After my mom's death I needed to let go and move forward.
My mom passed away in the summer of 1983, and in the fall I was in school at the University of Arkansas. I needed to let go, move forward, and to live my life in my mother's honor. But it proved to not be so simple.
My emotional rolIer coaster reached a head during an important challenge match against a player I needed to beat to secure a high spot on the roster my freshman year.
I broke down crying right there on the court in the middle of the match.
I lost the match and coach Pucci immediately called me in to his office. I had two choices. Toughen up or go home. Period. Coach Pucci's bedside manner sucked, but his message had the intended effect.
I quickly grew to love my new home. I loved the tennis. I loved my team. Though it took a bit getting used to, team practices were great and I was improving quickly.
Practices were shorter but more intense. Now it was just two players to a court, no waiting in line, no more fed balls, just two grown adults hitting balls.
I was hungry to get better and my improvement curve was still pretty steep. I still looked to tennis as my ticket to success.
I knew I was just a couple levels of improvement away from being able to compete on the professional tour. I had just turned 19. I was in the best shape of my life and playing my best tennis ever.
I loved college tennis and my team.
It was not hard for me to fit right in to the hetero world that was college life. I had made it through the summer of 1983 on the Junior Davis Cup team undetected by any of my tennis peers. The men's tennis world that I was deeply immersed in was not ready for an out-in-the-open gay male.
Then, starting my sophomore year, Coach Pucci took a job as an athletic director at a small school in California. Enter Ron Hightower, a great player in his own right and one of the best tennis minds I had ever met. I took to him instantly, squashing any thoughts of transferring to the west coast schools of Los Angeles, a city in which I had dreamed of living.
Early in my sophomore year, I took my first trip away from Fayetteville to Los Angeles to compete in a fall college tournament. We were playing on the UCLA campus in Westwood.
West Hollywood was a mere cab ride down the street from my hotel and a community populated by out-in-the-open gay men. I had already decided to sneak out after curfew. I took a cab from Westwood to West Hollywood.
I started walking down Santa Monica Boulevard. What a place. Gay Disneyland I remember thinking.
This was my first foray into "out" culture. So this was what it was like to be out. This is what it looked like to have pride in who you were, pride in being gay.
West Hollywood: a different world that raised troubling questions.
On another level, I felt a heaviness over take me. This is when I began to think, what is my life really all about? Nobody really knew me and I had an awful lot to learn about myself. Could I have an open gay life like all these people?
I had to get back to my hotel. To my tennis life. To my closeted gay life. I thought about my tennis and university life, how I always had felt it was my ticket out from my circumstances.
But was it really? Was it a ticket out, or a trap, keeping me hidden inside the lines of a tennis court and away from realizing my true self?
Back from Los Angeles, the college tennis season hit the ground running. I secured the top spot on coach Hightower's Arkansas Razorback roster among the finest group of teammates a college athlete could ever want. With our team solidly in the top ten in the collegiate team rankings, we seemed to play a match every day against amazing
The early to mid-1980's may have been the golden era of men's college tennis with future world-class professionals up and down every NCAA lineup . Players like Tim Mayotte, Rick Leach, Mikael Pernfors, Ken Flack, and many others. Because I secured the top spot on our squad, I was assured of playing all the other teams' best players, which meant the best players in the nation.
If I was ever going to make this next breakthrough in tennis, I could not have been in a better position to do so. And then I did.