You and Mom assumed that since it was sunny year-round that everyone in California played tennis. We started to play on public courts. My friend Steve was a member of a private club. The night I came home after playing there for the first time, you made that old movie mogul joke about the path Jews like us had taken: "from Poland to polo."
Carlsbad resident, honorary beach club member, and tennis Hall of Famer Pancho Segura migrated to the U.S. from Ecuador in 1940, a penniless five-foot-six teen with a wobbly walk caused by a childhood case of rickets. He made himself into one of the best players in the world, touring the globe well into his 40s, going toe-to-toe with such greats as Pancho Gonzales, Jack Kramer, Rod Laver, and Ken Rosewall. In 1970, Segura commenced a quarter-century tenure as tennis director at La Costa Spa and Resort. During this time, he also coached such stars as Jimmy Connors and Agassi. Tennis was such a passion for Segura that it didn't matter if he were watching a Wimbledon final or two guys at the local park. On a crisp Sunday morning, Segura, 85 years old now, was at the club, inspecting the playing styles of various fathers, sons, and grandsons, flirting with their women, and reflecting on a sport that took him from poverty to a suburban home with a Mercedes in the garage.
He waved his arms at the beach club's lush flowers, uncluttered swimming pool, and other ornamental trappings. "People think this game is all about nice clubs and nice places. But that's not what it is at all. Tennis? Tennis is democracy, right here and right now, buddy. It's two guys in an arena, trying to figure it out, trying to hurt each other. And guess what? It doesn't matter once you're on the court where you went to school, or who your daddy is, or how much money you have. Just two guys. Me and you. Very fair."
Here was the secret that drew so many of us to tennis: Elegant surroundings belie the sport's raw essence. On the court, outsiders like Segura could turn the tables on insiders. Fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons from all corners of the country flocked to La Jolla each year for the tournament. Sixty-four teams were entered in the 2006 father-son event, 11 in the grandfather-grandson. There were the Newmans, father Neil and son Cole, from Columbus, Ohio. Protecting himself from the sun with warm-up pants and a French foreign legion hat, Neil, a crafty lefthander, was nicknamed "the Mummy." There were the Collazos from Little Rock, Arkansas; the Perkoviches from Schererville, Indiana; and the Morse-Karzens from Wilmette, Illinois. There was Richard Azera, a lanky French business consultant now living in Orange County, partnered with his nine-year-old son Adrien for the first time. There was 75-year-old Larry Huebner from Fresno, a former NCAA doubles champion at UCLA who had overcome a major tragedy so that he could compete that week with his grandson Chase. There was Jim Settles from Glendale, who'd been coming to the beach club to play this event since 1943 and at 79 looked as exuberant as if he'd just been discharged from the Navy.
I came home one day laughing because Marvin Levine called Glendale "Goydale." You told me that wasn't a very nice joke.
Within six months of moving to Los Angeles in 1970, we visited San Diego. We drove through La Jolla, staring at houses that seemed to have drive-in mailboxes. Don't get me wrong. I grew up in a comfortable pocket of west Los Angeles. But we were aware that there were places like La Jolla, where the lawns seemed bigger and cleaner, where kids I encountered in junior tennis tournaments wielded tiny golf pencils to sign for their Cokes, burgers, and ice cream cones -- and where other families had gotten a jump start on the California good life while my father was riding the subway from the Bronx to Manhattan. Years later, as a student at Berkeley, I came home enthused about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his descriptions of American ambition, privilege, and the subtleties that separated social classes. Said Fitzgerald, "The rich are different from you and me." When I told this to my mother, she countered, "Did you ever hear what Hemingway said? 'They have more money.' "
To be Jewish was to possess a Talmudic predilection for proffering truth in the form of a bone-cutting quip. All too often, the comment was simultaneously humorous, hostile, even divisive -- Goydale. No one admitted that to some degree the snappy retorts issued in parks and kitchens, delis and driveways, cloaked the pain of a history of exclusion. For decades, La Jolla realtors had explicitly barred Jews from buying homes, even going so far as to mark applications with a Star of David to discreetly signify an undesirable potential homebuyer. The beach club marched in lockstep with this gestalt. Over breakfast one morning at the club, current member Bill Eigner, also a Jew, politely informed me, "This is the place where Groucho Marx was told the swimming pool was off-limits to Jews. He said, 'My daughter's only half-Jewish, so can she wade in up to her knees?' "
Though much has changed over the last 50 years -- according to the United Jewish Federation, La Jolla's 12,000 Jews make up the largest enclave of San Diego's Jewish community -- there is no changing history, and what took place in my parents' lifetime has flavored my attitude toward all old-line tennis clubs. Yes, many Jews are now beach club members, but not too long ago, the clubs wanted no part of me. Then again, my family wanted nothing to do with all-Jewish clubs either. California was the new start. So where did I fit in?
The answer was a tennis court. Unlike other sports I'd played -- football and baseball -- in tennis, no one was relegated to blocking or playing right field. A tennis player could touch the ball on every play. Destiny, right in my hands. I understood this from the moment I first held a racquet. Even better for a loner immigrant like me, you didn't need to know too many people to play. But understanding why Jews were excluded from swanky clubs -- the red-hot center of the sport in all its glory -- was something I was never quite able to accept.