Beads of sweat glistened on his eyebrows, and the ends of his hair were starting to turn damp as Chip whacked away furiously, like some demented woodchopper. "Top spin," he thought. "Hit the ball early. Follow through." His capering shadow was 20 feet tall on the wall as he swung his tennis racket up on the ball, sending it banging against the back of a supermarket. Behind him was a car, its front end pointed toward him, its lights on, its motor idling. It was 1:30 a.m., and Chip was in an empty parking lot behind a closed Publix in Hialeah, Fla., practicing against a wall, trying to keep from going nowhere.
The night before, he had slept on three chairs outside a Holiday Inn. It was the high season in Florida, and the motel was overbooked. So he had put on three warmup suits and a leather jacket, and he still froze. He had survived, though, and in the morning he had won his first-round match. Tonight he could sleep in the car he had borrowed—if his knee would let him. But first he would practice and get a little tired, perhaps too tired to remember who and where he was. Then maybe he could sleep. "Top spin," muttered Chip.
What he wanted to forget was that he was almost 24 years old, though he lied to most people and told them he was two years younger, that his knee hurt and that his father was waiting to hear from him back home in Texas. Most of all he wanted to forget about the Penn Circuit and that tomorrow would be only the second day of qualifying.
It was near the end of February, and Chip and more than 300 other players were in Hialeah for the first stop of the USTA/Penn National Circuit, the satellite tour that is the underground and minor leagues of tennis. On the Penn Circuit one rarely hears applause, only the anguished cry of a player missing a shot, because with each miss he gets closer to nowhere.
This is the circuit where one sees the game's fabric being woven—and sometimes unraveled; where a disgusted player will walk over to a garbage can and junk an armful of rackets only to have a solicitous girl friend retrieve them and hurry after him; where a young player can sit stock-still for an hour at a time, staring at a tennis ball, hoping to improve his concentration; and where groups of players discuss why they lost matches and conclude it was not because they failed to hit the right shots, but because they were reluctant to cheat.
The Penn Circuit travels a purgatorial network of public parks and small private clubs where some of the locker rooms have no lockers and where the players never pass the pay phone without checking the coin-return box. But despite the poor facilities, each week pros from all over the world crowd around the tournament desk to sign in. In Hialeah fully 40% of the participants had foreign addresses, and 13 of the top 16 seeds were from overseas. The entries included talented youngsters such as Gabriel Urpi of Spain, who won the 1978 Orange Bowl juniors tournament; Ecuador's Raul Viver, the 1979 Orange Bowl champion; and Ben McKown, a three-time All-America and current NCAA doubles champion from Texas' Trinity University. Also on hand were veterans like 33-year-old Ivan Molina, who once was ranked 54th in the world. And there was the group that included the likes of Chip, who is, in fact, not a real person, but a composite of a number of regulars on the Penn Circuit. These players are neither young nor old, and they are trying to live up to great but fading expectations. Rick Fagel, reputed to have one of the best forehands in the game, is one such pro. So is Van Winitsky, who, as a junior a few years back, was ranked on a par with John McEnroe. Neither of them, it must be said, contributed to the fictional Chip.
Chip came out of college three years ago as a two-time All-America and conference champion. He played the satellite circuit and did well right away, quickly moving up to the Grand Prix circuit, the high-priced habitat of Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. But then he stopped winning. He went four months and won only two matches, and his computer ranking plummeted. His confidence was down, as was his game, so he decided to go back to school and finish the work for his degree in physical education while he still had the time and inclination.
At Hialeah he was embarking on another try at pro tennis, only this time he had a greater seriousness of purpose, because he had seen the alternatives and hadn't liked them. For most of his life he had played tennis for the wrong reasons: because his father wanted him to, because it was easy, because it meant he never had to work during the summers. Now he would play it for himself. He knew that if he failed this time, if he didn't play well enough on the Penn Circuit to get back up to the Grand Prix, it meant that he would turn out like his father: teaching country-club ladies in dainty dresses, lying to them that their backhands looked improved.... In a few years he'd be a burned-out hack working 14 hours a day and leaving a little piece of himself on the court each night when he walked away.
In tennis, computer points are what life's all about. Each week the latest results are fed into the Association of Tennis Professionals' computer, which then spews out the rankings of the world's top players. Pro tennis is a very exclusive club and the computer is its membership committee, and if you don't show it the proper credentials, the computer doesn't let you in.
The top 110 or so players in the world play the Grand Prix circuit, the multimillion-dollar series of tournaments sponsored by Volvo. The rest of the players work the Penn Circuit, a satellite tour of 30 or so $7,000 tournaments spread over the year, where they try to earn enough computer points to scramble up into the big time. It's a tough, unrelenting chase.