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Out there in the back country of America, in the land of chicken-fried steak, 18-wheelers and white vinyl belts, there is a game unknown to the cities and suburbs—rural tennis. Rural tennis is a rustic half sister to the game most of us know, but few of us are privileged to play it, strong enough to endure it or mad enough to pursue it. While not exactly a blood sport, rural tennis calls on one's reserve of courage in ways that transcend the more civilized game, and provides a dramatic setting for discovering the true nature of the self in ways that tennis psychologists can only hint at. Rural tennis is war.
How do I know? Well, I once played two weeks of it in the otherwise lovely Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan, the so-called "little finger" of the state, which runs north-northwest of Traverse City out into Lake Michigan like a demented exclamation point. The peninsula is a m�lange of decaying farms, prosperous cherry orchards, humid motels and agreeable taverns. In the late spring and throughout the summer, the population ranges from the affluent hip of Chicago, playing house in their Design Research "cottages," to platoons of uncivilized and generally uncivil artists, who shout insults at tourists, to the locals, who resemble a casting call for Deliverance.
And out there, dotting the pucker-brush and the Christmas tree farms, are tennis courts. Why, no one is sure. Like Roman ruins in Wales, these courts are the rubble of a previous civilization. Now the prime summer sport is hauling Coho salmon out of Lake Michigan with Bunyanesque tackle, but somewhere in the glorious past tennis was played here, the courts tell us. And once again the hearty "pock" of the ball is beginning to be heard across the stretches of scrub pine and hardwood. The cry of "let!" echoes through gun shops and boat yards, and men stand in table-stakes taverns, quaffing Stroh's fire-brewed beer and wearing tennis shorts, elbow-to-elbow with farmers in Sweet-Orr bib overalls without getting belted just for appearing in such outlandish, sissyfied outfits.
In fact, it is in taverns that one begins to be a rural tennis player. It was to Dick's Pour House, the local pub, that on a lovely afternoon I accompanied my friend Jim Harrison, a Lake Leelanau resident, novelist, poet and diesel authority, to "sign up" for rural tennis. Over several Stroh's fire-breweds we awaited the appearance of Boobs Bovian, a dairy farmer who owns a tennis court. Dick's Pour House is a fine example of Northern Michigan tavern life. The back bar is covered with Hav-a-Hank cards, pickled eggs in jars (with and without beet juice), Slim Jims, small out-of-focus snapshots of the owner standing with a string of lake trout near an ice-fishing shack, a machine that irradiates frozen sandwiches, a Jiggle-Corn machine, Rolaids, Certs, peanuts, a stack of unopened bills and a late-model cash register with digital printout readings—stock control and tax done automatically—one of those registers that click like a binary computer when the barkeep enters your 35� draft beer.
We had to wait quite a while because Boobs Bovian was over in Cedar buying Polish sausage. My friend Harrison, a fortyish, dark-skinned Swede who has only one eye and is therefore known in the peculiar humor of the place as "the one-eyed Jap," gave me my first lesson in rural tennis over our seventh draft and a plastic sack of Blind Robins. "You have to pace yourself," he warned thickly. "Waiting for Boobs is part of the game, as important as warming up. It won't do to get drunk before he gets here." I paced myself.
Before Boobs arrived, I had my second lesson. Harrison weaved purposefully out to his pickup truck and returned with a can of tennis balls. He set it on the bar. "We open the ball can here," he said. "There are tennis bums around here who can actually hear a new can of balls opening. They can detect that little hiss for miles, and since they're too poor to buy new balls, they come out of the woods demanding to play some doubles. In rural tennis you never admit that you've got new balls. We'll dirty these up in the parking lot before we go to the court."
Harrison pulled the tab and the can hissed open. A group of men working on a snowmobile engine in the corner of the tavern gave a cheer at the sound and bought us another round of Stroh's.
Bovian arrived just as Harrison and I had almost decided to give up and go after bass with handguns, one of Leelanau's more exacting sports. Boobs was a very fat man in bib overalls and a billed cap that said "Wayne Feeds" on it. The veins on his nose looked like a road map of Rhode Island, but there was a twinkle in his eye as he produced a worn copy of the Farmer's Almanac from his pocket and thumbed through to the date. "Let's see here," croaked Boobs, "you can have the court from 2 till 2:15, and then again from 2:30 till dark." That seemed confusing to me until Harrison explained that Boobs usually drove his herd of dairy cattle to another pasture in the middle of the afternoon, and they crossed the court, necessitating not only a brief delay for the passage but also a slightly longer one for the cleanup. We decided to take the court from 2:30 to 4 and paid 75� in advance. The going rate in Leelanau County is 50� an hour, but before you go crazy and move there, remember that although one can buy a round in Dick's Pour House—buy the entire town a round—for about $2.65 plus tax, there is no practical way to make a living in the North Country.
After dirtying our new tennis balls in the dusty parking lot, we rattled off in Harrison's geriatric pickup with a dozen cans of Stroh's, a few packs of Slim Jims and an old Holiday Inn towel. Waylon Jennings was singing "Luckenbach, Texas" on the radio. As we bucked down the county road through stands of scrub pine and farms where the fences were made of pine stumps, I began to long for my own tennis club in the sophisticated enclave of Brooklyn Heights, with its changing rooms, sauna, restaurant and bar. In the bar I could stand at the plate glass window, iced Gatorade in hand, and watch crisp ground shots traveling low over the net, hear the comforting squeak of new Stan Smiths, listen to the Haavaad accents of the squash players, and shout, politely, "Oh, well-placed, that!" to a good passing shot. I wanted freshly laundered whites, the poached trout for dinner and a club appointment director who called me "sir" and was not named Boobs Bovian. Perhaps it was merely the effects of eight Stroh's that produced such feverish longing. However, the reality was Leelanau County and the game of rural tennis.
Harrison made a sharp turn off the county road onto a sandy double-track out through a stand of small Christmas trees and finally jerked to a halt, barely out of sight of the road. In fact, I thought we'd merely taken a shortcut to another road, for ahead of us lay a stretch of turtle-backed macadam exactly like the one we'd just left. "What's that road up ahead?" I inquired. Harrison snapped open a Stroh's, handed it to me and, staring through the windshield, replied, "That's the court."