Michael Hogan's "The Colonel"
One of the popular games of today’s world is “Tennis”. It is so much a part of the average teenager’s sports’ experience that it’s difficult for most of them to imagine a time when it was not. Talking about the tennis, in the post-war period and the Fifties of my childhood, it was considered more a high profile sport played at country clubs and exclusive resorts.
Tennis is largely a sport for the male sex and, although women had been competing for years at Wimbledon and other international venues, most were amateurs and the few professionals who did compete got paid so little. It wasn’t until Billie Jean King’s assertiveness in 1967 and the Virginia Slim tournaments of the Seventies that the sport opened up for a generation of Chris Everts and Steffi Grafs, and finally grew to include the million-dollar players like Venus and Serena Williams who changed the sport forever making it the dream of every athletic boy and girl.
I think colonel was in his mid-fifties when we first played tennis. I could not imagine, as I improved my tennis skills, and learned to volley deep, hit cross-court passing shots and top-spin lobs, that he could be able to keep up with me. Surely, the student would outplay the master any day. But it never happened. Colonel Flack had a whole repertoire of moves: drop shots, slices, topspin backhands, corkscrew serves, and high-bouncing serves which just cut the end of the line. He knew the angles and the limits of the court and, comfortable with these absorbed geometries, kept his young opponent racing from the net to the baseline, ragged and breathless.
As I improved the muscles on my right forearm grew oversized, my lung capacity deepened, and my strokes improved from the gradual anticipation of the slides and twists the ball would take as it came off the Colonel’s racket, My service improved as well, so that I sometimes caught him wrong-footed and could come to the net quickly and put the ball away. I still didn’t win a set, but the games were closer and I noticed the Colonel was flushed and winded more and more often.
One afternoon, a new boy appeared on the block redheaded, cocky, with an easy confidence and grace and a powerful serve which could knock a poorly-gripped racket clear out of your hand. Tommy Gallagher was a compact, good-looking Irish boy who appeared from nowhere and had all the natural moves of a champion. I was blown off the court again and again in swift, blurred games of intense ferocity. Then I realize the difference between a “club player” as opposed to a “show player” or competitive athlete. He played like he was born to it.
I was to play Tommy Gallagher many times over the next two years. I was beaten by him, as he beat most of his competitors. More importantly, losing to him did not take away my love of the game or my sense of myself as a player. This was true because Colonel Flack and I returned to our early morning volleys interspersed with lessons.
There, Colonel Flack taught me the techniques and some major points to improve my game that how to be totally present in the moment, totally aware, totally focused. He also trained me to go after every ball regardless of whether it seemed returnable or not. According to my skill level he taught me to play, placing shots, not over-hitting because of a desire to put it away like a pro, but stroking with the steady grace and pressure of a good club player who often tires out his more ambitious, more aggressive opponent. At last, he taught me that graciousness is what saves the game from savagery and ugliness.
Now getting to the age of sixties, older now than Colonel Flack was on that summer morning when he took a skinny twelve-year old out to the concrete courts of a seaside town to give him the gift of lifelong victory. He gave me not only a way of maintaining both physical and psychological fitness, but also a way of moving with grace and a sure sense of gratitude. So I could never forget those memorable moments of my life where I learned a lot from that person.