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June 13, 2012 03:12 PM
2_tennis_boys_(2)The photograph that accompanies these words was taken sometime in the 1930s. I don’t know the exact year or who took the picture or the identity of the bespectacled tennis player on the right.
The slender, squinting fellow on the left is my father. 
Though I can’t say for certain, the photo was probably taken at the tennis courts in my father’s hometown of Colorado City, a small, windswept spot on the West Texas oil patch. 
When I discovered this picture some years back, I showed it to my mother. She didn’t have any information about the photograph nor did my father’s cousin, who was around him during part of his childhood.
I had no idea my father played tennis as a boy.  He never talked much about those Depression years, for they clearly lacked joy. During that decade he lost both his parents and nearly died of pleurisy himself. Orphaned and sickly, he was passed back and forth among relatives.
In spite of all this I can see in my father’s face a glint of hope.
Much later, when I started to play tennis, my father returned to the game. For years he’d been a frustrated golfer. I recall one Saturday morning when I was about 10 or 11. As my father went out the door for a golf outing, he said something like this to my mother: “If I don’t break 100, I’m not going to play again.”
He didn’t play golf again, that I recall. His clubs were put away and out of nowhere appeared a tennis racket. Wood, of course.
My father embraced tennis. Though he employed homemade strokes, tennis didn’t discourage him the way golf had. He was forever happy when he played and it mattered not at all if he won or lost, characteristics I wish I inherited.
One summer, a business associate of my father’s gave him two tickets and two clubhouse passes to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y., where the National Singles, the forerunner to today’s U.S. Open, used to be played. I can still remember walking through those Tudor buildings and then outside, to eat a hamburger on the club’s patio and to stare in wonder at tennis played on grass.
“That’s Roy Emerson over there,” my father said, nodding toward a lanky, dark-haired Australian talking to a group of onlookers. In those days before the tennis boom, security did not exist and players mingled freely with spectators.
“Why don’t you get his autograph?” my father said.
“Nah, I don’t think so.”
“Oh, c’mon, go ask him for an autograph.”
I shook my head. To mask a case of youthful shyness, I told my father I did not collect autographs and that doing so was stupid. 
“Toby, take your program over there and have him sign it. I’ve got a pen. Go on.”
No,” I said with growing firmness. “I don’t want to.”
I could tell he was annoyed, and nothing more was said.
Five years later my father was gone, dead of cancer before he turned 50.
Strangest thing: Whenever I look at this photograph, I feel both sad and cheered.
Last fall, I met Roy Emerson when he visited the ColemanVision Tennis Championships. During a tournament party at Tanoan Country Club I mentioned that I had watched him play 50 years before, at the 1961 National Singles, which he won. I told him how my father had wanted me to get his autograph and how I had stubbornly refused. 
I half expected Emerson to deliver some profound Aussie wisdom about immaturity and the value of listening to your parents. Instead, I got something else.
Peering at me over the tops of his glasses, he said, “Here, take this.”
He had signed a cocktail napkin. 
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