Arkansas Wins Southerns: Waffle House, Redemption, and a Shot of Bailey’s

Draft in Progress . . .

Day 1: Driving all day to Dothan, Alabama. 12 hours in the car with Doug and Bill. We talk tennis, theology, politics. BS, too. Remnants of Hurricane Nicole greet us with wind and rain an hour outside Dothan. Right next to our hotel is a Waffle House. Bill says let’s eat there. It feels like an icebox inside. I’m 65 years old and have never eaten at a Waffle House. I order a Pecan Waffle and Hash Browns with onions. The waitress looks disappointed. After she leaves, Bill explains that you should have gotten more stuff on your hash browns like everyone else in the world: Melted American Cheese, Hickory Smoked Ham, Diced Tomatoes, Jalapeno Peppers, Grilled Mushrooms, Bert’s Chili, Sausage Gravy . . . . We walk across the parking lot back to the hotel. We both try, but fail, to get a good night’s sleep.

Day 2: Because of the rain, our 7:30 am match is rescheduled for 2:30 pm.  A long morning waiting for matches to begin, though not as long as it takes to count votes in Arizona and Nevada, where control of the US Senate will be decided. Waiting, waiting, waiting. That’s a big part of tournament tennis. All three matches are decided by match tiebreakers. John Bailey and Bill Ashley win their match. Greg Fess (who has a new knee) and Johnny Johnson lose theirs. They both look sluggish at first, but come back to make it a very close match (Good Sign!). Bill and Doug are up 9-7 in a match tiebreaker when Bill misses an easy put away on match point with everyone watching. He turns to me and says “Shades of Callen Cup” where he missed an easy overhead on a crucial set point. Takes guts to say something like that under so much pressure. On the next point, Bill somehow digs out a smash at his feet and hits a stunning reflex lob winner to win the match on what turned out to be the most important point of the entire weekend. Instant redemption! We lose the second match late at night, 2-1. Again all the matches are close. Tired and depressed after a late night loss, Bill and I return to our room, start watching the new Elvis movie. All of a sudden, I’m starving. I walk a few steps to the Waffle House, order the same thing: a Pecan Waffle and an order of Hash Browns with onions. They taste even better the second night. I fall fast asleep before Elvis gains all that weight and his life falls apart.

Day 3: In the morning, we win another tight match, 2-1. I watch Greg Fess and Johnny Johnson play. Greg’s knee looks better and better. I sit next to his wife, Judi. (Judi and Greg have won two gold balls together in mixed.) I hesitate to share this because Greg’s pretty humble, but Judi tells me her husband’s a great athlete (she’s right). Greg is so fun to watch on the doubles court. Always attacking the net and picking off shots, he seems to be everywhere at once. (I’m feeling better about the team’s chances.) If we win the afternoon match, we go to Nationals. Again, it comes down to a final match. This time it’s John Bailey and Bill Ashley, who are in a very tight second set with John Bailey serving. On his third match point, he decides to take a risk and hit a big second serve up the T. We all say “ace” when it hits. Later, Doug tells me he would not have the courage to hit that shot. Neither would I. At the celebratory dinner that night, I sit next to Johnny Johnson and learn his son wants to get a doctorate in Ornithology. How cool is that. While searching through the Audible Library on my cell phone for J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, the great classic of nature writing where every sentence describes a bird’s movements, I look up to see one end of the table passing a shot of Bailey’s to the other end of the table. They call it the Bailey Shot. John Bailey downs it with smile. We’re off to nationals.