Franz Kafka's masterpiece, 'The Metamorphosis,' written in Czechoslovakia in 1912, begins "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." He struggles to adapt to his new environment. His parents are repulsed. Gregor eventually wastes away and dies.
To many young people, another repulsive life form is
Gregory Samson awoke one morning and, while not realizing it immediately, found himself transformed into a tennis superstar. He was 79 years old.
It was Tuesday, his day for tennis. A match with Norm.
As Greg eased himself out of bed, he gradually became aware of feeling - 'different,' as he later explained. Nothing too dramatic more a feeling of what was absent rather than what was not. No chronic back ache; no arthritic knees; calf muscles that seemed to be unusually at peace. He felt - light on his feet. Spry. He found himself moving easily, even gracefully, around the house. A rare, strange, and delicious feeling of energy
of life. He hadn't felt this good in years. Many, many years.
He showered, shaved, and looked closely at himself in the mirror. It was the same old face a 79-year-old face, in fact. A respectable head of hair for his age, albeit wispy and grey. While the deep lines on his face said 'old man,' this morning, his body seemed to tingle and argue its appearance with a strange and powerful energy. He was ready to leave the house, but continuing to feel different, tall - somehow, he checked himself out in a full mirror. He was still a little under 6 feet
. actually 5'7." Well, he had to be honest
. an inch or so less now: 'old age shrinkage' was taking its toll. A few wayward pounds clung affectionately to him. But this morning his distance from physical perfection was unimportant: he felt that this was his moment. He couldn't wait to get onto the court! A 3.5 hacker, yes, but if enthusiasm counted for anything, he was a perfect 10.
9:37 a.m. Norm won the spin of the racquet, and elected to serve. Greg met Norm's typical 35 mph offering with a slashing forehand cross court return. It grazed the side line.
"Out" Norm declared.
Truth was, Norm didn't actually see where the ball landed. Greg rarely bothered to argue with Norm's line calls. Next point Greg hit a perfect cross court backhand topspin, a shot that really surprised Greg himself; he'd never hit a ball like that before. It too hit the outside edge of the line.
"Just wide," shouted Norm, with obvious pleasure.
Greg had struck both balls with frightening power. Must be these new strings, he thought to himself.
The rest of that game was more of the same. Norm served junk balls. Greg either stroked them for clean winners with unusually fierce pace, or delivered delicate drop shot winners with incredible touch - balls that skimmed the net, dropped on the outside edge of the side lines, spun away - and died. One love. Greg to serve. Wham. A bullet clipping the T.
"Out," yelled Norm who had no idea where the ball had landed.
Frankly, Greg didn't know either. Without realizing it, he served four consecutive aces, each clipping the side lines at much faster speeds than he had ever achieved before. Greg had no explanation for what was happening. But he was aware that he moved effortlessly, gliding around the court, hitting winner after line winner. His drop shots were unreturnable. Norm shrugged off the 6-1, 6-1 defeat with his usual "my hamstring's giving me trouble today."
Meanwhile, Greg was totally mystified. Bewildered. On that glorious, sunny January morning in Sarasota, Florida, something was very different! His feet moved as if with minds of their own quickly, efficiently, always arriving at the ball ahead of its bounce. It was such an alien feeling. His right arm was seemingly an independent entity forcing his racquet to positions of exquisitely early preparation. Each ball was struck fiercely, in the middle of the racquet - every time. All his faculties seemed to be managing perfectly well separately, yet in harmony. It was almost surreal. And all he could do was to watch it unfold. This was, of course, nothing new; his best games had always been as a spectator anyway.
Because of the frequent bad line calls, Greg was quite unaware of three extraordinary features that defined his tennis that day: All of his first serves were good, he had committed no unforced errors, and every one of his shots clipped the outside edge of a line.
One obvious question had already begun to form in Greg's mind: was this performance a one-time thing, or could he do it again? Or more accurately, since he really didn't do anything, could it happen again?
In Thursday's match with Bob, when the score was 6-0, 5-0, 40-love, Greg actually tried to hit a ball out of the court. But he couldn't. His arm swung and another winner flew off the racquet. Was he dreaming? If so, what the hell. Let it be. It was too delicious to disturb; he loved every moment of it.
