What Am I Talking About?
Pesto from a can, horribly tough and flavorless steak, and a glass of milk was my 2015 Thanksgiving Day feast. I was fully dressed with two warm-up jackets, jeans and a beanie as my outer layer, as I hunched over my small, one of a million-type college desk/drawer combo eating my dinner in a tiny dorm room in Dijon, France. Snow fell, the Internet connection did not work and my long hair was half frozen. I had just come from Stellenbosch, South Africa where it was the beginning of summer, so I was not ready for the French winter. The first stop on day one in Dijon was the mall to get me some warm clothes. Days one and two were spent lazily stretching and walking around town when the sun shone, and getting readjusted to the time change; I had ten days in Dijon before my last two tournaments of the year in Tunisia.
It’s uncommon to have nicely heated indoor tennis clubs in France. They usually have a bubble over the courts, and the bottom of the bubble doesn’t reach the ground; it stops about three feet short. So the cold wind comes ripping through the courts, low and freezing just daring you to play in shorts. Of course I went to practice the first day fully expecting to play at an indoor club like the ones I had known in Lincoln, Nebraska; heated and well lit, with a viewing area, a pro shop and maybe even a little restaurant. Tell me something more American than going about life thinking all other countries do it the same way you do it. I was under dressed, and mentally not ready to deal with not feeling my hands or feet. It was too cold to play. I didn’t take my pants off once in the ten days of training. But I practiced, and tried to get good sessions in. Then I’d go home, turn the stove on and start boiling water for my can pesto every night.
It was some kind of break at the University, so there were no people around. I maybe saw a couple kids coming and going from the dorm, but I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t get to experience much of France, but I got my first taste of life as a Futures player; a Futures player with no ranking and no coach, at that.
I met Quentin Robert, a French guy ranked inside the Top 1000, a few weeks before in Stellenbosch when the hotel put us together as roommates. Over our three weeks in Stellenbosch we grew close, and he invited me back to France to train with him before we’d both head to Tunisia. It was the best offer I had; a chance to train with a guy who was better than me, a chance to see France, and my chance to really live the life. If you’re reading this article, you have probably read others about how life in the tennis minor league system is tough; but this is not one of those.
All I wanted was a chance to compete again. To remake my tennis career after my enjoyment of the game, and competition, had been sucked out of me by the outdated NCAA and college coaches who couldn’t have done less for my development as a player. Playing Futures is not the (whole) dream. But it is cool. Maybe it just is what you make it. If you want it to suck, there is plenty to complain about. But if you want it to be great, you can make it that too.
Athletics are about so much more than just which sport you play, and what level you play it at. Athletics are a way to learn about yourself, and mold yourself into the person you want to be. If you want to use sport as an outlet for your aggression, go ahead. If you want to care about sportsmanship, care. If you want to learn about hard work, go play a sport and try to be good at it. Want to just exercise and sweat after work, great. You can take it any way you want it, that’s the beauty of any sport. Athletics can teach us about life, and ourselves; and as much as we can see our abilities change and grow on the court, we can see our minds and personalities change off it. And those changes (the ones in our minds and personalities) last longer than any athletic career ever can.
My ten days in France did not go as expected. Quentin’s dad got sick and that kept Q away from the practice courts, so I was hitting with some local players to keep sharp. I spent afternoons running around the track on campus, avoiding the iciest parts so I wouldn’t risk an injury. I followed my workouts up by stretching in my tiny, cold dorm room. I thought there’d at least be a gym I could use, like I was used to having in the US. But that’s the life of a Futures guy; you make a string or half-baked decisions and hope they turn out close to what you planned. Or at least that’s how many of us start out. Hopefully your decisions start to be more solid and thought out as you get experience in that world. Two weeks later, alone in Tunisia, I got my first ATP Point. Going through qualies and winning that first main draw match gave me a feeling I’d never felt on a tennis court before. I had gotten what I came for both as an athlete and a person. My athletic career has taught me how to deal, and learn, and adapt. I hope your athletic life helps you as much as mine has helped me.
