As hills go, it’s a short one, 60 yards in length at most.
But when you lose a tennis match at Tanoan Country Club, walking up that incline to your car afterward can be as pleasant as a death march.
Sixty-some women from across the globe are at the club this week to compete in the ColemanVision Tennis Championships, a United States Tennis Association Pro Circuit event.
By the finals on Sunday, all of them will have confronted the hill.
The ColemanVision is the minor leagues, but it’s triple-A ball, a popular stop with a 75K purse.
Now in its 14th year, the tournament is the oldest continuous professional sporting event in the state. Proceeds benefit the New Mexico Youth Tennis Foundation.
The first person most players see at the ColemanVision is a sturdy, reserved gent wearing wraparound sunglasses and sitting behind the wheel of a roomy golf cart.
Albuquerque’s Dave Smith is the event’s volunteer chauffeur. He’s king of the Tanoan hill, which he rules with a gentle hand.
“It’s like a mini-mountain. I’d rather have someone stand at the top with a long rope and pull me up.”
-Volunteer Sherry Anderson
Smith, 74, zips about the Tanoan parking lot in a four-seat E-Z-Go cart, gliding silently alongside players or spectators. “Need a lift?” he might ask, his voice soft and welcoming.
The club’s 14 tennis courts lie below the parking lot, at the bottom of the hill.
Professional tennis players frequently shoulder hefty duffel bags stuffed with rackets, lots of rackets, and all sorts of paraphernalia, including sports drinks, extra shoes, iPods, Bibles and granola bars.
Smith is there to haul people and gear up or down a paved path set into this precipitous slope.
It’s at the base of the Tanoan hill following a match that players and spectators alike are most gratified to come upon Smith and his waiting cart.
“I don’t know the hill’s grade,” he says, “but it’s steep. I wouldn’t like to hike up.”
Because most entrants are not among the world’s top 100 competitors, winning one round of singles can help with expenses. Though some players have financial sponsors, many of them travel on bowstring-tight budgets.
Smith can tell if a player has lost or won a match. “If she has an exhausted look and maybe some tears in her eyes, I know what happened. If she is still pumping her fist and seems excited, I know what happened.”
“I’ve seen coaches walking up maybe 20 feet in front of a girl and chewing her out in some foreign language as they go. Maybe that coach is her father, maybe not. It’s never pretty.”
-David Smith, volunteer chauffeur of the ColemanVision Tennis Championships
Sometimes players don’t mind tackling the hill on foot—in a joyous amble if they won or perhaps to inflict self-punishment if they lost.
A loser’s trek up can occasionally be painful to observe. The phrase “sucker’s walk” from childhood touch football games comes to mind.
“I’ve seen coaches walking up maybe 20 feet in front of a girl and chewing her out in some foreign language as they go,” Smith says. “Maybe that coach is her father, maybe not. It’s never pretty.”
Smith doesn’t talk to a player unless she talks to him first. “If a girl has lost, and I say something, she might snap at me. So I keep quiet.”
On Sunday, Amanda Fink, a 24-year-old professional from Calabasas, Calif., won her qualifying match and decided to walk up the hill. Before the tournament began the previous night, Fink had to tote her tennis bag and a bulky suitcase up and down the hill, searching for friend at whose home she would be staying. Smith didn’t work Saturday.
“Once you get on the tour, you get used to things like that,” says Fink, who is ranked 313.
Macall Harkins, 25, from Palos Verdes, Calif., won a qualifying match Sunday in two hard-fought sets. “After a battle on the court, it’s hard to go up that hill,” Harkins, ranked 442, says relaxing in the hospitality area and preparing for the climb.
Tournament volunteers are not crazy about facing the hike. “It’s like a mini-mountain,” Sherry Anderson says. “I’d rather have someone stand at the top with a long rope and pull me up. When you’ve been on your feet all day, you don’t want to walk.”
Albuquerque tennis fan Juan Gonzales, 70, scoffs. “Hey, I was a postman for 30 years. My route was mainly in the Los Altos Park area. Thirteen miles I walked each day. Some of those streets had these long rises in them.”
Dave Smith comes well-suited for his job. He spent 28 years in the Air Force as a security officer. He did law enforcement on bases worldwide and kept a close watch on an installation’s weaponry. That taught him to notice things.
For Smith, that means noticing the cars that park at Tanoan. He knows who drives what, whether it’s a rental car or a motor home driven by a player’s family.
“The moment you get out of your car, Dave is there,” says Amy Badger, who supervises the 90 or so ColemanVision volunteers. “It’s uncanny. Dave knows everyone, sees everything. And people love to see him.”
“Dave’s quiet willingness to help sets the tone here,” says tournament director Sue Jollensten.
Before the ColemanVision Championships arrived, women’s professional tennis had a three-year run in the city, from 1989 to 1991. It was known then as the Virginia Slims Championships.
One Slims competitor, a happy-go-lucky kid from Spain named Arantxa Sánchez Vicario was a young teen but already a French Open winner. She’s best recalled in Albuquerque for gaining the keys to a Tanoan golf cart. Sánchez had no idea how to drive the cart and no interest in learning. As a result, she nearly flattened several people and came close to careening off the club’s hill, laughing all the way.
The memory brings a half-smile to the king of the hill. “She was just enjoying being a celebrity,” remembers Smith, who has zero interest in being one.