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June 29, 2014 11:25 AM
Jack_with_trophyAre you better than a 9-year-old?  
I was about to find out.
First, some background. The recently completed USTA Southwest Junior Closed, held in Tucson, attracted nearly 350 entrants. For northern New Mexico youngsters, this event usually proves to be tougher than a plastic tennis ball container.   
Not for Albuquerque’s Jack Hubbard. Not this year anyway. Using orange tennis balls, the 4-foot-5-inch sprout captured both the singles and the doubles (with Carlos Carranza of El Paso) in the Quick Start 10-and-under boys.
Jack_Hubbard_hittingJack did not lose in the tournament.
People do odd things in their lives that at the time seem like good ideas. Thinking Jack might make a story, I challenged him to a singles match. I didn’t throw down the gauntlet directly to Jack, of course, for I’m not in the habit of inviting small fries out to play. Rather, I phoned Jack’s father, Dave Hubbard, a retired business executive, to tell him my idea.
Dave didn’t offer an immediate response. In fact, a long pause filled my ear. That was followed by “Oh” and another pause. Finally, his answer: “Well, OK, yes.”  I’m not quite sure Dave completely understood why a grown man would want to take on a child who finished third grade in May and still has some baby teeth.  
In retrospect, I’m not quite sure I understood why.   
Because the match was my idea, I let Dave select the site. He picked the Albuquerque Country Club where, I learned, Jack gets tennis instruction from the head pro, Tres Jones, and where Jack’s dad plays golf to a 10 handicap.
I felt a stir in my gut when I heard the venue. The tennis courts at the Albuquerque Country Club are clay, I remembered. Slow red clay. I haven’t played on clay—red, green, brown or otherwise—since Henry Clay made a run for the White House.
You’re supposed to slide on clay, I am aware. The last time I slid on anything was the winter of 2006 when I slipped on driveway ice and slid a good six or eight feet—on my keister.

Meeting my opponent

Dave said, How about you two play at 2:30?  Would that be all right? I was hoping for 8 in the morning. Mid-afternoon, I knew, would be Sahara hot. No matter, I didn’t expect to work up much of a sweat.   
When I mentioned what I was going to do, Becky Lee, the NNMTA’s community supervisor and wise in the world of 10-and-under tennis, also paused. “You ought to practice,” she said. Practice? C’mon, this wasn’t going to be a test in conversational Arabic.
Tres was working with a group of juniors when I arrived at the ACC.  When he called out Jack’s name, a mop of brown hair and a Mouseketeer’s face stepped up to hit a ball. He was by far the smallest person on the court. Later, when I introduced myself, the top of Jack’s head reached a hair north of my bellybutton.
No way was Jack going to chop down this skinny beanstalk.
While we waited for Tres to reset the baselines—this would be a 60-foot court rather than the standard 78-foot—I chatted with Jack. Talk about quick starts, he said he took up tennis at age 4. He told me that his brother, Chris Humphreys, plays Division I tennis for Elon University, which I knew, and that his mother, Sharon Humphreys, had played college tennis, which I didn’t know. Were these genetic details some sort of psychological ploy on Jack’s part? Not likely, I decided.   
We would play a four-game set, as Jack had done in Tucson in singles. He handed me a 25-inch racket, the shortened model used on the 10-and-under circuit. The sawed-off thing felt almost like a flyswatter. No matter, I would adjust.
The interest in this match was not high. A crowd of two—Tres and Dave—packed the spectator section. That’s two more than ever saw me play on my high school team more than a half-century ago.  
Are you nervous? I asked Jack as we walked out on the court. He shrugged.  I don’t believe he knew the meaning of the word.
USTA orange balls bounce about half as high as standard yellow tennis balls. To my surprise, I found myself in the warm-up reaching for shots that struck the clay like wounded birds. No matter, I would adjust.
Jack had a good forehand, I saw right away.  It was steady and he could hit it deep. I went right to work on his backhand. I made a mental note: Don’t hit it there either.    

Excuses, excuses

Before I knew it, Jack had won the first game. Immediately I began to list in silence reasons why I should not be out there. The shrimpy court. The sluggish clay. The peewee racket. The dead balls.  The white-hot day.
Perspiration poured out of me like a sprinkler. I gulped a full glass of water on the changeover. Then another. Jack, I noticed, did not stop to drink. Instead, he went on a roll.
I dug in and fought back to level the game score at 3-all.  In the seventh game I breezed along to grab a 40-love lead. Such a cushion led me to consider my victory speech. Good job, I would tell Jack. Keep practicing, I would say. While my mind wandered, this time Jack dug in. He rallied fiercely to go up 4-3. One more game and Jack, I realized, would claim the set, the match and, quite possibly, a good bit of my self-esteem. Time to dig in again.
My strategy for the eighth game was to make Jack run. Instead, I ran and ran. If I attempted to serve him wide, Jack was there. If I made an effort to power shots by him, Jack powered the ball back, only harder. Dig in? I was digging my own grave.
When I tried to adjust, Jack read me like a book—a children’s book.
Jack_and_Toby_1_002_(3)Indeed, he let everything I hit either sail gaily past the abbreviated baseline or tumble feebly into the bottom of the net. Everything Jack hit plunked where he wanted. He prevailed, 5-3. When we shook hands, Jack offered a half-grin. Not a drop of sweat decorated his face.   
Afterward, I asked Jack if he had ever heard of John McEnroe.
Rod Laver?
Chris Evert?
“I don’t know many tennis players,” he admitted.
No matter, the kid knows how to play.
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