Greg's strange and inexplicable tennis talents continued to emerge. He quickly moved on to a few 4.0 opponents. They too were now easy, one-sided victories for him. Embarrassingly easy. The few points he lost were typically due to his opponents' miss-hits, and, mostly, mistaken line calls. As if it were an out-of-body experience, he 'watched' himself serve. Regardless of sun or wind, every ball toss was in exactly the same position. He had always wondered how the pros did that.
Eager to see where his newly acquired powers might lead, Greg first dispensed with his now unnecessary arm, back, and knee braces. He also abandoned his old Weed racquet and its 135 square inches; 85 square inches were more than adequate. Subsequent video studies showed that every ball that Greg hit was at the exact geometric center of the racquet's sweet spot. He was now ready for a 'lesson' with the club head pro, a one-time college star, who was still a solid 5.0 player. Greg again won point after point with errorless precision play, vicious spins, and 'impossible' drop shots. First set, 6-0 in 15 minutes. He was actually improving. Remarkably, the second set was a golden set, 6-0, where Greg didn't lose a single point. Eric shook his head in disbelief.
"How old are you, Greg?" he asked rhetorically. "You can't be 79 and play like that!"
Greg's face broke into a sheepish grin. On the one hand he was thrilled with what was happening on the court, and smiled his pleasure; on the other he knew that the pieces didn't fit.
At an Open Tournament at Bolletieri's Academy in nearby Bradenton, Phase II appeared to kick in. Greg had added a new dimension to his game. Or, more accurately, a new dimension had been added for him. His legs would now frequently surge towards the net, where uncharacteristically, he was volleying clean, decisive winners: deep punches to (actually on) the base line, mixed with delicately soft drop volleys. And a flick of the wrist at any time typically resulted in a winning drop shot. It was uncanny. Eerie. Four rounds later, Greg had won the biggest contest of his tennis life, losing a total of just three games.
Gregory Samson was now on the threshold of the most turbulent, most traumatic few months of his life - and he knew it. Nevertheless, as his excitement and anticipation grew, so did his anxiety level. Prior to this point his tennis life was really quite straightforward: short games between long naps three times a week. But that was all changing fast. Too fast, perhaps.
At this juncture, Greg's scientific background began to assert itself. He needed to know what was happening to him. He really couldn't continue to live in this unreal world without some measure of understanding. He decided to start with an early annual physical. Dr. O's findings proved to be anticlimactic: no problems; everything was normal. Very normal. Suspiciously normal, Greg thought. The physical examination, comprehensive blood tests, and urinalysis, all perfectly acceptable. Testosterone: a little on the high side of normal; perhaps that could explain his enhanced sex drive, Greg thought. Meanwhile, his borderline hypertension, his relatively high C-reactive protein and homocysteine levels, and his previously elevated PSA reading, had all fallen to impressively normal levels. His body chemistry was now consistent with an extremely healthy man albeit one in his early twenties!
His ophthalmologist came to a similar conclusion: "Everything looks very normal for a very young man," he said. Gone, apparently, were the early signs of developing cataracts. Gone also was the need for glasses of any kind.
There was one final area that Greg wanted to explore - one of his long-standing scientific interests. He turned to his old friend, Bernie, a molecular geneticist at the NIH, and asked him to put the advanced DNA microarray technology he was always boasting about to good use. A few days later, Bernie called to say that he had Greg's genetic profile. It was perfectly normal actually, perfect and normal except for one anomalous finding: Greg had one extra gene, the CCoAOMT gene, which had never before been found in man.
"It's actually unique to the Giant Redwood tree, Sequoiadendron giganteum," explained Bernie.
"A Redwood tree?? What the hell does that mean?" asked Greg.
"Well," said Bernie, clearly enjoying the moment, "you'll either grow to 300 feet, or live for 3,000 years or both. And if I were you, I'd join the 'Save-the-Redwoods League' - just in case."
"Seriously, should I be worried?" Greg asked
"Nah," Bernie said. "Just relax. You need a drink. Have a 'Gene and Tonic' on me," chuckling as he hung up. So much for ultramodern science - and ultramodern scientists.
