Bill Gray, Boris Yeltsin, John Kerry and me: The secret fraternity of tennis

Six degrees of tennis separation (a memoir)

6 minute read
You never thought of Boris Yeltsin as a tennis player, but I knew better.
You never thought of Boris Yeltsin as a tennis player, but I knew better.
The Reverend Bill Gray died July 1 while in London with his son Andrew for the Wimbledon tennis matches. He had served in the Congress for just a dozen years but hit strong ground strokes, volleys and serves for most of his life. He loved tennis. We sometimes played on adjacent courts at Penn's Levy Tennis Pavilion, and he'd smile when I pointed out his foot-faults.

At a send-off rally for a group of Philadelphians heading to the Soviet Union, he urged us to "go with open eyes." I last saw him at Casta Diva, a little Center City restaurant he was fond of, a quiet place to get a bite before catching his train back to Washington.

I suppose you could call us family, all of us who love tennis— or, for that matter, any one sport in particular. Whether it's rowing, long-distance running, swimming or just hitting balls over a net— those of us who have found our sport are lucky; we've found our element. Like Camus, we've probably learned more on the athletic field than in the classroom.

An idea for Happy Fernandez

Though the idea of a tennis court in City Hall courtyard wasn't one of her campaign promises when she ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 1999, Happy Fernandez loved my proposal and at least seemed ready to explore it. I had suggested a temporary singles court that could be laid down as a mat during warmer months, and I promised to help provide lessons for willing City Council members.

Happy was a strong player (she first came to Philadelphia in 1955 to play in the National Girls Championships) and often hosted tennis party fund-raisers at the Levy Pavilion. But she disliked having to raise so much money for an election when those same precious dollars could do so much elsewhere— for community gardens, child-care facilities, more bike lanes. And she was ever so honest about how one got elected, how one "made these little deals and promises." But good honest people can get elected, she'd remind us.

We lost Happy suddenly last January, like a missed return-of-serve that flies off the court.

Fred Perry comes to town

A year ago the tennis star Andy Murray shared his tears and a few words for the supporting crowd at Wimbledon: "I'm getting closer." He had just lost the final to a skilled, Swiss technician named Roger Federer. Murray had it easier this year, the first Brit to win the Wimbledon men's since Fred Perry beat the German Gottfried von Cramm in 1936. The following year, von Cramm returned and lost again in the final, this time to an American, Don Budge. In 1937 the Nazi flag flew at Wimbledon, and von Cramm was secretly planning to defect to Britain.

I met Fred Perry in the late 1950s when he stopped at our house in Canton, Ohio. My Aunt Calista, quite the avid tennis player, had met him at various tournaments and they'd remained friends over the years. Perry was just back from the Soviet Union, where he'd helped the Russians start a tennis program.

He was tall, very tan, wearing his "off court" whites and speaking a deep, beautiful English. When the Soviets asked him about their courts, he politely replied that they were OK. Within a day or so, those courts had been bulldozed and the Russians asked him for help with the basics: "Show us how a tennis court should be!"

We lived across the road from Brookside Country Club, midway between Canton and Massillon. My brother Tim and I had been adopted by our aunt and uncle, who gave us the name Dowlin, along with new tennis rackets and several lessons on the club's clay courts. We learned to play well enough, and even to serve as ball boys when legends like Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Shirley Fry and others played exhibition matches.

John Kerry's school days

To ensure that we learned to read and write, we were given summer tutors and then sent off to New England prep schools— Tim to Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire and I to nearby Vermont Academy. The schools played each other in sports, so I'd see Tim often enough on the courts if not also in the stands during football games. One of the schools that Kimball Union played was St. Paul's. Tim remembers a tall John Kerry, somewhat awkward, whom he "polished off" in two sets.

Kerry is now secretary of State, but for us he's first and foremost a tennis player, someone I first met in a Manhattan loft where he was showing movies from the Mekong Delta. He took as much footage in Vietnam as he could, since he didn't know if he'd ever return home alive. Fortunately, he did return home, and tossed his purple heart and other medals over the White House fence— using what he had, doing what he could to confront the Vietnam War.

Yeltsin in Philadelphia

When Boris Yeltsin— another scrappy tennis player— came to Philadelphia to speak to the World Affairs Council, I reserved a court for him at Levy, hoping he'd find time to hit a few balls while in town. But the council's coordinator, Buntzie Ellis Churchill, never got my note and so wasn't even aware of the tennis option.

Too bad. Playing some healthy tennis in Philadelphia might have countered the bad press he got on that trip for his boozing in Baltimore.

And too bad for me as well. I never gave him the book I had planned to give him following his talk. I had called Jane Jacobs in Toronto and asked if her Cities and the Wealth of Nations had been published in Russian. Her husband Bob told me it was in several languages, even Serbo-Croatian, but not yet in Russian. At the last moment, standing with Yeltsin near his limo, I sensed that giving him a book in English would be a waste, not worth it. My mistake. There was no tennis that week for Boris, and no bright narrative that year for the Russian Republic.

"'Use what you have'

I remember fondly the matches at Forest Hills when the U.S. Open was played there on grass— when a young, unknown player named Bjorn Borg beat Roy Emerson on a back court just before dark. I remember meeting Gardner Molloy and others on the club's front terrace, and watching Arthur Ashe playing doubles and explaining an umpire's ruling to a young Soviet Georgian, Alex Metreveli.

Years later I would read a remarkable book, Levels of the Game, about a poor kid named Ashe playing a rich kid named Graebner. "Start where you are," Ashe would later write, "use what you have, do what you can."♦

To read a response, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation