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Rallying in Middle Age
William Sherman
October 19, 1992
A tennis neophyte chucked his career to try to make it onto the pro tour. He's still trying
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October 19, 1992

Rallying In Middle Age

A tennis neophyte chucked his career to try to make it onto the pro tour. He's still trying

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I warned him that Hopman's was a nofrills experience. It is five hours a day of running, hitting forehands and backhands down the line and crosscourt, smashing overhead after overhead and retrieving drop shot after drop shot until you're ready to drop. "So you start out with a crash course," I said. "Come on down." As I said, work was slow, so he did.

The Hopman teaching pros put him in the beginners group, in which they work you almost as hard as they do in any other group, and Jerry loved it. But even he can't explain exactly what sucked him into the game. If he had visions of glory, of holding a trophy aloft while thousands cheered, he didn't tell me, Suffice to say that Hopman's was different from his studio, where the silent subjects of his attention never moved, except occasionally on or off a platter.

By the time we got back to New York City, Jerry was hooked and looking to play at every opportunity. It was several months later, right before Christmas 1990, after several ad agencies had been forced to cancel assignments because of the recession, that Jerry closed up shop. He was tired of the business anyway, he said, recalling the day when a fickle client insisted that he and his assistants pick through 2,000 hamburger buns to find the one that was just right for a commercial, "It's not like I've been making Citizen Kane or Apocalypse Now," he said. Then he changed the message on his answering machine to "I'm off playing tennis."

The first day of his new life, Jerry told Gilbert of his ambition and asked for his help. Gilbert raised an eyebrow, wheeled out a shopping cart full of balls and said, "O.K., let's see what you can do."

It wasn't much. Jerry was ferocious and not particularly awkward, but he hit more balls out than in. Gilbert told Jerry straightaway that the pro tour was an absolute impossibility. Six months into his training, though, Jerry was hitting topspin off both sides, his double faults were down, and he was developing a second serve that had a nice twist to it. However, when he started to play some casual matches, instead of trouncing the local hackers, he had mental lapses and blew sets in which he had held commanding leads. He double-faulted in tiebreakers and overhit easy putaways.

But Jerry was learning. He added a slice backhand to his repertoire of shots, and he started beating some decent club-level players. He could handle the dread junk-ballers now, and the stare he developed for opponents who cheated him on line calls seemed to be effective in discouraging further attempts at deception.

At the same time, his wife and kids and those close to him began to accept the new Jerry. He looked great, and he actually got home earlier than he had when he was working at the studio. "I gotta admit he's got guts," said Bernard. However Diana confided to me that because Jerry was so intent on making it, she was afraid of what would happen if he failed.

In January '92 Jerry entered an Eastern Tennis Association-sanctioned event at Stadium Tennis and lost 6-1, 6-1 in the first round. A few weeks later, at another tournament at Stadium Tennis, he tried again and got waxed love and love by an 18-year-old college player.

Nevertheless, Jerry refused to lower his sights. After another series of first-round losses in local tournaments, he decided the time had come to make another push. His deadline was only four months away. "I'm going back to Hopman's for at least six weeks," he said. He would drive down, stay in a small condo and concoct his own training meals.

Diana had reached her limit. At least for the last year, Jerry had been home every night. This was taking things too far. "There comes a point when you've got to figure out what you want to do with your life," she told him.

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