The Racquet Club of Memphis has been around for more than 30 years, and thousands of good tennis players have come through its junior development programs.
But Peter Lebedevs, who has been a teaching pro at the club since 1983, can count on two hands the ones who made it to even the lowest level of the pros in the last 25 years.
There was Audra Keller from Bartlett and Susan Gilchrist from Tuscaloosa, who both won some matches on the pro tour in singles or doubles. On the men's side, Keith Evans came within a point of beating one of the top 10 players in the world. Lewis Smith starred at Vanderbilt and tried the satellite tour for a month before telling Lebedevs "this is so hard it's ridiculous."
That's why there's some buzz this week over 15-year-old Catherine Harrison from Germantown, who advanced Tuesday to the third round of the National 18-and-under Clay Court tournament at the Racquet Club.
After beating the 17th-seeded player, Catherine said she has a chance to make the finals if she can get past her next match. Her opponent, who is seeded fourth, beat her last year in a third-set tiebreaker.
"Last year I completely mentally freaked out when I was up 4-1 in the tiebreaker," said Catherine. "I'm a lot stronger mentally now."
It takes a village and about 10,000 hours of practice to make a professional athlete.
Catherine started by choosing her parents well. Her father, Kent, is an executive with International Paper and a competitive runner and tennis player. Her mother, Jan, is a multi-talented musician and tennis player who gave up her high school teaching career to advance Catherine's career and accompany her to roughly 20 tournaments a year from coast to coast.
When she was four years old, Catherine started hitting balls with Racquet Club pro Rob Cadwallader, who would coach her for the next nine years. She still hits with two hands from both sides, as she did when she was barely strong enough to hold a racquet.
"She was impatient when she was younger and hit too hard," Cadwallader said. "But in the long run that pays off. They start to go in."
At 13, she and her mother moved to south Florida where she enrolled in former touring pro Harold Solomon's tennis academy. Five days a week, she did drills for two hours, played matches for two hours, and worked on conditioning for another hour. Jan says that in a typical week, Catherine would be on the court for 25 hours. This year they moved back to Germantown, where Catherine is home schooled and works out daily with the mens and womens teams at the University of Memphis. She also has two coaches and a strength trainer. If she does well in the nationals this week, she'll have to decide whether she wants to turn pro next year or settle for some of the estimated $14 million in college scholarship offers represented by the 74 schools and coaches attending the event.
"Catherine's potential is very high, but potential and talent means you've done nothing," said Lebedevs. "It's getting harder out there. Young players are training at the semi-professional level. The European mentality is that there is no college, you train to go pro."
With the exception of Florida and California, American training has not caught up with Europe. Part of the problem is real estate. A compact nation like France can bring all of its top junior players together easier than the United States can. European athletes who aren't ready for the pros often wind up on American college teams.
"All the college teams are better now," said Lebedevs, an Australian who played for Memphis from 1983-1987. "I didn't start playing until I was 12 years old. I kind of had to play catch-up, and I never quite caught up."
Neither did the rest of us, and that's why we're pulling for Catherine Harrison to live the dream.
It's gotten where you can't read an article online about politics, sports, the local economy, schools, termites, or hangnails without somebody blaming Mayor Herenton in the comments.
His departure might be a good time for the rest of Memphis to clam up and do some soul searching. We've got at least three months until the next election. Football season doesn't start for more than a month. John Calipari is gone. Dean Jernigan was ousted from the Memphis Redbirds. Newspapers are shrinking or going away. Foreclosures are piling up. The old order changeth.
This troubled city isn't suddenly going to get better, no matter who is the next mayor. If it does turn around, it will be because of small, steady, unremarkable changes that tens of thousands of people make in their everyday lives.
On that note, I plan to do my part while we're in this summer hiatus. This newspaper space is valuable real estate, and I'm not giving it up yet, but I will gladly begin the moratorium on WWH stories in August, assuming he follows through on his promise.
I wish I could have done it years ago, but a mayor is a mayor. Jackson Baker and I did one of the first interviews with the new mayor in 1992, and we both felt compelled to stay the course. It's the office, not the person holding it, that commands attention — a fact that sometimes seemed to elude Herenton as he toyed with the media pack nipping at his heels. News conferences, New Year's Day prayer breakfasts, Rotary and Kiwanis lunches, big announcements that came to nothing — hey, it wasn't good for us either. We were all going through the motions for years.
