Academic journal article Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature

Balkan Hustle

Academic journal article Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature

Balkan Hustle

Article excerpt

When he moved to a new city, the first thing Tyler checked out was the local tennis scene. He'd scout a couple of the fanciest clubs, find the first open tournament, sign up for the most difficult division and win the whole damn thing. If he could bet on matches, he'd be a hustler, like Paul Newman in that movie.

He liked to live efficiently with no extra things or people in his life. Few nouns. He liked to go to cops-and-robbers movies without friends, read books in restaurants without eating food and win tennis tournaments without owning a racquet.

Ty had played No. 1 singles at a small liberal arts school in Minnesota, but rarely went to practice and won only half his matches. He spent most of college in the library, reading Russian literature, his major, and picking up female English majors, his minor.

After college, he traveled for a year throughout Russia and the Balkans on trust money left him by his grandfather, whose North Dakota farm sat above the biggest oil basin in North America. He liked the spicy carnivorous meals of Eastern Europe and the people-watching made for cheap entertainment. He wound up in Kosovo, the southern point of what was left of Yugoslavia, and the poorest country in Europe. In Pristina, the capital city, Ty signed up for a tournament at the only tennis club, and showed up for his first match in jeans and a black T-shirt. When he hit his first one-hand backhand, with a topspin that cleared the net by ten feet, bounced a foot from the baseline and jumped over his opponents' heads, the matches were pretty much over. If not, Ty's first left-handed serve that dove right and spun into his opponents' ribs would end things before they started. All with a demo racquet borrowed from the front desk.

In the finals, Ty straight-setted the highest-rated Kosovar, a Roger Federer-looking Albanian named Luzlim Rexhep, who at twenty-two owned a piece of a nightclub called Club2008, which lubricated crowds with hip-hop on weeknights and live Bulgarian punk bands on weekends. After the match, Luzlim invited Ty to the club, where a Bulgarian band named Righteous Mothers cranked out a high-distortion speed version of Lionel Richie's "Easy (Like Sunday Morning)."

Luzlim took Ty to a C-shaped, corner booth straight out of an Italian mafia movie and introduced him to Nora and Naser, his sister and brother. The three of them owned the club.

"You win in blue jeans over Luzlim?" he said. "Crazy good."

Naser was shaped like a cannon pointing into the ground. He had never played tennis, but he had fought in the 1998-99 civil war for the Kosovo Liberation Army against the Serbs, and he'd eaten dirt in the Rugova Mountains while he waited for Bill Clinton to bomb the Orthodox Christians back north. He named Club2008 after the year Kosovo achieved independence from Serbia. Now, the newest nation on the planet was full of ethnic Albanians with no money to arm themselves or to build a capitalist economy. For Naser, tennis would be his revenge on the Serbs and all Communism. He directed the Kosovo Tennis Federation and offered to hire Ty on the spot to build and coach a national tennis team.

All of this had been decided over the first round of drinks, which were local beers and Raki, a national plum moonshine.

Ty then danced with the sister, a 25-year-old bank manager at the Austrian Raffeissen Bank near the tennis center. She promised to be his tour guide and translator while he recruited players at tennis clubs throughout the country during the next two weeks.

"You like this music?" she shouted over the screaming metal version of Gnarles Barkley's "Crazy."

"No."

"Good. It is most terrible."

She took him outside and asked him if he had American cigarettes, which he did because he'd bought cartons in the airport duty-free shop. He lit her one and realized he liked that everyone smoked in Kosovo. Nobody gave him that look when he lit up, and smoking connected people without awkwardness. …

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