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John Howell’s Column

Tennis legends and lies recalled from NO courts

During the years that we had this newspaper leased I utilized much leisure time playing tennis at New Orleans’ City Park, Audubon Park, Jefferson Playground, Pontchartrain Park and so on.

Never has someone spent so much time in pursuit of a little yellow ball with so little to show for it. What my play lacked in quality, I made up in quantity. Anyone in his right mind would have quit. I have always had difficulty finding my right mind.

We had a tennis organization in New Orleans called the New Orleans League Tennis Association. NOLTA. It was patterned after the Altlanta League Tennis Association (ALTA). In Atlanta, ALTA had thousands of people playing at all skill levels playing every weekend. In New Orleans, we hoped that we’d be able to fill out enough teams for a few matches on Saturdays.

We spent quite a bit of time wondering why tennis was so hot in Atlanta and so tepid in New Orleans. One explanation was that in Atlanta folks just didn’t have much better to do while in New Orleans there were just too many other distractions.

My own theory had to do with humidity. Atlanta is about 1,000 feet above sea level; New Orleans is level or less. The elevation difference can also make a difference in humidity. The difference in humidity can make a real difference in one’s enthusiasm for summer league tennis.

As far as I know, NOLTA has not reorganized since Katrina. My old tennis buddies have probably scattered far and wide. Only rarely do I cross paths with a face familiar from those hours spent on the courts in sweating, summer liquidity.

Which means that I no longer get e-mails from Jim Hill. Hill was a brilliant man, a PhD researcher in some field that I can’t pronounce. He was nerdy enough to get one everyone’s nerves because he was always right. He was always a NOLTA team captain.

He only played doubles, and he would always figure out a way to win. He’d pair with a great partner who would carry him, but Hill would find a way to hold up his side of the court as well. In doubles, he and his partner would always beat a better team. If they didn’t do it with outright skill, they would win because the other players would get frustrated that he was beating them. They’d get mad and then blow it. Happened often.

Every e-mail that I ever received from him was always arrived marked “Highest Priority.” He might send an email to wish you a “good morning” and it would arrive “Highest Priority.”

Finally I figured out that it was highest priority just because it came from him. Any message he dispensed should be handled with the “highest priority.”

We all spent a lot of time in the sun during those days.