Error message

Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in menu_set_active_trail() (line 2405 of /home/jtofcb4f2eug/public_html/drupal_7/includes/menu.inc).

IMMORTALITY AND THE T2000

Lost among the milestones headlining the 2012 U.S. Open – Kim Clijsters’ and Andy Roddick’s retirements, Andy Murray’s burial of the ghost of Fred Perry, a tornado in Queens – was the anniversary of the birth of metal.  Forty-five years ago, tennis rackets were launched into the space age when Billie Jean King became the first player to win a Grand Slam title with a metal racket, winning the U.S. Championships in Forest Hills using the radical Wilson T2000. King played like she’d descended from another galaxy, not losing a set in the tournament, and the whooshing racket was the tail on her sparkling comet. With a banjo head welded to a tuning-fork shaft, the T2000’s molded curves looked like a bolt from Eero Saarinen. In actuality, the racket had been quietly around since 1953 when it was designed by Lacoste. But in ’67 the model was licensed to Wilson whose marketing muscle flexed on King’s triumph, making it a coming out year for the racket that more than any other would rally the cultural boom of modern tennis, and light the fire of my tennis loins.

After years of ogling, I started playing with the T2000 this season, now a relic among the moderns. It still turns heads, the most beguiling vixen on the court, an object of devotion that arouses the deepest passion decades after its supposed death. More than just an old tennis racket, the T2000 has become a symbol of faith stroked by a large and prominent congregation of metal heads I was awakened to. Forged in its tubular frame is the code of tennis immortality.

Back in the Summer of Love, if you wanted cool on the tennis court, the T2000 was your ticket to groovyland. My father’s tennis partner Henry was an early adopter (he also introduced pot to his crowd, but that’s another story), and when I saw the shapely contours emerge from the racket’s red-trimmed case, learning to play tennis was suddenly charged by an excitement my mother’s hand-me-down Spalding hadn’t sparked. As just a kid, the racket was out of my league, the companion of a different class of swingers who made it the hottest number of the decade. I missed out on the ride.

By the time Jimmy Connors won three Grand Slams with the T2000 in 1974, becoming the brash rebel of the tennis zeitgeist, the racket was challenged by a showroom of imitators, including the Head Master, whose snare-drum head I pounded on the court as a teenage wannabe Jimbo, ashamed of the imposter in my two-handed grip, feeling like my friend who razored off the Le Tigre logos from his polo shirts and stitched on a substitute alligator. When you want the real thing, nothing else will do. True, the aluminum clones had some performance virtues that addressed the Wilson’s quirks – like its welds which fractured after a few thousand hits, slicing the wattled skin between the head and throat, or the advanced degree in string theory required to thread the correct pattern through the impossibly complicated coiled hooks – but, to the 2000’s acolytes, this was like griping about the mechanics of a Jaguar XKE. Great beauty demands sacrifice in order to transcend the merely physical. Desire is the fuel of eternal love, and this heat sustained the 2000’s allure through its commercial twilight. Despite the invasion of lighter and stronger materials like graphite and Kevlar and the oversized watermelon heads, I couldn’t quit the T2000. My longing didn’t stray when my father brought home an Arthur Ashe Head Competition following Ashe’s cagey victory over Connors in the ’75 Wimbledon, or when I saw Connors crudely jam the 2000’s handle between his bare thighs and jerk it after smacking a two-handed winner past Brian Gottfried in North Conway, New Hampshire in 1978, or even when Wilson stopped manufacturing the racket in the 80s, the act that was supposed to be its burial. Jimbo was the last pro holdout, playing with 2000s he had stockpiled like tin can rations. Like the other famous Model T, it seemed the 2000 was destined for landfills and dim museum displays.

However, there can be second acts in American life. This year, at the start of the outdoor season here in New York, I turned 50, a mid-match statistic that motivates people to pursue old yearnings and satisfy unrequited loves before the set is done. I saw a Wilson T2000, strung and covered, shoved in a bin under a folding table at my neighborhood spring rummage sale. Like a siren, it called out to me and was mine for two dollars, sold by a cheery girl who said she was “cleaning out her father’s closet,” unaware of the treasure she was peddling. In a matter of seconds I finally had what had eluded me for so long. I hung it on my bedroom wall by the case’s locker loop, a lovesick schoolboy with a pin-up.

A wonderful phenomenon often happens when something unique enters your life: it unveils the equally special discovery of awareness, a realization that your rapture is shared by others, easing the paranoia of private obsession and uniting you with a flock of believers. It could be an odd perfume or an underground band, or a chrome tennis racket. Suddenly, you find it everywhere. Your senses flood with the rush of affirmation, transporting you from the shadows of doubt to the bright glow of truth. You’re in a brotherhood you never knew existed.

My first day out with the T2000 I played on the red clay courts in Riverside Park and immediately grasped its headstrong personality, as well as how much my game had been sabotaged by the racket changes which had warped me since my blue Master was swiped from my college theater prop locker and I first switched to a Kennex built like a washboard. The T2000’s sweet spot was as teeny as a cherry pit, and the frame felt two bricks heavier than my current Wilson Pro Staff. When I wasn’t rimming balls off the top, though, I was inspired by the ping of the T2000’s trampoline strings and the morning air coming through the open shaft. I began to envision myself as a latter-day King or Connors, hitting the ball on the rise, becoming cleansed from synthetics and senior-citizen-sloppy play by the tenacious labor and concentration the racket demanded. After the first purifying hour was up, my nine-year-old son and I walked out the gate and saw Tim Mayotte, the former pro who plays at the courts and is a prince indulging duffers like me. “Tim, I’ve got something to show you,” I beamed. Before I had the racket case halfway unzipped, Mayotte returned my volley with touch. “Look at this,” he said, and forehanded a Wilson T3000, the next version of the racket which Wilson had nervously brought out with a red metal choker to dampen vibrations and preempt a class-action lawsuit for tennis elbow. 

