Bjorn in the USA

Published 9:40 am Friday, July 16, 2010

The Grateful Dead once sang “What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been.”

My son, Bjorn, being of The Grateful Living, has travelled far to become the number one tennis player at Chowan University in Murfreesboro, N.C.

I had been number one in tennis at Franklin High School in that halcyon year of 1967, pre-summer of love, the first class to graduate from the (then) new school building. Cue Sony and Cher: . . . “And The Beat Goes On.”

As Bjorn has also made the Chowan Dean’s List — no mean feat after some indifferent and peripatetic schooling in his childhood in London and Northern Ireland.

My brother, David, had been an academic star at Chowan in the early 1960s when the Braves were something of a junior college football power.

So perhaps the circle will be unbroken if Bjorn can make the renamed Hawks gridiron squad this August as a walk-on.

He’s had to sit out a year by mandate from the omnipotent NCAA, which has limited his football eligibility to one season, bizarrely equating a few primitive outings with a sandlot “American Football Team” in Belfast to three full years of college football in America.

This would be the same NCAA who not long ago forced the Braves to become the Hawks, ostensibly due to cultural sensitivity to Indian — excuse me, Native American — feelings. The very same NCAA, whose headquarters are in the city of Indianapolis in the state of Indiana. Whatever.

Bjorn’s mom had been a top 10 ranked junior in tennis in Belfast, and when we met on my travels at a fashionable West London grass courts tennis club, she would regularly beat me quite easily. Indeed I recall feeling pretty good if I could just about see a blistering drive whistling past my ear.

This moved me to seriously study the game and eventually to play far above my talent level. But then it was a nice Swiss-French guy who really encapsulated the essence of hitting a tennis ball for me on a lush grass court one sunny day in London — opening my eyes to the possibilities of hitting out and keeping the ball in play consistently.

Later on I realized that I have something of a gift for the theory and technique of striking a tennis ball, along with the mental approach that can lead to success on court. I believe that I can pretty much improve any hacker’s game by up to 30 percent or more in a very few minutes, and over the years, people have solicited my coaching to help them out of their morass of inconsistency on court. (However, send no money now.)

Unfortunately Bjorn’s mom and I disagreed on almost everything but his name. He was duly christened Bjorn Barry Williams Cecil Blythe — they’re big on multiple names in the U.K. — in Richmond-upon-Thames, being actually born in St. Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, a deep forehand drive from the new Lawn Tennis Association Centre of Excellence.

Unlike many tennis parents, however, we never really pushed him to play tennis and he instead concentrated on football (soccer). I had the pleasure of coaching him in this (to me) strange game. One of his pals on the neighborhood team, a Dutch boy named Bart Koffeeman, became team captain as a Centre-Back for Rutgers University.

By the 1980s I would occasionally be mistaken for Bjorn Borg on the streets of London, being “long haired, noble fared” to para-quote Eric Burden of The Animals, and wearing my trademark headband that predated Borg and McEnroe.

Once, in a dark London nightspot, a tipsy Swedish lady insisted that I really was Borg, and demanded an autograph. When I signed my initials B.B. with a flourish, she squealed with delight and shouted out, “Oh, it’s him. It’s him.”

On another occasion, as I strolled down Regent Street, a bemused cockney labourer muttered “Oi, hit’s BE-Yawn Bowrg, innit!”

And then a darling young English schoolgirl politely accosted me at Harrod’s Department Store in Knightsbridge, “Excuse me, but are you Bjorn Borg?” To which I coyly replied “oh, not exactly.”

Little Bjorn would often accompany me on babysitting duty to the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club, where many pro players would congregate in June for extra grass courts practice for Wimbledon.

Being a freelance writer and journalist by trade at the time, it was handy for quotes and contacts. I once caused a minor Fleet Street sensation by witnessing the 16-year-old Canadian player Carling Bassett at the Ealing Club bar downing a cold Heineken after practice even though she was underage at the time.

She was the scioness of the Carling Brewery firm, and Heineken reran my story at the height of its mass U.K. advertising campaign about how Heineken “touches parts of the body that other beers never reach.”

Exploiting my small article, their caption over an outrageously fleshy photo of Miss Bassett proclaimed, “Heineken touches the daughters that other beers never touched.”

Around that time Bjorn would be babysat courtside by one of the nice Ealing ladies while I played my low-level club handicap match on one of the superb grass “match courts” that they used to have there.

As often happened, two professionals were practicing on the court next to my match one day, and out of boredom, would intermittently observe my struggle to compete in a tough three-setter that I ultimately just lost.

Afterwards I was sitting in the cozy clubhouse near the two pros at the bar when someone called out to me as to how my match had gone. When I replied that I’d lost, Hungary’s Balazs Taroczy looked my way and said sympathetically, “Oh, too bad.”

They went on to win the Wimbledon Doubles Championship that year.

Then the next year, Taroczy was back for grass courts practice with his partner, Switzerland’s Heinz Gunthardt, again next to my club handicap match.

