our match, in front of Mozur and others, Dave quickly won the first set. But in the second, I found an edge to peel in his game. I could exploit the weakness in his one-handed slice backhand by hitting hard approach shots to it and coming to net. I jumped to a 4-0 lead when Dave announced for everyone to hear that I was going to lose the next six games and the match. It was an incredibly arrogant boast designed to make me see red. I fought furiously, but Dave lifted his game and made good on his prediction.

That fall, I left for medical school in Alabama. I was always either studying or playing tennis. By then, Dave and I were pretty good players. While we were both baseliners, Dave was more of a retriever and I was more inclined to attack an opponent's weakness. When Dave and a girlfriend came to visit for a weekend, I suggested that Dave and I enter the Mobile, Ala., city tournament. We ended up in different halves of the singles draw but still met in the final.

We drew a decent crowd, and Dave's girlfriend sat in the front row. We split sets and battled dead even into a tiebreaker. I felt I had a chance when, after getting a minibreak, Dave glanced at his girlfriend. He looked dejected. I felt a pang of pity--after all, he was my kid brother. But as he lined up to receive the next point, I knew that all he wanted to do was hit a shot that beat me. And if he did that, it would be another in a long series of humiliations that went too far back. I steeled myself, reached match point, and put away an overhead to win. I had finally beaten my brother.

That wasn't the end of the story. In retrospect, it was just the end of the beginning. My win inspired Dave. Finally, I'd emerged as a real rival. In the ensuing years, we continued to play--we fought it out at weddings and family reunions, at graduations and funerals. We played in Florida, Alabama, Texas, Connecticut, Iowa, Arizona, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina.

We bought a trophy, engraving it after each match with the date, the place, and the name of the winner. Family and friends bore witness to these battles, and in later years helped us recall details of particular matches. One nephew has been watching us claw at each other for 20 years.

At Sanibel, Fla., shortly after I turned 40, I succumbed to fatigue and lost to Dave. Feeling old, I returned home to Baltimore, boosted my workouts, and lost some weight. At our next meeting, in Scottsdale, Ariz., I had the stamina to win a three-setter, just like the first time I beat him. I was just as elated.

Another 10 years went by and we found ourselves in the new millennium. I was in my 50s by then but playing the best tennis of my life. Dave, too, was a warrior, with a high ranking in his age group and a boundless appetite for the tournament game. We clashed again over Christmas in 2002 in Baltimore. I played well, but Dave was flawless, so much so that after the match my only reaction was pure appreciation.

When we got home, it was snowing heavily. Three of my five children wanted to go snow-tubing, and they persuaded Uncle Dave to join us. Time and again, we held onto each other and zoomed down the steep hill that I live on. Late in the day, the snow turned to sleet. On our last run, we picked up incredible speed. I knew as we approached the first curve that we weren't going to make it. Unable to turn, we were launched into the air off a lip. All I could see in front of me was Dave, heading for a tree. He crashed into it headfirst. He landed in the snow, face-up, and lay motionless.

I called his name; no response. I ripped off his coat and--thankfully--found he was breathing. We trundled him into the car and to the hospital, where the ER doctor said that Dave had a severe concussion and amnesia. He needed a CT scan immediately. I went over to Dave to try to communicate how sorry I felt. It occurred to me to test his memory as best I could.

I leaned over and said, "Dave, do you remember our tennis match today? How badly I beat you?"

His eyes slowly opened. He smirked weakly, muttering, "Fat chance. I pummeled you!"

Luckily Dave had no lasting head injury, just a broken scapula. As I put him on the plane for Tampa, he was in obvious pain, holding his left arm close to his chest. I couldn't help myself. I wondered, Is he going to have trouble tossing the ball on his serve? That could be an advantage for me in our next match...

Alas, I had no such luck. Four months later, in Tampa, Dave beat me again. But, as we both know, in this 30-year war there is always a tomorrow.

By: Gottsch, John, Tennis