Devil to Play

This week, you can see beautiful tennis at Wimbledon. Or you can watch the Denver Tennis Club's 4.5 men's team roll toward another title.

Tom McCroskey's teammates call him The Retriever.
During a late spring match--May is still considered early season for competitive tennis in Colorado--McCroskey, who plays for the Denver Tennis Club, is ahead in the score. But that is far from the worst of it. McCroskey is so frustrating to play against that the opponent is beginning to look as if he has just suffered an actual physical attack, even though, sartorially, he still looks excellent.

Indeed, he is what many serious club players see when they picture themselves playing tennis. He is dressed in elegant sportswear. He's nicely tanned, and his curly hair is a salt-and-pepper tousle. His strokes are as just as picturesque: long, flowing forehands struck atop statuary footwork; artistic, leaning backhands that, performed without a racquet, would look like a maestro directing an orchestra through an inspirational movement.

He is also losing. "Um, it's 4-5," he says in answer to a teammate's question during a changeover, adding in an embarrassed mumble, "He won the first set 6-4."

The spectators wince, but they don't move. Watching Tom McCroskey hit a tennis ball is like tuning in to Jerry Springer: You stare because you are awed by the degradation you yourself are being spared.

"He's...unorthodox," suggests Andy Reinhart, a bystander.
"I've never seen anyone like him," agrees another slack-jawed observer. "I'd hate to play him."

McCroskey looks like a giant stork--slightly hunched posture, long wingspan, skinny legs. He wears a baseball cap, a baggy gray sweatshirt and floppy shorts. In between shots, he wheezes. Technically, he is appalling. He hits the ball with only a hint of a backswing and from an open stance--duck-footed, shoulders parallel to the net. The shots are all delivered with almost no pace, enough backspin to slow them down even more, and little, if any, consideration given to placement.

After each shot McCroskey scurries back into position with tiptoed, oddly dainty steps, alighting for an instant in the middle of the court before gasping to the next ball. The rallies take on a steady rhythm, the opponent's textbook shot sounding like a gunshot, McCroskey's return like their distant retorts: BANG...pop...BANG...pop.

A typical point goes like this: The opponent serves (BANG) and McCroskey blocks it back (pop). After a series of lovely strokes by the opponent (BANG, BANG, BANG) and hideous returns by McCroskey (pop, pop, pop), the opponent sets up an impossible-to-return overhead, which is returned all the same by a rasping, lunging McCroskey. This may happen once, twice, even three times. On the next shot, or the next, the opponent, flustered into a miscalculation, hits the ball into the net or out of bounds.

The second set is still unfinished when the opponent twists his knee while trying to run down one of McCroskey's despicable chopped forehands and is forced to forfeit the match. On nearby courts, McCroskey's teammates have all come through as well. By the end of the evening, the Denver Tennis Club's 4.5 team has recorded another easy shutout victory.

All of which makes Larry Gabler, The Retriever's coach, positively gleeful. "Tom is the ultimate 4.5-level player," Gabler says as the match concludes. "He'll do whatever it takes to win a match. Once he won a four-hour-and-forty-minute match--and that's best out of three sets."

People who lose to McCroskey often get angry because they think his level of play is beneath them. Yet, as much as it is about physical skill, 4.5-level tennis is a seething and unstable brew of ego and self-delusion, particularly as players get older. To his admirers, the fact that Larry Gabler understands this so well has made him justifiably famous within the state's competitive tennis-league circles.

To league officials, the fact that he has unraveled the psychology of mid-level tennis so well that he's been able to treat their rulebook the way a mob attorney treats the law has simply made him infamous.

At its core, the tennis ratings process is designed to get players a good match. The system is overseen by the United States Tennis Association, which, to promote equity in its leagues, separates players by skill level using a numerical ratings system. It starts at 1.0--a beginner struggling to connect with the ball--and goes to 7.0, a circuit-playing professional. Most club pros, who teach tennis for a living, are ranked 5.0, or maybe 5.5.

Although there is often a correlation, higher ratings should not be mistaken for greater seriousness of purpose; many 3.0 players crave victory as urgently as a 5.5 pro struggling to break into the circuit. But there is a real correlation when it comes to a player's commitment to the sport. A higher rating requires more time and effort to maintain, and the struggle increases dramatically at the uppermost levels of play. At a 5.0 or above, players often must play or teach the game daily to keep their ratings.

As a result, a 4.5 rating seems to represent the threshold so many club tennis players long to cross. Below it, the game involves a bit of strategy but more often ends up being won or lost when someone finally makes a mistake. Above it, through a combination of reliable skills and mental clarity, players begin to actually win their points; the game starts to look truly professional.

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