THE SET UP:
Like a curtain on Broadway, his lips separate and pull back toward his ears while he confesses, “I’m never, never, never, never gonna be super happy with where I’m at.” Philip Bennett Walker is an Atlantic Beach based artist, more specifically, a painter. I’m in his backyard to film Episode 8 of, “Road Beers”; the show where I ask people why they do what they do.
While we sat at his patio table, Philip told me, “I want to get everything out of me. I hope to leave behind thousands of pieces when my time here is done.” He loves to paint, has something to say, and believes the world is ready to hear it. All he has to do is master his way of saying it. Mastery is inherently unlimited; as long as there are areas to improve on, the person interested in mastery will look to improve on those areas. More important than the thing we do, Philip does art, is the mindset in which we do it. From talking to him, I’d say his mentality is his most valuable asset. As we talked, Philip unknowingly sparked the idea in me that it’s not enough to be a dilettante; no master ever took that route. Let me take you through our conversation.
What stands out instantly in Philip’s backyard is the above ground pool. It’s the coolest one I’ve ever seen. Railroad ties and two-by-fours are molded into steps that completely encase the pool; eliminating the notoriously ugly plastic walls from view. In the summer, the pool becomes an homage to the nine daughters of Zeus, reviving his artistic inspiration one plunge at a time. Next to the pool is a rock waterfall, whose base is filled with colossal goldfish-not Koi fish, goldfish. And of course, there is the small, paint fumy, cluttered shed where Philip does his painting. On the fringe of his property, old, beat-up surfboards lean against the rusty chain-link fence, as Dahliesque wet-suits melt over a clothesline near the outdoor shower. Once I’d gotten a tour of the spot, we popped two Stella’s, sat on his deck, and got down to business. I was antsy to hear his story; he was happy to tell it.
Philip, “always the artistic kid”, of his friend group, grew up designing surfboards and sketching tattoo ideas for friends in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Shy, and slightly embarrassed to show his work, he would paint and draw alone on small canvases or pieces of cardboard, rarely showing anyone. It was easy, and enjoyable, for him to design what other people asked him for. He didn’t like to reveal the pieces he made for himself. His own art was intimate, and meaningful.
At 18 years-old, he realized New Smyrna was not going to help him develop into the person he wanted to be; so he dropped out of high school, packed up what he couldn’t buy again, and moved West to Aspen, Colorado. What Aspen had going for it were the thousands of miles between it and New Smyrna, and the fact that it was void of people that knew him as “the artistic kid.” Better the devil you don’t know than the one you do, he figured.
Half way through our beer, I asked about what jobs he had in Aspen, curious about what options await a guy with no high school diploma. His days were spent trying on costumes; he was a bartender, a golf course staff member, and a furniture store employee, among myriad other things. He said, “My backup plan was always art; my first plan was whatever job I was doing. The older I got, and the more serious I got about my jobs, the more I was discovering that I didn’t like them, and how much I wanted to become who I always thought I could be as an artist.” That’s what you want to know. We view ourselves as works in progress; trying to master the ideal version of our life that plays out in our head. We are not always who we want to be.
Even though he took the courageous first step of moving to Aspen, and was motivated to pursue art, it took 20 years for Philip to really commit to it. He just started painting full time last year, at 38 years old. No solid paying job could get rid of his gut feeling that he wasn’t being true to himself.
Stuck between feeling embarrassed, and too personally revealed by his art, Philip spent those years in Aspen working on his artistic skills and ideas alone. Slowly, through “art parties” he had at his apartment, he began showing and selling some of his art. 8’x11’ pieces selling for $20 was how he started becoming the artist he always thought he could be.
