Angela Allen should be warm- ing up.
The captain of the Northstars, instead, is standing outside the pro shop at L.B. Houston Tennis Center in far west Dallas, waiting for her opponent to show up. It’s 9:32. Allin’s opponent, Claire Bailey, has exactly 13 minutes to get here. One second past 9:45 and Bailey automatically loses by default.
It is Thursday morning, “game day” to the ladies of TCD (that’s Tennis Competitors of Dallas). On courts as far east as Rockwall and as far west as Fort Worth, the day’s 248 TCD matches are just beginning. There’s a very good reason why this league isn’t called Tennis Players of Dallas. The ladies of TCD can be downright John McEnroe-like in their tennis. One of the pros at L.B. Houston still talks about the time a disagreement over a line call led to a heated argument during which two women wrestled each other to the ground and rolled around on the lawn until one player, realizing she’d lost her diamond earring during the tussle, turned her attention to the more pressing matter (finding the stud). Both members were banned from TCD for a year; soon after, the board came up with its annual sportmanship award to encourage more ladylike-if not sportsmanlike-behavior among the ladies of TCD,
This morning’s match between the second-place L.B. Houston Northstars and the seventh-place Fair Oaks/Royal Oaks Ringers-which is (in truth) a throwaway-promises no such theatrics. The wrestle-your-opponent-to-the-ground brand of tennis is more likely to occur on the intermediate levels. (Natch.) What’s known as Open A (i.e., “top”) level tennis is played by women whose competitive streaks are hidden beneath layers (upon layers) of ladylike manners.
This morning is merely practice leading up to the Northstars’ big match in two weeks, against the first-place Richland Rebels. For as far back as Angela Allin can remember-and she’s been playing TCD tennis for 11 years-the Northstars and Rebels have been the Coke and Pepsi of TCD: Alternately, No. 1 and No. 2. The Northstars, No. 1 last season, have slipped to No. 2. With only three weeks left in the season, the team is counting on an easy win this morning.
The clock is ticking.
At 9:35, Claire Bailey calls to say she’s been held up in a conference call at SMU (where she works as the women’s tennis coach), but she is on the way. Allin knows that Bailey can’t possibly make it from University Park to L.B. Houston by 9:45. She glances at the face of her watch. It’s 9:36.
On courts 13 through 16, meanwhile, her fellow Northstars-dressed, like Allin, in white sweatshirts emblazoned with [he team logo, matching warm-ups, windbreakers, and the kind of diamond-encrusted gold jewelry that normally accessorizes strappy cocktail dresses- are doing their best to warm up on what is an unseasonably cold and blustery morning. Even TCD’s No. 2-ranked team is struggling to return strokes. To make matters worse, a couple of players are plagued by injury: On court 14, Jill Cohn (a model who began her career as one of the original Southwest Airlines flight attendants) has a swollen wrist and is playing against doctor’s orders. On court 16, Debby Williams (a part-time e-mail administrator for the Sabre Group) is still recovering from back surgery.
AH of which plays into Allin’s decision. as captain of the Northstars, not to default her line-she and her partner. Elise Wilkes, play Line 1 of the team’s four lines-when Claire Bailey races into the parking lot. At 9:47.
“If 1 were ugly I would say, ’Default,’” says Allin. “And, I’m telling you, 99 out of 100 teams would.” She picks up her racquet and heads to court 13, The wind is whipping her long reddish-brown hair across her face. “We’re out here to play tennis.”
LIKE MOST OPEN A-LEVEL TENNIS PLAYERS, Angela Allin was raised on the game. The daughter of Tut Bartzen, TCU men’s tennis coach from 1974to 1998 and currently director of tennis at the Bayard H. Friedman Tennis Center in Fort Worth, Allin played her first tournament at age 8. By 13, she was ranked eighth in the nation. At 18, she won a tennis scholarship to TCU. Now married to a former TCU tennis player, Allin, a 40-year-old mother of three, works as a pro at T-Bar-M Racquet Club in Far North Dallas.
Allin had never heard of Tennis Competitors of Dallas until the fall of 1988, when Shirley Koonce called. Allin and her husband, living in Chicago at the time, were finalizing plans to move to Dallas. Koonce, head of Fort Worth’s junior development tennis program during the years Allin was learning the game, persuaded Allin not only to join TCD, but to become a Northstar. A month or so later, on a Tuesday, Allin was unpacking boxes at her new home in Dallas when Koonce called: “Can you play this Thursday?”
“There’s another member we accuse of going to the airport and recruiting,” says Allin.
TCD was formed in 1977 by the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation for what the board called “ordinary housewives” who were interested in getting out of the house once a week and hitting a few tennis balls. Now, because of a proliferation of tennis courts and an open-door membership policy (players pay $10 semi-annual dues and must be at least 21 years of age), TCD is the second-largest such league in the country, behind Atlanta’s. Membership has ballooned to almost 4,000 members (3,200 of them women). Rare is the TCD member who views the game as a game. To the ladies of TCD, tennis is a lifestyle.
