My friend Jerry Friedman is 45 years old. He is a good citizen who until recently had no history of dreamy gambles or starry-eyed folly. He has been married to his college sweetheart for 21 years; his two kids, Zoe, 18, and Zach, 14, are doing well in school; and he's a big-time photographer and television-commercial director in New York City. Jerry's professional specialty is food and liquor. You name it, he has shot it, and you've probably seen his ads in magazines and on TV. He's an artist with a product, a man who can make chuck steak look like filet mignon. And the work has paid him very handsomely.
Jerry has stayed in shape over the years, too, working out in a gym, cross-country skiing, and playing a little ice hockey with his kids on winter weekends. Jerry is six feet, 155 pounds—almost exactly what he weighed when I first met him at Bard College, where he starred as a fast right wing on the soccer team.
He is very normal, we all thought. So when he shut down his studio in December 1990 to pursue a career on the pro tennis tour, we were all a little taken aback. When he quietly announced that he was abandoning his business to become a pro tennis player—on the tour, no less—the word among his friends was that here was a man in dire need of psychiatric care. "I'm giving myself a year and a half to make it," Jerry said.
His wife, Diana, called him "wacky." Zoe said that her father was "nuts, absolutely nuts. He has gone crazy." Diana told my wife, Claire, "If it's his mid-life crisis, at least he's not out chasing 20-year-old models."
In a lot of ways the new quixotic Jerry seemed like the old Jerry. He was still home every night; he was just doing something different during the day. He started getting up at 5:30 every morning to stretch for 20 minutes before heading off to the indoor courts at Stadium Tennis in the Bronx for three hours of drills and lessons with a young teaching pro named David Gilbert. He gave up coffee, went on a high carbohydrate diet, began drinking fruit juice by the quart, ran wind sprints and lifted weights in the late afternoons and studied videotapes of tennis matches at night.
But at the tennis club in Manhattan where Jerry and I sometimes play, he took a lot of heat. "You'll get bored and quit in a month," this big-shot corporate lawyer told him when a bunch of us were hanging around on the patio. After Jerry went off alone to a court with a basket of balls to practice his serve, the lawyer said snidely, "He ought to save the time and effort, call someone like Connors and see if he can buy a fantasy weekend. It'll be cheaper."
The lawyer was right about that. Gilbert, 23, a former player for Tulane, is a nice guy, but he wasn't donating the 15 hours of lessons a week to Jerry, and nobody was sending Jerry free rackets, sneakers or strings. Still, the way I looked at it, Jerry had started in the photo business by sweeping floors as a studio apprentice and had worked 12 hours a day to get to the top of his field. Now that he was well off and his family was provided for, why not let him spend his time and his nickel as he wished?
But another guy at the tennis club, Bernard, did voice a particularly brutal truth. "Let's put age aside for a minute," he told Jerry. "I don't care what kind of shape you're in; you can't play."
That was not an exaggeration. I could easily beat Jerry. And if I could beat him, imagine what the hundreds, thousands, of kids who had been playing since they were six would do to him. Jerry's response to this observation: "I don't care what anybody says, I'm doing it."
I've got to confess that I'm partly responsible for Jerry's venture. One day in the fall of 1989 he was beefing about how the recession was killing the advertising business and how work had slowed down for him. I persuaded him to come along with me to Harry Hopman's tennis facility near Tampa for 10 days. "Take up tennis," I said. "It's something you can do to unwind, and you can play until you're 80." I swear, that's all I told him.