Robert Glassman remembers the year he met Jennie Lieberman: it was 2003, and soon they were playing tennis together at Sugarbush Park near her home on Rumsey Dr. He moved in with her about five years later, and a few years after that, Glassman was invited to join a group who’ve been playing at Sugarbush since the early 1980s.
From the start, he enjoyed their mutual praise and good-natured joshing. He also appreciated how they “looked like the U.N.”
The game started out with next-door neighbors Al McDonough, an accountant from Iowa, and Jay Puthran, an engineer from India. McDonough, ninety-one, sold his house three years ago and hasn’t played much since, Glassman says, but at eighty-seven, Puthran still plays.
Other neighbors walking, racquet in hand, to the courts on weekday mornings include retired dentist Ben An, from China, and mathematician A.L. Dontchev, from Bulgaria–though Glassman says Dontchev hasn’t played much this year “because he’s busy writing a book.” And “one guy from Peru sometimes comes.”
Glassman calls himself the “baby” of the group. A skilled tradesman retired from the auto industry, he says he’s overweight, has bad knees, and doesn’t run very well, but still enjoys “the feel and sound of the ball when well struck.”
For Puthran, public tennis courts were a pleasant surprise when he and his wife, Prema, immigrated to Saginaw in 1972 with their two young boys. “We were driving around, exploring, and saw a college–with four tennis courts,” he recalls.
“In India, to play tennis, you have to be a country club member,” Puthran explains. “It’s very expensive. If you’re a common man working somewhere … and you want to play, it’s so complicated.
“Here, the courts were right there, and no one was playing! So I told my wife, ‘Let’s go to Kmart.’ We bought four tennis racquets.” They started taking lessons and playing doubles with couples they met in the class.
The family moved to Ann Arbor so Puthran could get a master’s at U-M and take a job at Raycon Corporation. In 1979, they purchased a house on Rumsey, and he and Prema started to play at Sugarbush.
“Then we saw my neighbor Al and his wife in the next court,” Puthran recalls. “And a couple from China, Ben and his wife, and other neighbors, and we’d play doubles.”
And they were not just playing tennis. “We’d crack jokes, we’d play, we’d make fun–that was the best part,” says Puthran. “We became friends, and today we are friends, all three families.”
The wives stopped playing years ago. It’s just the guys now. But Puthran says they still play several times a week on weekdays.
There are younger tennis players in the neighborhood, too, but they’re still working, so they play on weekends. Glassman calls them the “A-team” and says that despite being faster and better players, they’re “always welcoming.”
But “I feel I don’t belong on the court with them,” he says, so he usually sticks to weekdays. And he and the other older guys have adapted the game to their abilities.
“We’re the founding members of the two-bounce league,” says Glassman. “We let the ball bounce twice. We stopped playing for points.
“If you don’t worry about where it lands and how many times it bounces, you get more exercise.”