Careers in painting and professional tennis are similar in the sense that it takes more than a couple “big wins” to forge a profitable career. I’ve beaten players ranked in the world’s top 300, yet I still play matches in near obscurity in Azerbaijan with a ranking in the 1,300’s. Philip, similarly, has had his art in galleries and shows all over the United States for years, yet he’s still pushing to get his name out there every day. Finally though, his biggest win arrived.
While working at the, “fine home furnishings store” in Aspen, Philip pitched himself to a buyer. A woman came into the store looking for furniture to put in some galleries she had just bought. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Philip could sense the money this woman was just waiting to spend on the right thing, and he wanted it to land in his own pockets.
So he told her he was an artist who could produce better art than what she was showing in her galleries. She gave him until the end of the week, before she flew home to Atlanta, to prove himself. Every night that week was spent creating 8’x11’ pieces to show her. He had no art to his name yet; every piece he showed her was an original.
She loved his style, and gave him a month to create as much art as he could; she wanted to fly him to Atlanta and feature his work in her gallery. All but one piece was sold on the trip, and his mindset began to shift. Finally he had shown his work and been rewarded for it. Although this big moment was not monetarily life changing, it showed him that he had “the goods.”
When we went inside for our second beer, I walked into Philip’s dining room; a quasi storage room for some of his finished, but not yet sold, pieces. On the nearest wall, as if in an old fashioned duel, two cowboys draw their guns in the foreground, as a faded, grey version of Times Square sets the background. On the opposite wall, against a solid, gunmetal grey canvas, an army tank filled with sun-faded bright colors, patterned with straight lines stands alone; going nowhere, but ready to roll.
Then, most powerfully, on the ground leaning against the wall, there is a sorrowful, multi-colored elephant whose body is cut in half at the torso by the edge of the canvas. It has a neon red head, and a light blue body which both pop off the midnight blue background. On its torso is a bright white peace sign, cut in half by the edge of the canvas, which instantly draws our eyes attention. Nothing says, “we’re almost the society we want to be”, like half a peace sign. On Instagram, Philip posted this picture, and captioned it with, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” That combination of words and imagery is about as overtly political as Philip gets.
Most of his art has bright colors, straight lines, and some kind of movement. Sometimes that movement is portrayed through animals; sometimes it’s Princess Leia from Star Wars with “HOPE” tattooed on her forearm as she holds an assault rifle. Still other times it’s a tie-dye ship with nowhere to go.
To me, Philip’s messages are clear and constant. Animal lives matter. Preserving our environment matters. And that war shouldn’t have to be one of our options for solving a conflict today. When I asked about the meaning behind his pieces, he said that he, “just likes to paint”, and leaves the interpretation of his work for the person interpreting it. He knows people will come up with their own ideas about his pieces, but claims that most of their ideas are really just their own and have nothing to do with what he actually paints.
At Royal Palms Tapas Bar, where we had dinner after our interview, he showed me a piece of his that was hanging on the wall; it was his rendition of the British band, “The Smiths”, 1985 album cover. The band used a picture of a frail looking soldier with the words, “Meat is murder”, written on his helmet; imagine the world’s worst headshot. Philip turned the soldier’s face into the face of a robot, and kept the writing on his helmet. I guessed that the painting was a critique on soldiers, and how they’re mindless robots incapable of making their own decisions; and of course that “meat is murder” was a nod to his theme that animal lives matter. Philip told me that for a long time he had wanted to switch out human faces for robot faces; he thought that imagery was cool. To actually do that, Philip said, required that the human face have certain dimensions; the Smith’s cover art just happened to have the right dimensions. I didn’t buy it, but he said he doesn’t even like the Smith’s. He likes to paint, leaving people like me to interpret his work how we will.
A person’s desire to improve typically runs out long before their potential has been reached. Philip is not one of those people; it took 20 years, and countless hours of contemplating whether or not he should bail on his dream of being an artist, for him to finally create a firm artistic style of his own.
Philip will tell you, “Selling art is a blessing, and I’m happy the person likes the piece. But at the same time, I see a million little flaws in it that I want to get right on the next one.” His livelihood depends on the sale of his art for money, regardless of how his inner artist views it.
