Friday, September 07, 2018

What It Takes -- Part 1, Martina and Mike

For most of us today, sports are a part of our lives.  As toddlers we are already playing catch and kicking balls around.  As children we play in games with our friends and idolize the grown-ups who play the same games we do (and they wear uniforms!).  Getting a bit older we may participate in organized leagues and start to take our games more seriously.  Such a person may begin to think:

I wonder if I could play this sport professionally myself?

As time goes on it becomes clear that some people have been blessed with skills which set them apart from their peers.  He or she may become the star of one (or more than one) of their school teams.  They may receive a scholarship from a college which is interested in their athletic ability.  Scouts for professional teams might even be watching them and offer them a contract.

So a selection process is at work here.  Let's say you're one of these people who've progressed this far.  You're a professional athlete at some level.  You're finding the competition now is really fierce.  You most likely will be thinking:

I wonder if I can continue to compete successfully in my sport for years to come? How long can this go on?

Okay, let's say it does go on.  You're an established professional who's beaten the odds and you are still playing at the highest level.  But being somewhat famous and making a lot of money are not enough, you find.  The selection process is still at work for you.  Now you are no longer asking -- no, actually you are telling yourself:

I am the best who ever was.  No person, no obstacle, can stop me.  I choose this for my destiny: I am Number One, I am the greatest player to have ever played this damned sport, the champion of the ages, that's who I am.  I will not be, I cannot be, defeated. 

People like this are rare.  You have probably never met one.

Driving a taxi in New York City for all these years, I've met two of them.  From those rides I was able to gain an insight about what it takes to stand alone on top of the mountain.  Here are the stories, in chronological order....


On a sunny, mid-August day in 1983 I saw my next fare waving at me at the corner of 56th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan.  He was a 30-something guy, white shorts, a polo shirt, and in the hand that wasn't up in the air he was carrying about half a dozen tennis racquets.  Placing them carefully on the back seat as he got in (I noticed) he told me his destination was a certain country club out in Douglaston, Queens, about a thirty-minute ride.  

Well, I'm always sizing up my passengers as they get in, mainly to ascertain whether or not they're conversational.  This often means picking out something to comment on in the environment, saying something about it, and noting their response.  In this case, it was easy: 

"So what's with all the tennis racquets?" 

"You know who Martina Navratilova is, the tennis player?"

"Oh, sure."

Although I don't really follow the sport as a fan (I'm a casual player), it would have been difficult in 1983 not to know who Martina Navratilova was.  She was the number one female tennis player in the world at the time and she was very famous.  
"I'm her coach," my passenger said cheerfully, "and these are her racquets.  I'm going out to Queens now to practice with her."

"Oh, right, the U.S. Open," I said.  "When does it start?"

"It starts tomorrow for the qualification rounds, but Martina isn't playing until Monday."

Just from the pleasant tone of his voice, I knew I had a real conversationalist here. And clearly there could be plenty to talk about.  I became (once again) the interviewer of my own talk show and he, my special guest. 

His name was Mike Estep.  He was a professional tennis player himself, he told me, ranked 250th on the men's tour.  By the end of the ride, however, he would be ranked Number One in a unique category of my own invention: The Friendliest Passenger In My Cab Of All Time.  

Mike was totally happy to answer any questions I threw at him, and then some. Things like:

"How long have you been Martina's coach?"

"I just recently came on board.  You know, she's never won the U.S. Open.  I think I can help her do that."

"How so?"

"Well, the main thing is she's got to charge the net more.  Be more aggressive."


I knew nothing about tennis strategy but appreciated his candor.  I realized a door had been opened for me here.  I could ask this guy anything about anything.

"When you practice, do you ever play a game for real?"


"Who wins?"

"Oh, I beat her every time," he said -- not bragging, just matter-of-factly.

Interesting.  The number 250 male can beat the number one female.  Every time. Or so he says.  I wondered if this could really be true.  Hmmm...

I let the conversation flow around a bit and Mike told me some of his stories about being on the tour.  About how he'd once played an exhibition match in India against that country's top tennis player and, although he lost the match, he was happy to have lost because it caused the people who'd come to see them compete (the Indian locals) go home smiling.  Another story had to do with a time a couple of years earlier when he'd been playing at Wimbledon.  They have a parlay betting method in the U.K. in which a bettor can choose the winners of several consecutive matches on a card and if all his picks win, the bettor can walk away with quite a bit of money.  Mike learned later that there had been a gambler who had a card in which he'd correctly picked the winners of several matches and needed just one more correct pick on his card to win a small fortune.  That match had been a match that Mike had played in and won, but the gambler had picked his opponent to win it, so he wound up winning nothing.  "The other guy is higher ranked than me," Mike said, "but what he [the bettor] didn't know is that I always beat him."  He felt bad for the gambler, adding that he had no illusions about his own chances of going much further in the tournament.  "It's not like I'm going to win Wimbledon," he said.  

Our thirty-minute ride went by very quickly, which is a phenomenon that can happen in a taxicab when there's no lull in the conversation.  As we were about to enter the parking lot of the private country club in Douglaston where Martina was staying, Mike surprised me:

"Would you like to come over and watch us practice?"

Every once in a while I answer a question correctly.  Dismissing immediate thoughts of "needing to get back to work" I replied:


What an extraordinary invitation!  So I parked the cab right there in the parking lot and the two of us got out and began walking toward the tennis court, about a hundred yards away down a path to our right.  A thought came to mind: as a fan of baseball and, as mentioned, as a casual tennis player, I've often wondered what it would be like to try to hit a ball thrown by a Major League baseball player or to hit the serve of a professional tennis player.  Is it really that hard to hit it?  Would I even see it as it went zipping by me?  I realized I had an opportunity at hand and seized the moment.  I said to Mike:

"You know, I've always wondered what it would be like to try to return the serve of a professional tennis player.  Do you think you could hit me a few?"

