One day in 1975, David Pessin was awakened in his dorm room and introduced to Claude England, the newest member of the University of Maryland tennis team, who had just arrived on a late flight from his native New Zealand. Thus began a nearly two-decades-long friendship on and off the court.
In the last two years, England, 36, an area tennis teaching pro, and Pessin, 37, a Towson lawyer, have been the top-ranked men's 35-and-over doubles team in the Mid-Atlantic region and have ranked fourth and fifth nationally. Last year, they also were ranked No. 1 in the region among men of all ages. In mid-February, the duo won its third consecutive Maryland State Indoor 35 doubles title; they will defend their ranking at the Mid-Atlantic 35 doubles championship in Hampstead, April 10-12. They are also accomplished singles players: Pessin has been ranked in the top 25 nationally among players 35-and-over, while England was second in 1990 and sixth last year. At Pessin's home recently, before going out to dinner with their wives, they talked about their doubles career and their kinship.
What do you two have in common besides tennis?
Pessin: It's kind of funny, we're different kinds of people in many senses. Claude is a real cerebral person. He's really serene on the court. I tend to be a little more emotional.
England: We both have a great love for various kinds of sports, no matter what they are.
Pessin: Similar tastes in music. Reflective of our ages, we like Dylan, the Dead, David Bowie. We used to go to all the Bowie concerts.
Is tennis a bond between you? Would you be as close friends without it?
England: Tennis definitely was the initial bond but we've been friends through the years. I came from a different country and David took me in, almost as a brother. We'd go out to his parents' house and play tennis out there and watch some of the U.S. Open.
Does your friendship help you on the court?
England: Oh, yeah. We know when each other is down or not playing as well as he'd like to. No matter what's going on you have to be able to help your partner raise his standard and be focused on what's happening out there.
Pessin: The guy's stuck by me. He's clearly had a phenomenal singles career; mine's been OK. He's carried us in some pretty hairy times in big matches.
What do you say to each other when one of you is not playing
Pessin: It really helps that a suggestion from either of us to the other is not taken as criticism. That really keeps it positive. A pat on the back when you miss a shot -- I think that's the best thing about both of us. That's so good, because that means that you just go out there and keep trying hard. What more can you ask for from a partner than just 'no quit'?
So many professional doubles teams -- Pam Shriver and Martina Navratilova and Rick Leach and Jim Pugh to name just two -- seem to be constantly splitting up. How have you managed to keep together?
England: The couple of teams you mentioned there, you're talking about the very elite. Sometimes they have scheduling problems, or a sense of boredom perhaps. We work hard to sustain our games at a certain level and we're still improving. And like David says, we're always going out there trying our hardest, no matter what the result is.
How is your game improving?
Pessin (laughing): I'm getting my serve in sometimes.
England: We're both always working on our serves. We don't have the height advantage of a lot of players. . . .
How tall are you guys?
Pessin: Together? Ten foot 9 inches.
England: I'm 5-2. David, you're what? Five-seven?
When you first started playing national doubles tournaments, did you get, 'Hey, who are these little guys?'
Pessin: Unfortunately, we still get it a little bit. They underrate us, but that's OK. You still have to go out and hit balls, so they can think whatever they want.
Have you ever played against each other in doubles?
England: A couple of times.
What's that like?
England: Basically, you know what to expect.
Pessin: That's for sure. We've played each other a ton in singles, too. It's fierce. Our practices are fierce. In practice, nobody wants to lose a point. We've played matches where Claude's beaten me o-and-o and he was going for o-and-o (6-0, 6-0). I remember after he beat me real bad one time, he bought me a beer. That's fair enough.
Do you guys make any money from this?
Pessin: We pick up a check or two. It pays for two nights in a hotel and you've been there a week.
England: Basically, the money is only there in tennis tournaments for the very top 100 players in the world. I finished fourth [out of 128] in Phoenix last year in the [national hardcourt 35-and-over] singles. My check was $200. It cost me three-grand plus for the week.
Do you ever wonder if you could do as well or better playing with somebody else?
Pessin: I think Claude could probably do better playing with somebody else, depending on the somebody else. But whatever physical tools someone else might bring to the table, I don't think they'd be able to duplicate the chemistry Claude and I have.
England: There are plenty of opportunities to play with different people. I go to the [United States Professional Tennis Association] tournaments and play. But it takes awhile to knit into a team.
Pessin: It's a different feeling if you play with someone else. You do your best to win, but when you walk off the court it strikes you that it was more akin to a business relationship than a friendship.