"The USTA Pro Circuit provides America's top young players with the opportunity to further their game and improve their rankings," says Arlen Kantarian, USTA's chief executive. Ignoring the USTA's blatant age-discriminatory posture, a determined Greg Samson went on to notch three more open tournament victories. His first Wild Card invitation to participate in a Futures event gave him the opportunity of confronting the Pro Circuit head on. In truly spectacular fashion, he proceeded to win three straight Futures titles an achievement unprecedented on the Pro Circuit. And for dramatic emphasis, he followed these victories by winning two consecutive Challenger events. Suddenly, dramatically, Greg Samson had arrived at the portal of big time tennis.
Life was changing for Greg, and the momentum of change was accelerating. He struggled to adjust. Greg's story appeared in excruciating detail in all the tennis and sports magazines. A book deal had been signed. Video taping was ready for Jay Leno's 'Tonight Show,' while a screenplay for a later movie was in early development at MGM; Dustin Hoffman, a long time tennis aficionado, had openly expressed strong interest in playing the lead. Meanwhile, Greg had found himself forced to hire a business manager, an accountant, and an attorney. A contract with IMG, one of the leading sports management organizations, was in place, where IMG's strategy was to milk the Samson phenomenon before it evaporated. 'Evaporated Milk,' they liked to quip, wasn't good for business! Endorsement deals were developing fast: vitamin supplements, retirement homes, antique stores, Samsonite luggage, and even Old Granddad Bourbon. While he didn't particularly enjoy the process, a liberal supply of bourbon samples at least helped to ease the pain.
Inspired by Greg's successes, aging athletes of all sizes, shapes, and conditions were vigorously preparing to morph into superstars. Ex track-and-field stars were keeling over as they pushed their aging bodies to absurd degrees; out of shape, one-time competitive swimmers were keeling under - in their pools. An overweight 91-year-old runner, reportedly clutching an autographed picture of Greg, had a massive heart attack and died - just trying to get into his old tracksuit.
Samson's emergence as a tennis star of very advanced years presented a new and unique problem for the USTA. Ordinarily, the remarkable results Greg was achieving would have at least made him a candidate for US Davis Cup Team consideration. But Team Captain, Patrick McEnroe, was adamant: he wouldn't select Samson because he couldn't plan on a future with him.
"But why not?" his critics asked. "Who knows anyone's future young or old?"
Age discrimination had suddenly become a major and very divisive issue within tennis circles. Ostensibly to protect very old players from excessive physical stress, there was even a concerted effort to limit the amount of tournament tennis they could play. Proponents of the new rule argued that it was quite analogous to the limits imposed on very young players, and was for the old folks' 'own good.' It was, of course, an obvious attempt to restrict Greg from fair competition.
Perhaps triggered by the conflict, it was about this time that public reaction to Greg's metamorphosis, once so very positive, now began to erode. The bizarre but happy phenomenon had, to many, become downright ugly!
Greg's e-mails, initially totally supportive, were now beginning to polarize. The volume had swelled to many hundreds a day, stabilizing at about 70% for and 30% against. Those in favor urged him on with their "Go show 'em, Greg" support. Those against told him to "Move over and make room for the next generation or even the last generation." Some demanded that he "Just drop dead!" Others suggested that he already had but didn't know it.
One particular e-mail that caught Greg's attention was from a friend in California. He described a San Diego woman, Delilah Washington, who had suddenly emerged as a new tennis star. Newspaper accounts described her 'devastating drop shots' and 'line-clipping ground strokes' in great detail. She was 78 years old. Greg couldn't fail to smile when he realized how their names would read as a mixed doubles team: 'Samson & Delilah!' IMG would like that!
Nevertheless, 'Old Greg,' a role model for some, had become a threat to others especially to his younger, very much younger opponents. They were no longer amused or tolerant. They resented him and what he stood for. Little, shrinking, grey haired old men of 79 weren't supposed to be doing what Samson was doing. They were supposed to be rotting in retirement centers, struggling with Alzheimer's and prostate problems, or, more appropriately, dead. A number of players on the tour openly expressed their revulsion by his very existence; some had even refused to play him.