But this time I won my match on the day, and they lost their Wimbledon Title. So when the next June rolled around, there I was playing yet another scrappy club match, and Gunthardt and Taroczy were once again practicing on the next match court.

And as they towelled off , Taroczy looked over at me and pointed his finger and said, “This year you lose, right?”

Not long after that I was able to write, edit and publish my own tennis magazine called Tennis News UK. At that time I regularly received full complimentary center court passes for Wimbledon, much to the chagrin of my friends at the Ealing Club, who’d often shell out wads of cash just for a ticket to sit in the boonies on a single court, and it would probably be rained out anyway.

Whereas, my pass enabled me to wander at will.

In a bad tempered match on the old number one court a struggling McEnroe snarled at me when my little Olympus Camera whirred as he was hitting a shot. “Do you have to do that just as I’m hitting the ball?” he said with full bore staring me down from a distance of a very few feet.

“No, actually,” I blurted out.

But he’d already turned his back in disgust. Learned a lot about serving from him, though, as he’d make running comments to himself about his service mechanics. “Throw the ball further in front of your body, you ‘expletive deleted’”…was one pearl of wisdom I gleaned from The Mac.

I used to drive down to Wimbledon every day and park on a side street some distance from what was the World Centre of Tennis for the fortnight. Locking my car door one day I noticed a rather attractive young lady with her car window rolled down asking a passerby for directions to the All England Club.

It was Annabelle Croft, then the top ladies player in Britain. I sold that story for a tidy sum to the London tabloid press, who roared “Britain’s Number One Can’t Find Centre Court!”

Croft is today a big cheese on the Eurosport Channel on a show with eight-time Grand Slam champion Matts Wilander called “Game, Set, and Matts.” Sadly, Matts could never win Wimbledon, and even though the semi-tough Scot Andy Murray finds his way to Centre Court regularly (two consecutive semifinals), Britain remains locked down in the eternal vigil for another British champion.

And then a rather curious celebrity encounter took place on some dusty public courts in Chiswick, West London, where I’d try to supplement my meagre income doing private coaching. All sorts would respond to my handwritten advert put up at a nearby news agent’s shop window, including a very nice lady named Mrs. Howe, who came along with her two lovely children, ages 10 and 8.

Unknown to me, their father, George, watched as I taught the kids how to play, and he got so excited that he went out and bought an expensive racket and had to have lessons himself. Sometime later, as Mrs. Howe paid for further lessons for the kids, I told her that her husband, George, had mentioned that he wrote music for films.

I just wondered if I’d ever heard of one. It turned out that George “Howe” was really George Fenton, and that he’d written the music for “Ghandi” and TV’s “Jewel In The Crown,” and that he has been nominated for an Academy Award on several occasions.

As for the tennis magazine, the critics raved, but the commercial side was not so good. It was my bad luck to get waylaid by the late ‘80s Thatcher Bust as the London property market cooled precipitately — kind of an ominous portent of the worldwide credit crunch last year.

Being a free magazine, TNUK was entirely reliant on the thousands of pounds of advertising that flowed so copiously the one year, only to dry up completely the next. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted and taught me the Golden Rule of British Publishing, “Have enough money to back your production even if you get no sales or advertising at all.”

For his part, little Bjorn offered to bail me out with his pocket money, good-hearted soul that he is.

And now the circle has turned yet again as Bjorn was back at The All England Club this year working in catering for the two weeks of the championships, trying to earn extra money to afford the fees at Chowan.

I’d put him on the cover of Tennis News UK when he was a baby, touting him as “Britain’s Bjorn —A Future Champion?” Well, not in tennis as it turned out, just a reasonably good player.

In fact I beat him the last time we played; no, it wasn’t when he was 3 years old. But now he’s had the benefit of some very good coaching from Chris Stambaugh at Chowan, and he’ll likely kick my butt when we have our rematch later on this summer in the metropolis of Komarno in Slovakia on the Danube River border with Hungary.

My much younger wife, Eva, is a doctor here and I teach English as a foreign language. I’m actually teaching her how to play tennis even as we speak. (Don’t have to teach her English anymore — hers is better than mine. She also speaks Slovak, of course, and Czech and Hungarian, and had to take eight years of Russian in school. In fact she was actually forced to be a leader in the SZM-Socialistic Union of Youth, a young Communist organization, kind of like the Girl Scouts.)

Enfine, for a person with an ego the size of mine, it’s quite humbling to have to say that your son has grown up to be a better man than you are. Bjorn is simply a very good kid as Chowan Football Coach Tim Place recently stated, and it certainly is not his fault that his father is just about the most notorious person to ever graduate from Franklin High School.

On the other hand, maybe not quite so bad as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was recruited from the Middle East by Chowan in the ‘80s — the same Khalid Sheikh who was the so-called mastermind behind the 9/11 bombings.

And as the legendary Dave Barry would say, “I am not making this up. You can look it up.”