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A fond tennis memory of Baltimore’s Johnny U | READER COMMENTARY

Quarterback Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts legend, in his flat-top haircut.
Quarterback Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts legend, in his flat-top haircut. (Bettmann // Getty Images)

It has been about 50 years since I played in a Baltimore City tennis tournament and lost 6-1, 6-3 to a kid named Timmy Rimpo. At that time, I lived on the VA Hospital base at Fort Howard and had learned tennis the previous year from an old security guard named Ray, who was a champion boxer in his own day. Well, after teaching me all that he knew about tennis that year, Ray decided that it would serve me well to sign up for the 12-and-under tournament being held at some fancy golf course and tennis club in Baltimore.

With my parents’ permission, I signed up for the tournament and was beaten soundly in the first round. Still, it was fun to come back the next day and watch Ward Snyder, a highly ranked tennis player in the 14-and-under mid-Atlantic region, dispatch a number of very good tennis players. According to the newspaper article I read, his father was an attorney in Baltimore, and they lived there part of the year and in Florida the remaining months. And no doubt, he was a talented tennis player — he moved his opponents around the court and then took advantage of any short balls with crisp volleys at the net. Like dozens of other spectators, I enjoyed watching the tennis matches.

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But then during a break in one of the matches, an older guy in his 30s asked me if I wanted to hit with him on the adjacent tennis court. He said his name was John Smith and he had two tennis rackets, so why not hit a few tennis balls with him. Mr. Smith was just learning the game and could run down any shot I hit. I like to think we were fairly evenly matched, but I suspect that is a memory that has grown with the years.

After rallying for a while, we started a match — until one of the strings broke on my racket. Without hesitation, Mr. Smith switched rackets with me and we finished our set with him playing with a broken string. He was a competitor in chasing down every one of my shots, but he was more than fair and gave me a close call or two. He was a class act, a hell of a nice guy to hit some tennis balls with a 12-year-old kid who had just lost his first tennis match, and he left me feeling good about myself and playing tennis. That said, he didn’t quite fit into the country club atmosphere there.

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After Mr. Smith thanked me for hitting with him and encouraged me to continue playing tennis, my older brother approached me and asked me if I knew who I had been hitting tennis balls with, and I answered, “John Smith.” He promptly told me I that I was an idiot and that I had just played tennis with Johnny Unitas.

Years later when I was ranked in my state in high school tennis and coached by another great champion, Eddie Moylan, a former captain and coach of the U.S. Davis Cup Team, (another wonderful person who died five years ago on May 25, 2015), I thought back to the day that I was fortunate enough to meet and play tennis with “John Smith,” crew cut and all.

John Ryan, Potomac Falls, Va.

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