By Stan Stalla
DARFUR, SUDAN (Nov 7): Maureen likes to tell people that, after we met in college, I became her nontennis-playing friend. Her earliest memories of me are of a guy with long, reddish hair tied back with a bandana, bent in reverie over the keyboard of the baby grand piano in the lobby of our co-ed freshmen dorm.
I think she exaggerates when she claims that she had to yell out her second floor window, one evening after midnight, telling me to knock it off.
One of my fondest memories is of Maureen on a bright, sunny California day in the early 1970s. She was on her way to the Stanford tennis courts for team practice. I remember the way the red of her culottes matched her sunburned calves — how slender and carefree and pretty she looked, cradling her tennis racquet as we walked side by side.
Of course, in those heady days of young love, we still had much to learn about each other. For example, I came to enjoy the way she could sit down and practice Chopin Etudes and Mozart Sonatas, while she came to appreciate the way my steady nerves and powerful serve and forehand helped us win mixed doubles tournaments.
I suppose it was inevitable that we would become known overseas as a Tennis Family. In Jordan, Maureen not only taught King Hussein and his royal guests, but also was the national coach of the Jordanian Tennis Federation.
In the early 1980s, she took a national team of Jordanian junior players to tournaments in Iraq, California and Sudan. At our next overseas posting, Oman, I achieved my best level as a club player. In a strange world of expatriate tennis players and wealthy Arab sponsors, the winners of club tournaments walked away with fabulous prizes.
After one tournament, Maureen and I spent four nights at a grand hotel on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Another time, she traveled to Southeast Asia, her wrist adorned with an expensive Swiss watch. Next we moved to Sri Lanka, where our daughter Heidi enhanced the family’s tennis reputation. She became the first foreign girl allowed to practice at the Sri Lankan Tennis Association — an acronym (SLTA) that still sticks in my mind.
It was Sri Lanka where I came to appreciate, though never like, playing on a clay court. After a hip replacement operation in my early 40s, I reluctantly gave up a power game in favor of softer bounces and less strain on my arthritic joints.
In Peru, our sons, Zeid and Charlie, joined the ranks of the Stalla Tennis Team. For a while, Maureen took the two boys to a national training facility for junior players, where she again helped train rising stars. Perhaps the proudest moment of my tennis career occurred when Zeid and I won a father-son tournament in Lima, beating several ranked juniors and their aging dads.
Looking back on those 20-odd years of raising a family on three different continents, I see what a galvanizing force overseas tennis was in our lives. In countries where the national sports were soccer and rugby and cricket, tennis was nevertheless an entrée to a set of cosmopolitan people we might not otherwise have known.
For our children, tennis was a sport in which they were accepted as equals by their local friends, and where the Arabic, Sinhalese and Spanish words for “deuce” or “out” came as readily as the English.
When I look at the photo of King Hussein in our living room with Heidi and Zeid, or think of Heidi playing a tournament in Pakistan, or remember the club matches we played with friends from every corner of the world, I marvel at how lucky I was that Maureen chose me to be her nontennis-playing friend.
Just as tennis balls lose their fuzz and bounce after a couple sets, so had the sport lost its luster after a couple decades living overseas. Maureen turned her long-time interest in antique silver beads and Peruvian stones into a successful jewelry business. After playing on Stanford’s NCAA championship team, Heidi replaced her devotion to tennis with a passion for English literature. The boys excelled in volleyball, basketball and Ultimate Frisbee, only picking up a racquet when I begged them for a set or two of family doubles.
In 2003, two months and two weeks after a second operation on the same hip, I left my tennis racquet at home and took off for Baghdad, Iraq, which is what the State Department calls an “unaccompanied post.”
For the next six months, I came to associate the verb “to lob” with the way mortars and rockets were fired into the Green Zone. When I returned home to Maine, I began to look for doubles partners, especially young ones with the fast legs and quick reactions that I once owned.
When we discovered that my next overseas assignment would be Sudan — another unaccompanied post — Maureen reminded me how, 20 years earlier, her team of Jordanian boys had played a tournament on grass courts at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles.
“Take your racquet to Khartoum and find those grass courts,” she urged me. But as the months passed, my racquet stayed in the closet, while I logged hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, monitoring the emergency food programs in Darfur and eastern Chad.
One day, I stood in the shade of a desert tree, watching a spiny-back, green lizard catch bugs with its six-inch tongue. I was waiting for the humanitarian plane that would fly me to my next site in North Darfur.
“Are you Stan Stalla?” asked a man behind me. I turned to make the acquaintance of a man named Mark. Mark had heard about the Stalla Tennis Family in Lima, Peru, where he had worked for a development organization. Almost five years later, he too had moved to Sudan and was looking for a partner!
Mark and I have a regular, crack-of-dawn ritual when we both are in Khartoum. After we rouse the sleeping guard inside the gate, the first thing I notice is an area of faded-green weeds, flooded with water dripping out of an old, pink hose. Mark and I unsheathe our weapons as the red-orange sun breaks the horizon over eastern Khartoum. Gently tapping back and forth balls that are fuzzless with use, we sometimes wave to the woman and two children as they fold the straw mats where they sleep next to our court.
“SLTA” is marked on panels looking over the stadium court where we usually play. I think back to Heidi’s days at the SLTA in Sri Lanka, but realize that I am now playing at the Sudan Lawn Tennis Association. And so the Stalla Overseas Tennis Circuit makes a full loop. Almost 25 years after Maureen and her boys played a tournament on grass courts where the Blue and White Niles meet, most courts are of a more manageable clay surface, with only a few, weedy vestiges that hint at the SLTA’s former glory.
Maybe weedy vestiges are symbolic of this stage of my overseas tennis career. These days, Mark and I have a nice, easy hit to start the day. Long gone are the days of zippy crosscourt forehands and unstoppable second serves, of tournament prizes to France and of beating ranked, junior players. Instead, I enjoy an hour or so of social tennis. Afterwards, I go home for a quick shower, and then tell my office mates about all the early-morning exercise I’ve done.