One of the things I plan to report and write more about is participant sports. Our sports keep us healthy, sane, and part of a community. I want to explore the line where people get hooked, how and why, and what they do about it. I know more than a few people who go to sleep fantasizing about perfect drives, backhands, strides, and laps more often than some other things commonly associated with dreams and beds.
I couldn't care less about the Grizzlies or Tigers, but I'll play a sport or watch a friend or family member play one any day. I have a hunch that more people are intensely interested in their 5K time, vertical leap, handicap, or tennis rating than another nickel on the property tax rate or the second reading of an ordinance passed by the Memphis City Council or Shelby County Commission. I recently learned there is something called competitive yoga and hot yoga. I plan to check it out.
Good politics and good journalism are about connecting with people. If you're not doing that you've got a problem. Some of us have not exactly been geniuses when it comes to figuring that one out. What the next generation of Memphis leaders needs right now is not headlines and cameras but time and some breathing room.
When Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, he said, "You won't have Nixon to kick around." Actually, we did, because he came back eight years later and stayed for six more. City Hall is soon going to be someone else's problem. Maybe some day someone will get elected to an important office in this town who's not eligible for AARP membership.
Meanwhile, I'm going to go play a game and watch someone else play their game while things settle down.
As the two-billionth person to start a blog, I've learned you don't hide your light under a bushel basket. The blog is called Get Memphis Moving. It will appear in the paper a couple times a month and on the Memphis Flyer website a couple times a week.
Times change, and we have to play it where it lays. We hope blogs will drive some traffic to our site and keep us in business for another season or two of sports and politics and the other things we write about.
Right now, it's awkward as hell, sort of like learning to dance and a whole lot like jumping in the lake and telling the guy in the boat it's okay to leave because you can swim to shore.
Then you'd better start paddling.
In the unlikely event that Mayor Willie Herenton actually retires or resigns or whatever he wants to call it on July 30th, Hizzoner says there will be a "retirement reception in my honor" in the Hall of Mayors on July 31st from 2 to 4 p.m.
In the even more unlikely event that you should be invited to attend that reception, you should respond properly.
On page 400 of her book Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, author Judith Martin offers some advice. The acceptance should say "Mr. and/or Ms. (your name) accepts with pleasure your kind invitation."
Tell him you're coming. Then change your mind.
It's not like there won't be other options. There will be plenty of partying on the day Herenton finally leaves office. Memphians will celebrate in homes, bars, block parties, and restaurants like it's an NBA championship, an NCAA title, and a new millennium.
The question is, will that day ever arrive?
City Council chairman Myron Lowery, who would become the interim mayor, said, "You have to take an individual at his word." But what if the individual already has unresigned twice?
Then "it is up to every individual to make up his own mind," said Lowery, who appears to be resigned to waiting it out. As former city councilman Jack Sammons said, "Unfortunately, he [Herenton] has got the ball, and there's not a lot anyone can do about it."
The mayor who has been in office since 1992 suddenly discovered last week that "there remains some important city business matters that I need additional time to complete."
Then he finally got around to the nature of that important business. The new city charter is "silent on some important issues," like whether or not the mayor pro tem can hold an executive and legislative position at the same time.
"Should the citizens in a special election vote for a mayor and your vacant council seat?" Herenton asked. "We need answers. An immediate friendly lawsuit may be necessary."
There it is. The way out of getting out. A friendly lawsuit filed with a friendly judge so Herenton can say his departure date depends on the court. This sudden concern for the separation of powers is as phony as everything else about Herenton's charade.
"The charter is carefully written," said Steve Wirls, a political science professor at Rhodes College and adviser to the Memphis City Council and Memphis Charter Commission. "Had the authors thought that the chairman of the council would need to vacate his seat in order to become the interim mayor they would have said so clearly. They clearly did not say so."
Wirls said that neither the charter nor the amendments approved by voters in 2008 say anything about the council chairman's seat being "frozen" if he or she becomes mayor pro tem, as city council attorney Allan Wade wrote in an opinion this week.
