It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt

By Steve Saltarelli

Over the course of my tennis career, I’ve seen some pretty crazy things on the court: outrageously improbable comebacks, flagrant and continuous cheating, and even a couple of post-match brawls.

Never in my time, however, have I seen what I saw last Saturday in Crawfordsville, IN: a teammate carried off via stretcher into a waiting ambulance.

The day started off normally enough, with an early-morning departure in anticipation of a noon match against anti-powerhouse Ohio Wesleyan and a 4:30 battle with an improved club from the Y chromosome–heavy Wabash College.

With the women traveling to St. Louis for what would be a victory over Wash U, dual head coach Marty Perry would not make the trip to rural Indiana with us. Instead, we rolled six-deep in a minivan with assistant coach Jeff White.

The drive down was a unique balance between sleepiness and desire to ridicule first-year Willy Zhang’s choice of music. In the end, dislike of Chinese techno won out over drowsiness for most of us—except first-year Tim Walsh, who elected to hibernate in the back seat.

The obligatory stop at Subway was substituted for the slightly higher-class Potbelly’s, and between that and a couple bottles of water, we were officially prepared to play tennis.

When we arrived on campus, we observed the disparities between the main athletic center (spotless, modern, and enormous) and the tennis center (poorly lit barn). Adding a bizarre, surreal element to the architecture was the constant presence of The Little Giant, Wabash’s eerie, steroid-injecting cartoon mascot who adorned the walls.

In the first match we breezed past a clearly overmatched Ohio Wesleyan team. For fun, when playing a school of their caliber, there is usually a contest to see who can finish their match in the shortest time. In doubles, first-years “Markie” Mark Bonner and Walsh took home that honor at third doubles, while tennis-robot Walsh scored the quickest victory in singles after abusing his opponent for 35 minutes.

The momentum carried into the following match against Wabash, where things were again looking routine. We had already clinched the victory when Zhang, locked in a tight battle at first singles, informed me from an adjacent court that he was cramping.

Muscle cramping happens occasionally in tennis, generally during close matches in hot conditions. Dehydration is almost always the cause. Zhang, however, defies convention because a) we were playing indoors, and b) he doesn’t sweat. He does, however, have a well-documented propensity for cramping and has been forced to retire from numerous matches in the past.

For tennis players, cramping usually starts in the playing hand (“the claw”) and moves to other parts of the body, usually the legs.

Zhang was tied at one set all but was cramping in the quadriceps, a difficult debilitation to overcome. He played a couple of games with the strategy of going for broke but eventually had to succumb. He retired down 1–2 in the third set.

After the match, Zhang appeared to be in good health, sitting on the bleachers drinking Gatorade laced with salt packets while matches finished up.

Meanwhile, Bonner closed out his match and we took a 7–2 victory. This happened at about 6:30 EST, and undefeated coach Jeff White and I celebrated an early return to campus. Fate disagreed, and suddenly we looked over to see Zhang on the ground screaming in pain from the dreaded full body cramp.

The cramping started off slightly comically, but as the cramps and the screaming steadily became more intense the mood of the room changed drastically. Zhang was incapacitated, and each movement set off another, sickly visible muscle cramp.

It was determined that if he tried to endure the two-and-a-half—hour car ride home, he would surely cramp again. At that point the decision to go to the hospital for I.V. fluids was made, and the ambulance was called to transport the immobile Zhang. Our hopes for a reasonable hour of return were dashed.

Four minutes later the ambulance arrived and sent everyone scrambling to obtain Zhang’s medical information. After arguing with the paramedic for a while, Zhang was eventually lifted into a stretcher and taken away, with Bonner “riding shotgun.”

We waited in the E.R. waiting room as a team for over an hour, feeling slightly out of place. Trying to catch up on reading was useless, given the interesting nature of the situation combined with the American Idol reruns blaring from the TV.

Suddenly, Zhang emerged from the hospital bed and sprung back to his normal, non-hospitalized self. Despite the near-arctic temperatures, he jogged to the minivan wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

And just like that, the situation was funny again. Zhang will return to cramp another day.