While Germany's 'Der Spiegel' magazine had playfully referred to Greg as the tennis world's new 'älter wunderkind,' his detractors were less charitable; they took pleasure in coining derogatory nicknames for him, such as 'The Dodo,' 'Methusalah,' and 'Old Granddad.' They settled on 'The Dinosaur'
.. 'Dino.' Greg's fans tried to blunt that by extending it to 'Dino-Mite,' a combination of both his old age and his diminutive size. But 'Dino' stuck. Greg tried to ignore the pain of ridicule, but he couldn't; it gnawed at him. While he was enjoying his tennis successes he was still striving to be 'normal' - however impossible he knew that to be.
Predictably, Greg had received invitations to enter a number of tournaments. Regardless of whether the youth of tennis liked or wanted him as an opponent, the organizers certainly realized that he had box-office value. But Greg was single minded. He was convinced that he had a finite number of matches left in him, and was determined to use them very selectively. His ranking had gone from number 2,435,798 in the world to 245. He needed to be no lower than 244 to qualify for the Qualifying Tournament at one of the grand slam events.
Greg would have been very pleased to play at Roland Garros, where his line-grazing shots could have been visually confirmed by the umpire. Unfortunately, the French were in one of their petulant anti-American moods, so there was no special invitation for Greg to play in Paris. Further, as if to taunt the rest of the world, The French made great issue of the fact that, of all the grand slam events, only clay, their surface, could fully accommodate Samson's brand of precision tennis. They were right. The issue clearly emphasized the need in tennis for automated methods of line calling. In these terms Greg was clearly a player before his time. If only 'Shot Spot' were officially available. In any event, Roland Garros was not.
On Day 1 of the French Open, and to the intense surprise of the tennis world, The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, announced that it was offering Greg a Wild Card to participate in the Qualifying Event for the Wimbledon Championships. Interestingly, seven months after the tournament, it became known that the offer had, in fact, been made in error. Because of Greg's age, they had actually intended to invite him to participate in their Croquet Championships, but they put his paper work in the wrong pile. In any event, he was in.
The London bookies immediately made Samson a 1000-1 outsider to win. They also had him at 2-1 to withdraw from the tournament due to 'disqualification, fatigue, injury, or other physical debilitation, including death.'
For the next few weeks, Greg steadfastly refused to play any more tournaments before Wimbledon. None of the top seeds in tennis had ever seen or played him before, and he wanted to keep it that way. However slender, it was arguably the only advantage he had over them.
Meanwhile, the press had been doing their homework, examining every possible record of old tennis players to compare with Gregory Samson. The usual suspects were gathered for comparison. The extraordinary Andre Agassi, one of the best of the oldies, was still only in his 30's. We were reminded of older pros, like England's Arthur Gore, who was the oldest Wimbledon Men's Singles Champion at 41 - in 1909. In 1972, just before his 44th birthday, Pancho Gonzalez became the oldest player to win a singles tournament in the open era. The incomparable Martina Navratilova who, on winning the 2003 mixed doubles title at Wimbledon at 46, was the oldest player of either sex ever to win a Grand Slam title. Nevertheless, to compete with the best in the world, at 79, was clearly unprecedented.
June 14. Roehampton. Wimbledon's Qualifying Event had finally arrived. Greg proceeded to put his Wild Card to good use in most impressive style. First, second, and third rounds, all easy three set victories. Gregory Samson was in the Main Draw at Wimbledon. 'Wimbledon'
He kept saying it aloud - as if he would awake from a dream if he didn't say the word. But Greg knew that this was no dream.
First Round. Opponent: 'The Magician,' Fabrice Santoro. The wily Frenchman had beaten too many top players to be taken lightly. Greg didn't. He didn't take anything lightly at Wimbledon, not even the toss of the coin. Santoro's artistry was beautiful to behold. But it was no match for Samson's. Greg out-sliced and out-diced his opponent. The post-match press conference was interminable; they just wouldn't let Greg go. Topics ranged from his special fitness training for Wimbledon (none) to his sex life (not none!). True to the propensity of the British press for cute headlines, 'Abracadabra! A New Magician Appears,' was splashed across the sports pages of 'The Daily Mirror.'
Second Round. The 9th seed, the Argentine, Guillermo Coria. In a match hyped as "The Old Man and the 'C,'" the fast and fiery Coria used his speed and tenacity to full effect - but still lost in 3 sets. It was unquestionably Greg's sensational drop shot that took his tennis to such a high level. His delicate touch from any part of the court and on the run brought gasps of admiration even from the partisan South American fans.
