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I learned to volley from an overweight fat guy named Bruce Becker in Manheim, Pennsylvania. He was the Chair Umpire for our local pro tournament (I was service line judge). Bruce took me under his wing. He wasn’t a great tennis player but he loved the sport. He worked for years at the local brake manufacturing plant called Raybestos also known by its subsidiary Raymark Industries. Many of the tennis members worked there and most of the players had home made tennis strokes. They worked 7am to 3:30pm in the super hot plant and rushed to the tennis court after work.
I remember getting a tour of the place my senior year of high school. Remember the Academy Award winning documentary Scared Straight? The tour of Raymark had the same effect. The building was very hot and so very loud. I remember seeing the familiar sulken faces I’ve seen at the club. I’d look right at guys I’d played tennis with and got no reaction. Maybe they were too tired to react. I imagined they felt like inmates in blue collar purgatory. Their only sin was making a living for their family in our small town. Many of the workers in that company had health complications. Many are still alive today and hang out at the club in their 70s and 80s. Many of them semi-retired in the early 90s and drove cars for the Manheim Auto Auction.
Bruce used to have a cigarette in one hand and his racquet in the other. I remember him part bragging and complaining at the same time about a local doubles tournament he played in nearby Lititz, PA where he did not miss a ball the entire match but him and his partner still lost.
He also lived down the street from me on Charlotte Street. I used to play tennis all day long back then and remember watching the Davis Cup match between John McEnroe and Mats Wilander that went over 6 hours in length. I remember going home for lunch back to the club and back home again. Bruce and I were both incredulous that the match was still going on.
But Bruce took me aside and taught me to volley one day right on this court. His volley was okay. He had good technique but when you smoke while you play, drink Diet Cokes and are fat it doesn’t make for ideal combination. But I must admit my best strokes are my volleys and I must credit the Santa Clause shaped factory worker for the technique.
Another long time Raybestos employee named Don Royer taught me how to hit a slice backhand. He played for years with a T-2000 then the revolutionary Prince Classic and Prince Pro and used his flat forehand for his offensive game and his slice backhand to keep opponents on the defense. My second best shot to this day is the slice backhand. This shot is a lost art form whenever I play millennials in tournaments, it drives them bonkers. I drive it hard and can angle it with directional change. Don would be proud.
While I was away at college Bruce died right on the 2nd court you see in the background. Not surprisingly, he had a heart attack right on the deuce court to the far left of this picture. It was sad. I never got to say goodbye. Guys who where there told me it was a quick death. I still see his nephew occasionally at the club playing with his own unique and homemade strokes (hint they are bad) and its nice to make the connection.
The club is full of characters. They still have a club tournament every August. It’s a mixed bag of guys from the factory, teenagers and middle agers like me. By the way, if you get to the Club Final its best of five sets. The club is mostly full of hackers and old timers. There isn’t one efficient stroke in the place but it sure is fun to visit exchanging good banter and giving out annual ass whooping.
There is no dress code. There is small club house with a shower and refrigerator filled with high fructose corn syrup in a can. It is more of a social club than a tennis facility as players exchange stories and reminace about the past which is recorded on rusted plaques in the club house.
The club also taught me about pressure. Mostly how to manage it. My first junior tennis tournament was on court 1. It lasted 3 hours. None other than Bruce was watching with my Dad from the viewing bench on Memorial Drive offering encouragement. His best advice I’ll never forget to this day after we split sets: “This guy doesn’t want it as much as you Brian”.
He was right. A few hours later I was home cramping in my bath tub trying to figure out how to make my legs stop shaking. I was a tired teenager that night. A few years later I learned about how mental pressure can affect your game as the club’s notorious lefty hacker “$5 Dollar Charlie” would bet anyone anytime in a game. It was typically doubles with Charlie always picking the teams.
After a tough loss one of the members had enough of Charlie’s antics and challenged $5 Charlie to a one set singles match for a winner take all five bucks! A crowd gathered and it was on. Lots of hooping and hollering from the gallery and lots of extra sodas were popped from the vending machine that night. About 30 minutes later, members were carrying a leg cramped opponent off the court to his car. $5 Charlie strikes again!
I don’t drink much, never smoked and don’t gamble but I have crazy good volley’s. If you want to learn how to hit one it would be a pleasure to show you how in one of my classes in Coconut Grove one night.
Hint: Here I am 38 years later on the court I first learned how to play tennis.
Manheim Tennis Club, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Established 1903