Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I was a Teenage Ballkid

Back in highschool, I was a ballkid for the pro tennis tour stop in Washington D.C., near my childhood home. I got a chance to be on court with the brightest lights of the tennis constellation, including Hall of Famers Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles anong others.

I pretty much knew I was gay when I saw Chris Evert's panties, and it did nothing for me. But tennis skirts are very short. And when you're down on the court with the players, and they're bending and lunging, you can't help but get a panty shot or ten. I've seen some pretty famous panties.

The name of the tournament was Virginia Slims of Washington. Thinking back, the idea having a cigarette maker sponsoring sports seems crazy. But it was a lot less politically correct back then and frankly I never saw the irony. If you look at the picture of my credential, you can see the image of a lady holding a cigatette in one hand, a racket in the other.

The players did have a canned answer for the press if asked about the obvious contradiction between a smoker and a tennis champion. According to Martina's autobiography the players responded, "I don't smoke. But if I did, I'd smoke Virginia Slims."

Nowadays the tour's title sponsor is Sony, which doesn't have the same P.R. issues as a tobacco company.

Anyway, the tournament came around each February, and it was a huge thrill to take part. Growing up in a military community in Southern Maryland, I was starved for an urban fix, and hanging out in Washington (an hour away from where I lived) was fun and exhilirating. Anyone who remembers their first time in the big city, knows what I'm talking about.

As I write this, the memories are flooding back, but one stands out.

One year, a player named Natalia Zvereva asked if I knew how to find Tower Records, which was a few blocks from the event. I ended up walking over her over, and we chit chatted along the way. I don't speak Russian, and her English was dodgy at the time.

When we got to the record store, she thanked me and I wished her luck in her next match, at which point we went our separate ways. Needless to say I was buzzing.

I went over to the "listening station" to check out the (latest) 1980's hits and was jamming out, when all the sudden someone tapped me on my soldier.

I turned took off my headphones and turned around to find two burley, mustaschioed men wearing black overcoast and dour expressions. They looked really out of place. And really pissed.

"What did she say to you?" one demanded in a Russian accent, clearly refering to my chat and walk with Ms. Zvereva. Keep in mind this was the 1980's and the Cold War was still in full swing. Natalia was from the USSR, and the guys accosting me were her "minders." I was convinced they were KGB agents.

I was still young and fearless at this point, and I simply told them "she asked for directions" and went back to listening to my Depeche Mode, and that was that. Thinking back, it seems a little creepy. Fact is, the tournament I was ballboy'ing was at George Washington University, just a few blocks from the Soviet Embassy. There were agents and spies trolling all over in that neighborhood.

Such was the life of a teenaged ballboy: fun, rich glamourous people, geopolitical intrigue, free Reebok from head to toe, a week off from school, a chance to flirt with cute GWU guys, I could go on and on!

Anyway, thanks to Mom for sending me the badge from the 1990 tournament which got me thinking back. She found the badge while cleaning out her attic.

For more about Natalia Zvereva and her dramatic struggle with Soviet system, check out this article.

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