A Child of Grass Courts Dreams Anew
Don Black, well-known doubles tennis player Cara Black's father, loved Wimbledon and made the third round on six occasions in the 1950s at the All England Club. It was his dream to see his children play tennis and do well at Wimbledon.
A long Wimbledon day had stretched into evening, and finally darkness, by the time Cara Black settled into a chair, with another victory registered in an illustrious doubles career that has brought her 10 Grand Slam titles with partners female and male. She was tired, expressionless, but only until a question was asked about her beloved grass courts.
Mind you, not those most famous lawns here at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
"You know about that?" she asked midway through Wimbledon's first week, her eyes suddenly brightening.
"Yes," she was told by a reporter who had visited the four grass courts at the Black family home in Harare, Zimbabwe. She explained that they were actually the reason she was back at Wimbledon, back on tour after a one-year leave, her husband and young son in tow.
She is 35, a long way from a dreamy childhood on a lush, 22-acre property, bisected by a stretch of Enterprise Road, a straight shot from downtown Harare, where her father, Don, tried to be an avocado farmer until that plan went awry, and he decided to grow tennis players instead.
Don Black had played at Wimbledon in the 1950s, when tennis was an amateur endeavor, and his native Zimbabwe was Rhodesia. He made the third round in 1956, and held four match points against an Australian, Ashley Cooper, but lost.
"It was his pinnacle," Cara Black said. "He just loved Wimbledon, the grass courts. He used to say that his dream was for one of his kids to win it one day."
He married Velia, the girl of his dreams from down the road where he grew up, the son of a Scottish farmer and English mother. He retired early from his post-tennis vocation as a high school teacher and built his miniature All-England club. The grass courts he nurtured like fruit, and he surrounded the one hard court with banana trees.
Barefoot on the grass, he gave lessons to people from the area, young and old, stressing discipline and hard work more than technical expertise. Mostly, he taught his sons, Byron and Wayne, while old-school enough to discourage Cara, the youngest, thinking the transient tennis life was not great for a girl.
Not the most physically imposing, she would grow to a lean 5 feet 5 3/4 inches. She was fast and persistent. It did not hurt that she could beat her father by the time she was 12.
At high altitude, built for speed, the courts played lightning fast, purposefully designed to mimic the conditions back when playing Wimbledon meant short points, forcing the issue, or failing. On sun-baked days, Don Black regaled his children with tales of swashbuckling Aussie greats who had, in fact, visited him in Harare and played on the courts.
He dropped a few names, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, who had even slept in the bed that now belonged to Cara.
"We had a routine, where every day he'd get us up at 5:30 before school, and we'd practice for an hour on the cement court," she said. "And then in the afternoons, we'd come home for a session on the grass. He'd feed us some balls, and then from 4:30 to 6 we'd play a match. Like him, we never wore shoes, unless it was raining, and he didn't want us denting the grass with our heels. Our feet were as tough as anything."
There was a weekend in February 2000 when the U.S. Davis Cup team, captained by John McEnroe, arrived in Harare to play a Zimbabwean team anchored by Byron and Wayne Black. The sons of Don played college tennis in the United States and by then were established pros, Byron more successful in singles, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist that year.
Visiting the Black compound and later seeing the desperately poor Chitungwiza Township - where children also played barefoot tennis, but on concrete - could be disorienting, dispiriting and symbolic of a complicated time and a transitioning place, where the fractional white population owned much of the healthy agrarian land.
With the country on the brink of political tumult and self-inflicted financial ruin, Don Black was asked that week if he worried about a redistribution policy that was designed to return farmland from descendants of colonialists to black Zimbabweans. He made a sweeping gesture with his hand to the place he was loath to leave, even to see his children play.
"I'll die here, whatever happens," he said.
It was such stubborn commitment that months later, it moved him to take whatever foreign currency he had saved and hand what Cara called "a wad of cash" to doctors in Harare after they had discovered he had colon cancer. He made his wife promise not to tell the children, scattered as they were around the world.
"Had we known, we'd never have let him have the operation there," Cara said.
"We'd have made him gone where they were better facilities. But that's the type of guy he was, just didn't want to bother anybody. He went in, and they messed up the operation, ran out of blood."
He was already gone, at 72, when the call came from Velia Black.
"We just kicked ourselves over that," Cara said, pausing, sighing, adding that her only consolation was learning that when the circulation of blood was lost to her father's legs, the doctors were going to amputate.
"I thought, well, thank goodness he died, someone who was so active all the time," she said. "He wouldn't have been able to handle that."
The relief was temporary, the wound reopened, in 2004, ironically when Cara reached the pinnacle of her professional life, claiming the first of three Wimbledon doubles titles.
Better yet, she won the mixed doubles with her brother Wayne.
"Incredibly special for us," she said. "At the same time, we were just pretty sad."
She played on until touring became a chore, quitting in 2011 after marrying Brett Stephens, her Australian trainer. She had her son, Lachlan, took him back to the place she calls Zim to meet his grandmother, who still lived in the brick, three-bedroom house her husband built 50 years ago.
The property remains in the family's control. Wayne lives nearby, does some farming across the road, as his father originally intended. The grass courts are playable, though no longer pristine without Don Black to make sure.
"We went out one day to have a hit on the grass, me and my husband," Cara said. "We always mess around - I play him left-handed. But this time I said, Let's hit a few right-handed, see how it feels."
In familiar surroundings, on her field of tennis dreams, she realized how much she missed the game. Worse, that she had left something her father had loved so much and given to his children the way she had, burned out.
"We talked it over, decided I would come back, and they would travel with me," she said.
On a chilly, rainy Saturday, Cara and Sania Mirza wasted three match points in a second-set tiebreaker and lost their match to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Lucie Safarova in three sets. She remains in the mixed doubles draw with Leander Paes.
"The losses aren't what they used to be, and the wins are more special now," Cara said. "I came back to just enjoy it with a different perspective, playing for the love of it, the way my father wanted all of us to play."
Other than barefoot on grass, what could be better?
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