By Bill Kossen / Seattle Times staff
Way back in the 20th century, Jimmy Connors electrified the tennis world when at the ancient age of 39, he made his improbable, inspiring run into the semifinals of the 1991 U.S. Open. People were cheering for Connors like they did for the new pope when he dropped by Brazil last week.
But you know, Connor-like performances are not that unusual. They’re being played out on tennis courts all around us. I witnessed one just the other day. And the Seattle area, I also discovered, is quite the hotbed of highly competitive amateur tennis.
The 123rd Washington State Open that runs through this Sunday at the venerable Seattle Tennis Club (and that is open to the public and is free) is obviously the Wimbledon of recreational tennis around here.
Flying below the radar, however, are thousands of good tennis players of all ages (from under 10 to over 80), many competing in other tournaments and with teams. And with the upcoming opening of Tennis Center at Sand Point, the Seattle area will have four indoor/outdoor public tennis centers, along with Amy Yee Tennis Center in Seattle, Robinswood Tennis Center in Bellevue and Eastside Tennis Center in Kirkland.
“There is a passionate, vibrant tennis community here” said Roger Mark, owner of the Avanti Sports tennis stores and co-owner of the Mill Creek Tennis Club with his brother Byron. Mark noted that the United States Tennis Association (USTA) ranks the Pacific Northwest as one of the top tennis regions in the nation for participation and quality of play, with seven teams from here claiming national titles since 2005 (five from the Mill Creek Club, one from Amy Yee and one from Robinswood).
Our weather helps produce top-notch players, Mark added. “Because it rains up here, you get a hardy, motivated player.”
And I saw one of the hardiest, most-motivated players when I recently was invited to watch a championship doubles match in the annual “Tennis Week” tournament at the Seattle Tennis Club. A sense of Jimmy Connors’ magical run was definitely in the air.
An old childhood friend of mine who can still play like a kid sent out an email to friends and family with the ominous subject line: “Probably last time.”
In it, Joe Cannon (who turned 60 in April) wrote: “My young partner Andrew La Cava has played well enough to get us to the men’s open club finals tomorrow night. Hips, knees, shoulder, brain aren’t functioning like they used to and could easily have some major work done in the offseason. Come on down to see the old fool one last time if you have nothing better to do.”
How can you turn down an invite like that? Joe has been winning tennis matches since he was in seventh grade at St. Joe’s on Capitol Hill and playing doubles with brother Rich. Joe went on to play at Seattle Prep, UW and then work as a tennis pro while continuing to rack up the victories, trophies and respect.
Joe is always fun to watch, gracious in defeat and if you ask for advice before a big match (or in my case, a big pingpong showdown), he’ll keep it simple. “Just play your game and make sure you score the last point.” And it works!
So on a certain level, going to the match was like watching Ken Griffey Jr. one last time. You’re hoping for the best, but knowing how difficult it can be to defeat Father Time. And here is Joe at 60, paired with a 21-year-old, going up against 48-year-old John Foster and another 21-year-old, Taylor Hunt, all current or former college-level players.
Cannon-La Cava lose the first set 6-3 and are down 3-0 in the second set. It looks grim for Old Joe and his signature wrapped knee. The tennis-club bleachers at center court overlooking Lake Washington are packed, but some of the fans seem more interested in the view or talking. Then Cannon-La Cava win a game and the crowd is back into the match, cheering them on.
Feeding off the energy and playing with a winning mix of young power and old guile, Cannon-La Cava refuse to lose and all of a sudden it’s 3-3 and it looks like we may be going to a third set. The appreciative crowd erupts. It is a Jimmy Connors moment again. But much too soon, it is over and Foster-Hunt wins the next three games and takes the best-of-three-set match.
But there will be many more such moments. Just look around. You may even see Joe Cannon playing again. When he said it may be the last time, he meant in the highly competitive open division where advanced age is not an issue, but a gentle signal that it might be time to play with someone his own age.
After the loss, old competitive Joe wasn’t ready to hang up his racket for good. As he put it: “I am going to limp through doubles at the Washington State Open in the 55-and-over division.”
Play on, Joe.
Bill Kossen’s tennis career never amounted to much, but his tennis-loving father liked to brag that he once beat Garfield classmate Henry Prusoff before Prusoff went on to become one of the top-ranked tennis players in the nation in the 1930s.
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