Now, keep in mind, I'm not an imposing kind of person andI would never have asked this question unless I was sure it was appropriate.  But Mike had already shown that he was such a friendly guy that there was no question in my mind that he'd be glad to accommodate me if he could.

"Well," he said, "if Martina's not out there yet... sure."

We arrived at the court.  About a dozen people were gathered around, waiting to see Martina.  But instead what they saw was her coach and a guy wearing jeans with a big smile on his face go out onto the court.  Martina had not yet arrived.

How surreal was this?  Thirty-five minutes ago I was driving my cab up 6th Avenue looking for a fare.  Now I am standing on a tennis court with one of Martina Navratilova's racquets in my hand, waiting for her coach to start hitting me serves.  I am eagerly awaiting being humiliated in a nice way by my own inability to play the game, and in view of a bunch of spectators.  Bring it on!

Mike raised his racquet in the air and pumped one at me.

To my surprise I reacted in time to hit the ball.  It didn't go anywhere near the net, but it didn't go past me, either.  I was pleased.  Mike hit me another one.  I hit it again, a little better this time.  On the next serve (and now I'm starting to bounce back and forth in imitation of how tennis players awaiting serves put their bodies in motion just before the ball is hit to them) I hit the ball over the net.  Out of bounds, but over the net.  Mike hit me another one, and a few more.  On each serve, as I was getting my timing down, I was hitting better shots.

I'm starting to think, damn, maybe I'm better at this sport than I've given myself credit for.  Maybe I should take this game more seriously, get into a league myself, take lessons.  I could be a contender.

Suddenly out onto the court steps Martina Navratilova.  She sees her coach playing tennis with some guy holding one of her racquets in his hand.

Martina, in her Czechoslovakian accent, looking at Mike: "Who's this?"

Mike, nonchalantly: "Oh, it's my taxi driver."

Martina: "Oh!  Okay!"

And with that she sits down, her back against the fencing that surrounds the court, to watch us play.

Oh my god, now I am playing tennis with not only a bunch of spectators gawking at me, but under the gaze of the best female tennis player in the world, as well.  And I'm playing with her racquet!  Pressure!  Mike serves me again, and this time I hit the ball over his head, again out of bounds but at least I'm getting the center of the racquet on the ball.  I'm beginning to wonder if I'm too old to turn pro.

On his next serve, Mike puts some "English" on the ball, causing it to spin sharply off to one side as it hits the surface and making it completely impossible for me to hit it back.  This was great fun, a bit of well-deserved showing off on his part, and after one more of these, thinking it better not to overstay my welcome, I returned Martina's racquet to its rightful owner, thanking her and Mike profusely for their hospitality, so to speak.  I walked behind the fence and found a solitary position (not among the other spectators) from which to watch their practice session.

Martina stepped out onto the court and it began.

They had what appeared to be a set regimen of drills.  In one of them they stood only about ten feet apart from each other on opposite sides of the net and volleyed back and forth, machine-gun-rat-a-tat-tat style, a marvelous display of reflexes and coordination.  These were professional, conditioned athletes doing their homework, you might say, although with their grace and precision it seemed to me they could just as well have been ballet dancers or circus acrobats.   There was also a physicality about them, Martina especially, that was striking.  She exuded strength, the musculature in her arms and thighs sculpted like a statue of an Amazon warrior.

This is not to minimize Mike. At one point during a break in their routine, he walked over to me and asked me what I thought.

"It's hard for me to believe there are 249 guys better than you," I replied.  He was that good.

Returning to the court, they began to practice by playing a game for real, to win. Immediately I remembered what Mike had said in the cab:

"Oh, I beat her every time."

Now I could get to see for myself if this was really true.  They played for about twenty minutes, and they played hard.  Did he beat her?  Yes, in fact, he did.  And this is what gave me my first insight about what it takes to be the one standing alone on top of the mountain.

It was Martina's ferocity in missing a point in a practice session.  Ferocity at herself. It was a little scary to witness.  I was glad I was standing behind a fence!

Now you may be recalling how upset you may have become in some game you had once been trying to win, but did not.  You may be thinking that that's how Martina must have felt as she failed to anticipate what the trajectory of Mike's next shot would be and watched helplessly as the ball went whizzing by her.  I'm going to make an assumption here that you are underestimating what Martina's actual response was.  "Upset" is not the word.  Nor would "dismayed", "agitated", "unnerved", "angered", "disturbed", or "flustered" be the words.

I believe the more accurate description would be MORALLY OUTRAGED.

No, this was not just a return she'd failed to make.  This was an INJUSTICE.  This was an IDIOCY that was UNACCEPTABLE.  This was failure to store grain in anticipation of a harsh winter.  This was not properly securing your fishing boat to the pier before the big storm hit.  This was putting twenty grand on a horse named Alvoc because Jack, the local bookie, says he has inside information.

After failure, the mindset becomes akin to a hard knuckles fistfight in a VIRTUOUS WAR to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to RIGHT THE WRONG THAT HAS BEEN DONE.

That, along with all the skills, is what it takes to become Number One.

Mike Estep, the friendliest passenger who ever rode in my cab and a tennis virtuoso, had what it takes to rise to the middle rankings on the men's tour.  But he didn't have that.

Martina did.

And a couple of weeks later, for the fist time, she won the U.S. Open.


This is the first in a three-part series, "What It Takes".  Stay tuned for Part 2, "My (Verbal) Tennis Match With John McEnroe".