It’s not for everyone, the mentality Philip harbors; it keeps him motivated and creative, but also denies him the feeling to true “arrival”, as an artist, in his own head. This inner tumultuousness his thought process creates is what makes him think he will, “never, never, never, never be super happy,” but it’s also what pushed him through those 20 years of painting alone in his room, and got him to where he is now. Without the up and downside of this “mastery” mindset, who knows if he would still be loading trucks at the furniture store in Aspen.
For Philip, the intrigue of being a painter lies in one day producing that ultimate piece. That one piece that displays both his full mastery of art, and the full expression of the man he is. He’s still trying to become the person that young tattoo sketcher once imagined 20 years ago in New Smyrna Beach, so that final piece is on the way.
I shared a practice court with Lucas Catarina (pictured left) in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Maybe we talked a bit, I can’t remember. He was just another French guy and I was just another American guy; both trying to see where we could take our games. Both hoping to get out of the minor leagues. Fast forward 6 months and I get a Facebook message from Lucas, asking if I want to share a room during the string of three tournaments in Baku, Azerbaijan that we were both playing. I said ok. I remembered him being a cool guy, had never heard anything bad about him. So myself, Lucas and another player, Ruben Geeraert split the room. Lucas got in late the first night and slept on a cot. He was the highest ranked player of the three of us at the time, probably still outside the world’s Top 1,000 players. Today, two years removed from our time in Baku, Lucas is ranked #365 in the world and received a Wild Card to play in this week’s Monte Carlo Rolex Masters. He drew world #22, Milos Raonic first round and took a set off him. That’s like a high school baseball player going 4 for 4 in his first game for the Yankees.
This match is a non-factor in the life of Milos Raonic. He may be a bit disappointed to have lost a set to a guy like Lucas, but he still won the match and moves on to the next round more or less unscathed. On the flip side though, this was a watershed moment for Lucas. He earned his chance, through years of proving himself in the minor leagues, to be on the sport’s biggest stage, and he performed better than anyone outside his camp expected. Truly a sign for him to keep pushing; this match will be a source of motivation and confidence for him to draw on for who knows how long. No one else I know has gotten a Wild Card into a Masters 1000 event, nor do I know anyone who’s taken a set off a player in the Top 25.
I’m not a tennis journalist; I’m still playing in the minor leagues. Haven’t seen Lucas since Azerbaijan. I didn’t even know Lucas got a Wild Card into the event until I was looking through the day’s results and saw his name. Then I turned on Tennis Channel and heard Tracy Austin say, “Milos Raonic drops a set to a guy ranked like 355 or something.” First of all, he’s ranked 365- just take one second to check the rankings. Secondly, without attacking Tracy too personally, I’ll say that I wish she were more thoughtful. I wish she would take the time to think about how she wants to spread our sport, and then make a conscious decision to do that from the outstanding platform she has at Tennis Channel. How does tennis benefit if our commentators, who are the voice of tennis for the casual fan and recreational player, are making guys like Lucas seem like bums? There are more uplifting storylines in this match than I could shake a stick at: David and Goliath; A journeyman gets his shot at the Big Time; Look how good a guy ranked 365 is!; How can a guy this good not be making money?; Minor League guys, keep going, you’re closer than you think! You get it. Instead, Tracy decided to make Lucas sound like a bum by calling him, “a guy ranked like 355 or something.” Why would we, as a sport, not make Lucas’s surprising and impressive showing headline news? Why put Lucas down by calling him a nobody, while simultaneously putting Milos down for having an off day? This could easily be spun into a success story about hardwork and perseverance. You pick the cliché, it’s there to be written.
After graduating from the University of Nebraska, I had no idea what to expect from Professional Tennis. I wish I could have read about the realities of life on tour, so that's what my blogs are. A description of life on Tour as a guy trying to make it.