Judge Strives to Keep National “Court” Ranking

Wicomico County Circuit Judge W. Newton Jackson III received a national ranking of 95 in the men’s 65-and-over age division from the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for 2012. In the Middle Atlantic region (Maryland, Virginia, District of Columbia, and West Virginia), he finished at 16. What will 2013 bring?

By Judge W. Newton Jackson, III, Wicomico County Circuit Court

An epiphany of sorts occurred in November 2010 when I was invited by a former law clerk, Lee Gordon, to attend the baptism of her son at Wye House in Talbot County. There, I renewed an acquaintance with Lee’s father-in-law, Bill Gordon, who had once lived in Salisbury but now resided near Charlottesville. Gordon, who was playing USTA tournaments on a regular basis, asked me to play with him in an upcoming doubles tournament in Baltimore. I agreed and then proceeded to secure my membership number from USTA and go on a three-month crash-course to improve his game.

Judge W. Newton Jackson III

The tournament was held at Cross Keys Tennis Club in Baltimore in February 2011. We lost our first-round match 6-0, 6-0. I was humiliated and I felt sorry for Bill because I had played so poorly. I knew I had to get better to play at this level. I was also out of shape.

I embarked on a new regimen, playing tennis four times a week, hitting against the ball machine, working out at the Salisbury University Fitness Center, and engaging in weekly playing lessons with Jay Aldridge, a teaching pro in Cambridge. There also was the necessary outlay of money for all-white apparel which is required at some USTA tournaments. By January 2012, with three new rackets in hand, I was ready to play.

Except that I was not ready to play. For one thing, the overall caliber of play in sanctioned tournaments was much higher than I had anticipated. Most of the competitors were teaching pros and former college players, including a few who were actually playing on the tour in the late 1960s. Making the transition on different surfaces—grass, clay, and hard courts—was another challenge. I lost many first-round matches and desperately wanted to avoid the nickname “one and done.”

Once past 50 years of age, one’s skill level in tennis is not likely to improve significantly. Therefore, consistency, fitness and injury-avoidance are paramount. Thanks to modern medicine, some very competitive players have had knee, hip, and even toe replacements. Fortunately, I have avoided that.

Moving into 2013, I still deal with the innumerable hassles: finding a tournament that fits in with my court schedule, registering online with a credit card, mapping out a hotel near the tournament site, making a reservation, waiting for the draw to appear on the USTA website to see when I play and against whom, avoiding rush-hour traffic to get to the hotel, checking in, getting to the courts on time, knowing when and how much to eat before a match, worrying about the weather, etc.

Friends ask me, “Why do you do it?” My first reaction is to throw out the tired cliché about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” but that is too simplistic. To my more erudite friends, I say tongue-in-cheek gaudium certaminis (Latin for “joy of battle”). Maybe it is the self-conceptualization of Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena,” but that leads to psychological analysis, something beyond my competence.

Judge W. Newton Jackson III

Competition is the key word. Facing tough competition can be rewarding, but it creates a wide variety of emotions. Losing is bad enough, but making stupid mistakes (“unforced errors” in tennis lingo) is like spiraling helplessly down a dark, bottomless well. On the other hand, playing well can lead to a trance-like state of mind the Japanese call mushin (“no mind”), where time is suspended, and suddenly I realize that I have just won the match.

Some strange things have occurred over the years. At one clay tournament, a rabbit somehow got onto the court and delayed play until we could shoo it away. At a hard-court tournament, we were playing not too far from the local fire department. Suddenly, the fire whistle started blowing and several players, including my opponent, ran off the courts and jumped into their pick-up trucks. After a half-hour of waiting for him to come back, I went over to the tournament director and inquired about the default rule. He said “no way” and told me to wait for my opponent to come back. After another hour, I got tired of waiting and left. I guess he got the win; I suppose the tournament director was a volunteer fireman too. Then, at another tournament, there was the guy who literally ran off the court during his match because a subpoena-server was waiting for him courtside.

USTA rankings are computer-determined and based on matches played, wins, and level of difficulty of the particular tournament played in. Most important are the four national tournaments in each age division (grass, clay, indoor, and hard court). Below them are the Super Category 2 tournaments followed by sectional championships, state championships, and local tournaments.

Over the past three years, my wife and I have been to a lot of nice venues and have met many friendly people, including a friend from my college days whom I had not seen since graduation in June 1967. This year will be tougher for me. A whole new class of players has entered (those born in 1948), and I am a year older.

Achieving a 2012 national ranking is rewarding, but it’s akin to reading an appellate decision. You cannot figure out what they’re saying, but at least you’re glad to be affirmed.