From March through April (the spring season) and September through November (the fall season), life for the ladies revolves around lessons, trainers, and a regimen that begins Wednesday night and leads right up to the Thursday morning matches. For the past 12 years Debby Williams’ in-season regimen includes a Wednesday-night dinner of spaghetti with meatballs at Two Guys From Italy on Webb Chapel. Her Thursday-morning pre-match breakfast is, without fail, two Little Debbie oatmeal cookies. As presiding director Elaine Albergotti says, “Thursday is a big day for us.”
Lest anyone think TCD is still made up of ordinary housewives, take a look at the organization’s “Bylaws,” “League Rules,” and “Rules of Conduct,” adapted from the United States Tennis Association.
A sampling: “Home teams must supply a can of new yellow USTA rated hardcourt balls for each match. No seconds allowed.” “Players may not accept any coaching during the progress of a match, except during an official rest period (not to exceed ten minutes) between the second and third sets.” “Children are not allowed on or around the courts… Penalty points may be assessed.” “The ONLY reasons a player may leave the court are: a.) A ten (10) minute break between the second and third sets, b.) A bona fide bathroom visit.” (Never mind how one determines whether another’s bathroom visit is “bona fide.”) And “If a player or players arrive after fifteen (15) minutes of the scheduled match time, the match is a DEFAULT. (Example: Your match is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. The match is considered a default at 9:46 a.m.).”
“I think women, by and large, can be bitchy,” says a member of the Royal Oaks Net Results, a level 2-A team. It is so cold outside that the woman and her teammates, scheduled for the 11:30 match, are watching the Northstars and Ringers game from inside the L.B. Houston pro shop. “I mean,” the woman continues, looking around to make sure no one is listening, “this isn’t Wimbledon! We aren’t playing for anything.”
Not that she could convince the players on courts 13 through 16 right now.
On court 13, the Une 1 match between Northstars Angela Allin and Elise Wilkes and Ringers Claire Bailey and Sheri Norris looks like a scene from Twister. Even Allin- a player who “has a forehand that’s like a rifle,” according to Wilkes-is humbled by the gusts of wind. She accidentally drops her racquet and, almost as an afterthought, kicks it all the way to the fence.
The L.B. Houston Northstars win the match (48 to 28) against the Fair Oaks/Royal Oaks Ringers this Thursday-in spite of the fact that Angela Allin and Elise Wilkes lose Line 1.
“Just ugly,” Allin says afterward, shaking her head. “It’s not even about tennis when it’s this windy.”
THIS ONE DOES NOT LIKE TO LOSE,” JILL Cohn says, nodding in Elise Wilkes’ direction. Half an hour after the match, the Northstars are sitting at their regular post-game table-for-eight at Bennigan’s on Webb Chapel. “See that face? See that face? That’s not a normal face. She’s not happy.”
“Well,” Wilkes says between half-hearted bites of baked-potato soup, “we got pounded.”
“You lost, but you didn’t get pounded. You just lost,” Colin says, forgetting for a moment that there’s no such thing as just losing in TCD.
The waiter has just delivered Jill Cohn’s order: a cup of baked potato soup, half a club sandwich, iced tea-and a baggy full of ice. Cohn’s arm is still swollen, despite the anti-inflammatories she’s taking.
“I’ve had it since early March, but I just ignored it,” Cohn says, placing the baggy directly onto her wrist, “Finally, I went to the doctor because it hurt so bad. He said, ’Don’t play for three weeks.’ And I said, ’Let me tell you about Thursday.’
“I think it was the wind,” she rationalizes. “You end up hitting the ball squirrelly.” The doctor prescribed an anti-inflammatory to get Cohn through the final three weeks of the season. But the injury is beyond antiinflammatories. She doesn’t know it right now, but she has just played her final match of the season. Allin, sitting at the opposite end of the table, has decided to sideline Cohn for the final two matches. Cohn will miss the season finale against the Richland Rebels.
Cohn places the makeshift ice pack to the side, pulls a wrist brace out of her bag. and wraps it around her oversized wrist.
Allin and Wilkes, meanwhile, are rehashing their game at the other end of the table. “We had a great match,” Allin decides. “I love playing-win or lose.”
So why did she drop-kick her racquet when it became abundantly clear that she and Wilkes were not going to win?
Allin laughs. “We didn’t capitalize on an opportunity,” she says. “I dropped my racquet, and then my foot just sort of followed through.”
With that, Angela Allin takes the last bite of her hamburger, pays her portion of the lunch tab. then rushes off for a 1 o’clock hair appointment.
Angela Allen should be warm- ing up.