Third Round. Leyton Hewitt. Seeded 17th - a previous title holder and still one of the fastest players around. First set to Hewitt, 7-5. It was the very first set Greg had lost in his professional career. But the Aussie couldn't sustain the intensity. Samson could; he seemed to be inexhaustible. The next two sets went to Greg, 6-4, 6-0. Both frustrated and exhausted from chasing Greg's drop shots and lobs, Hewitt found himself serving at 1-3 in the fourth set. After three consecutive double faults, Hewitt directed his anger at Cyclops, the device used to signal service deliveries in or out. In a fit of uncontrolled rage, Hewitt had objected vehemently to the continued use of the machine, screaming his objections at the chair umpire
demanding to know why he didn't realize that the machine was old, so very old.
"Look at it, look at it and you tell me what the similarity is," ranted Hewitt, glaring first at Cyclops, then at Greg, then at Cyclops again. Cyclops was duly disconnected. However, Hewitt's bigoted actions totally alienated him from the crowd, and tilted all support to 'Dino.' Greg obliged by not losing another point, winning the fourth set 6-1. It proved to be the very last professional tennis match Hewitt ever played.
Fourth Round. The A-Train. 8th seeded Andre Agassi. Speculation was again rampant. Could Samson handle the relentless punishment of a supremely fit Agassi? Amazingly, the match was over in exactly 99 minutes - a shocking 3 set victory for Samson. Whenever Agassi managed to reach Samson's drop shots in time, he was mercilessly lobbed with intensely heavy topspin winners that consistently clipped the outside edge of the baseline. It was quickly Andre himself who was forced to yield to the intense physical demands of the match, demands that he expected to inflict on his opponent.
"He's my role model for the future," Agassi declared, with his usual grace.
Quarter Finals. The young American superstar, Andy Roddick - seeded 4th was on the other side of the net. His raw power could overwhelm anyone. A-Rod's first serve was clocked at 169 mph. As if he knew exactly where the ball was going to be, Greg had already moved to his right. With a deft flick of the wrist, his return cleared the net by millimeters and kicked back into the bottom of the net - a drop shot that Roddick could get to but not return. And so the battle was joined: power versus touch; Young Phenom versus Old Phenom. Everyone over 40 was with the Old Man. He was their knight in rusty armor. Young Andy had the young on his side. "Play for time," they yelled after Greg won the first two tie-break sets. "Make it go to 5 he'll die of old age before then." It went to 3. Roddick won his serve, most of the time. But he couldnt win the match. At the end of just 2 hours, a bewildered Roddick forced a "well done, Greg" through very tight lips. To the chagrin of his adversaries, an equally bewildered Samson walked off the court looking as fresh as a daisy
. well, as fresh as any 79-year-old daisy could look.
Quite suddenly, all attention was focused on the havoc Samson was causing for the London bookies. Apparently, millions of old age British pensioners had been 'having a flutter,' betting 'a quid or two' of their meager incomes on Greg - clearly the sentimental favorite. At a 1000-1, the bookies' potential losses were now estimated to be 850 million pounds (more than $1.5 billion). Concern for Greg's protection was very evident by the dozen London Bobbies surrounding him wherever he went. For the first time in history, the Wimbledon police were fully armed.
Semi Finals. Centre Court. Samson versus Federer. Roger Federer, ranked number 1 in the world, the number 1 seed, and the reigning Wimbledon Men's Singles Champion. As the newspapers reminded their readers, again and again, and again, Federer was born on August 8, 1981. Greg first saw the light of day on August 8, 1925, 56 years before Federer was born, 34 years before Federer's parents were born, and 13 years before Federer's grandparents were born. Taking an early two set lead, it looked as if Federer would coast to an easy victory. Was this to be the end of Greg's magical ride? The bookies were popping Champagne corks and wondering how on earth they could have been worried by such an insignificant, little old man so totally out of place in big-time sport. But Federer had relaxed, imperceptibly perhaps, but relaxed he had. Meanwhile, Greg was beginning to mix his drop shots more effectively with his net play, and suddenly it was two sets all. This was clearly destined to be Greg's moment in the sun
. well, in summertime England, his moment in the drizzle. Fifteen minutes later Greg, seemingly as fresh as ever, had won the final set by an astonishing 6-0. The continued barrage of his errorfree volleys, immaculate drop shots, and unfailing lobs were just too much for the Swiss. 79-year-old Gregory Samson was in the finals of Wimbledon. The next day's headline ran: 'Federeral Express Fails to Deliver; Mitey Samson KO's the Champ.'