I was stunned. “Why are you carrying a 3000?”

Mayotte gestured to the two players beside him. “I teach with it exclusively. The small head, the weight, it’s so unforgiving you can’t get away with anything. You’re forced to hit the ball correctly.”

He knew. It was exactly what had happened to me. I was a decent player once upon a time, but had suffered a regrettable slide – flabby form, my feet sunk like stones in the clay, chipping and bunting, too lazy to turn my hips and swing, a fall enabled by the steroid rackets. Mayotte imparted the wisdom of the tennis gods. If I wanted to reverse the decline to junk, if I wanted to play like Billie Jean and Jimmy, I could hit the road to tennis salvation plucking the aerodynamic banjo in my bag. No more convincing was needed; I wound on a new grip that afternoon. When I bought the grip tape in a sporting goods store, the salesman, a rangy guy who’d played Division 1 college tennis, confided that he owned the original Lacoste model and still swore by it. He knew, too. Wherever I turned, people confessed 2000 stories, grown-ups who couldn’t shake the girl, for better or worse. Former U.S. Open Tournament Director Steve DeVoe declared, “I once smashed my T2000 indoors, and it bounced so high it nearly hit the light hanging over the court. No other racket could do that. I still have it.”

The following week I played lousy on the Central Park Har-Tru, court 13, which is rumored to be Billie Jean’s favorite but did me no favors as I adjusted poorly to my new-old racket, struggling to de-corrupt my tennis soul. It would be an exacting process, relearning to think and play proper tennis after my thirty-year Kevlar-induced stroke. Down four to two and forty-love, I mishit a forehand approach off the throat, and the ball ricocheted onto the adjacent court. It was clear from the crescendo of solid hits coming from the court and my peripheral spying that the two guys there were excellent players, consistent, better than me, and I was embarrassed by my disruptive clunker. “Sorry,” I muttered as I darted to the service box and retrieved my ball.

“No problem,” the near player said from his baseline. Looking-up to apologize again, I saw that he held a T2000 in his left hand, just like Connors. The racket was everywhere. 

“You play with the 2000?” I asked.

“Nothing else,” he said.

He was too good a player to rob of more precious court time, so I trotted back to my baseline and focused on my groundstrokes: Step, bend, turn, shift, swing, follow-through. Again. When the hour ended, I collared the guy at the shoe-washer basin.

“How long have you played with the 2000?”

“My whole life. I started forty years ago, never found a reason to change, and it’s become my thing.” Up close, he looked older than me, his wrinkles scored deeper, his hair grayer, but on the court he inhabited the game of a much younger man, of a much younger me I wanted to find. The racket was no coincidence.

“I just bought mine,” I said. “I’m still getting used to it.”

“Stick with it. You’ve got to give to get.”

Another T2000 prophet. Testify, brother! “How do you get it restrung?” Since Wilson stopped producing the racket, the artisans who strung it have died off like stonecutters.

“I used to have a guy in the city do it, but he retired about five years ago. Then I found someone in Philly who still likes to string. He says he strung for Connors back in the day. I send him a couple at a time.”

"You’ve got more than one 2000?”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve got about thirty.”

“Thirty! How?”

“eBay, yard sales, wherever I can find one. I don’t want to run out.”

“That’s incredible.” At that moment, what could have been the curdled obsession of a cult of oddballs who can’t let go made all the sense in the world. It wasn’t about misplaced nostalgia, trying to claim a missed time; it was about a force bigger than us, about standards, about endurance, about the need to believe in the possibility of forever. “Have you ever thought about trying to let Connors know?” I asked, giddy to finally be riding on the T2000, the racket slung over my shoulder like a quiver.

“I met him once at an event. I told him about the rackets.” The man stepped out of the clouded basin and shot me a grin.

“You’re kidding. What did he say?”

“He didn’t give a shit.”

Classic Connors. I would expect nothing less.

I stuffed the T2000 in my tennis bag alongside the modern Pro Staff and walked home from the park on hot streets slowing after rush hour. I was at a spiritual crossroads, turning over in my head the symbol of my vow to rediscovering my own tennis glory, and Connors’ dismissal of it. In his champion days, Connors’ T2000 was like King Arthur’s Excalibur, a sword he pulled from a stone as no other man could to win battles and rule his court with a shiny instrument of power. “Then he drew his sword Excalibur, but it was so bright in his enemy’s eyes that it gave light like thirty torches,” according to legend. A debate has reigned for centuries about the source of the king’s triumphs as depicted in the story: did the power reside in the sword, or was it in him? If Connors no longer honored the sword he once wielded that made him king for a time, maybe he’d come to realize that the racket really didn’t matter – wood, metal, fiberglass, graphite, Kevlar, oversized, spaghetti strung, that wasn’t important; it was only what the player possessed on the inside that counted on the court. It’s the lesson that all players are taught from the time of their first mishit, and that most of us spend a lifetime struggling to accept. Perhaps the T2000 would die in my bag or even get dumped at the next rummage sale.

On the other hand, you can’t play tennis without a racket. You just have to believe it’s the one you pulled from a stone.