"I was appalled and angry at Wade's opinion," Wirls said. "It is not a good-faith reading of the charter. It is a convoluted attempt to get around the charter's clarity on this point. He is acting more as Herenton's personal attorney than as a public servant."
In his opinion, Wade wrote:
"Myron Lowery does not lose his seat on the council because of the mandate of the charter that he become mayor pro tem; however, his status as a council member is frozen as of the date he takes the oath of office as mayor pro tem until he returns or becomes mayor."
Wirls said the charter language on the interim mayor is "an exception to take care of an exceptional circumstance." It does not require him to resign or devote his entire time to mayoral duties.
"It says, in plain language, exactly the opposite," Wirls said. "The language clearly states that he will be both at the same time."
The issue is complicated by the fact that Lowery was an elected member of the charter commission that drafted the amendments and is an announced candidate for the job of mayor if there is a special election.
"I have no fight at all with the mayor," Lowery said. "I didn't encourage him to resign."
No, he didn't. Herenton did that all by himself. Not that it makes any difference.
There was a home tour last Sunday afternoon at Southwind, the gated community of executive homes built around the Tournament Players Club, site of the St. Jude Classic golf tournament.
Times are hard all over. More than 10 percent of the 527 homes in the development are for sale, many at prices well below their 2009 appraisals. So real estate agents and the residents association decided to open the gates that are normally about as hard to penetrate as a fortress, unless you're a resident, friend of a resident, or driving a service vehicle.
I'm none of the above, so I called my friend Henry Turley, the downtown developer, and we drove out for a look. The German shepherds at the gate barely acknowledged us in the 100-degree heat. Just kidding. Henry was welcomed with a hearty hello and a quick check of his license plate number. Professional courtesy.
The first houses in Southwind were built some 20 years ago. The architecture is eclectic. Big entrances — really big entrances and porticos — are popular. The landscaping is lush, more so since the trees and bushes have grown. Prices of the 37 homes open for inspection ranged from $279,900 to $1,950,000.
Southwind is next to FedEx world headquarters and popular with executives who move around a lot. Turley commented that it did not look unlike upscale developments in Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta, and that was part of its appeal.
Low taxes are another part of its appeal that doesn't get mentioned much. Southwind is in Shelby County, not in Memphis, so residents only pay county taxes. A few years ago, the Memphis City Council moved to annex Southwind and nearby Windyke but backed off at the 11th hour. The property tax savings on a $1 million home is about $8,000 a year. Southwind is supposed to be annexed in 2014, but we'll see about that. Being in Memphis is a powerful deterrent. The land directly across from Southwind on the west side of Hacks Cross is mostly undeveloped. It is inside the city limits of Memphis.
So near yet so far. It's about 25 miles from City Hall to Southwind. The closest public school is Southwind High School at Hacks Cross and Shelby Drive. Shelby County operates the school. It too is supposed to be annexed at some point, along with its feeder schools, becoming part of the Memphis City Schools system. If that happened tomorrow, the black enrollment of Shelby County schools would go from 37 percent to 7.68 percent, which is roughly the percentage of white students in the city schools.
We left Southwind without buying anything and returned to Midtown via Shelby Drive, Winchester, and Lamar. I call this the Memphis reality tour. If you want to see the underbelly of America's Distribution Center, try it sometime. The Poplar corridor this ain't.
You'll see the eight-lane roads that spurred the sprawl, the warehouses and distribution centers that got tax incentives to locate here but are now laying off workers, the huge trains-to-trucks intermodal shipping yard on Lamar, the giant orange-colored machines that can pick up a container or three, the big-box stores, restaurants advertising $3.50 specials, the vacancies in the shopping malls, the residential neighborhoods that sprang up in the last 30 years, and the day-rate motels and too-many-to-count blighted and abandoned properties on Lamar, including the old headquarters of Holiday Inns, once the flagship company of Memphis.
Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton told FedEx founder Fred Smith that retailing is about moving things, not about selling things. Memphis and Shelby County boomed and prospered because of that. But if people don't start making things and buying things next year or the next, then there won't be as much to move, and Memphis will be in a fix.
"Why would anyone want to be mayor of all this?" Turley wondered out loud as we drove north on Lamar.
I don't know. But whoever it is, they better have good help, smarts, backbone, a thick hide, and lots of zeal.