On Finals Eve, Greg went to bed early; he slept fitfully. Towards dawn he was troubled by a disquieting dream: he was playing a tennis match for his very life. The court, set on a gently undulating ocean, was partly shrouded in a cold, swirling mist. Greg's opponent was Death himself in the form of a skeleton. He was wearing an inverted black baseball cap, and the hideous grin of a skull with no flesh. Death served. Greg immediately found himself struggling to catch up to the ball first stretching wide then, as the point developed, stumbling, lunging forward, running desperately in all directions. Death, floating effortlessly above the court surface, struck again and again. The first point, seemingly endless, eventually went to Death. The next to Samson. There was no umpire; no one to call the score. Greg couldn't see where his shots were landing. He had no idea of the status of the match; the scoreboard itself was enveloped in mist. And so it continued. Hours later, Death slowly walked towards the net, his hideous grin seemingly fixed, and his bony hand outstretched before him. Was it to shake hands? Was the match over? Had Death won? Suddenly, as the mist began to lift, Greg could see the scores on the board slowly take shape:
. he wasn't sure
. he couldn't quite make out
An alarm was buzzing. Greg awoke, trembling, drenched in sweat, heart pounding. Moments later his thoughts turned to Wimbledon.
Finals. Sunday. Centre Court. As unbelievable as it was, and as the world had been reminded every hour on the hour, 79-year-old Greg Samson, little old Greg who just a few months earlier was a very ordinary 3.5 club player, was in the Gentlemen's Singles Final at Wimbledon. His opponent, also a first-time Wimbledon finalist, was the British hope, Tim Henman. Seeded third, the pressure on Henman to win Wimbledon had been intense - year after year.
"Samson to serve," declared Lars Graff in the Umpire's Chair, and the near pandemonium subsided just enough to get the match underway. The crowd dynamics were fascinating. Despite the annual nationwide phenomenon of Henmania, the fans in the stadium were roughly evenly split between the two players: the Young Brits, and the older flutterers clearly determined to protect their financial investments.
For the next grueling 7 hours and 19 minutes, by far the longest match in Wimbledon history, the two players were locked in a Herculean struggle: holding serve, exchanging breaks of serve, and facing the agonies of tie-break after tie-break. 7-6; 6-7; 7-6; 6-7. It was now 26-25, and 40-30 in the 5th and final set. Samson serving. Match point. Match Point. Greg could scarcely breathe. One more point and tennis immortality was his. One point! Never before had the Centre Court crowd been this wild, this emotionally involved in - and emotionally drained by - a tennis match. The sustained roar was deafening. On the 14th request for "quiet, please" by Graff, and as if orchestrated from above, a sudden and prophetic deathly hush fell on the stadium. With a ball toss that was off center by one millimeter, Greg's first serve went long - by one millimeter. In the absence of Cyclops, a line judge made the call - correctly. For the first time since his metamorphosis, Greg had actually missed a shot. Half the crowd groaned. His second-serve ball toss was perfect, and was met with his hardest racquet swing yet. Greg had never previously jumped this high to serve: two feet off the ground. Every fiber of his being went up into the swing. Crack! The speed gun showed a remarkable 140 mph. The ball clipped the T-junction and kicked away out of Henman's desperate reach. An exquisite and perfectly struck second-serve ace. On match point!
At the precise moment that Greg's racquet made contact with the ball, a blinding white light entered his consciousness. Samson clutched his chest and fell forward. As they carried him off, and the final faint flicker of breath left his body, he heard, in a distant, barely audible voice, the very last word he'd ever hear:
Gregory Samson, the old man who had metamorphosed into a tennis superstar, was dead.
The future once again belonged to the young.
While putting his fantasy to paper, the author continued to play 3.5 level tennis - half expecting the magic to begin. It didn't.