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Sharing Ridgefields court with Laver was highlight of Pike’s career

Joe Avento • Jun 11, 2020 at 10:00 AM

Billy Pike played a lot of tennis in his Hall of Fame career, but one day stands out above all the rest.

Pike, a retired optometrist from Elizabethton, had a chance to play an exhibition match against longtime great Rod Laver years ago at Ridgefields Country Club in Kingsport. It left such an impression that Pike can still tell you the exact date: July 12, 1985.

Pike’s longtime friend Reedy Toney, the tennis pro at Ridgefields, called and asked if he was available to play that afternoon.

Normally, Pike would have told Toney he had patients to see and tennis would have to wait.

When Pike found out he would be sharing the court with Laver, he decided the patients were the ones who could wait.

“I said ‘You’re kidding!’ ” Pike said. “Reedy told me Rod Laver was in town promoting a real estate development over in Banner Elk and they were wanting him to meet some people. He needed someone to play with. The only problem was I needed to be there in a couple of hours.”

Pike said the next two hours were a blur, although he might have set a land speed record on the way to Kingsport.

“I had to scramble and cancel my appointments,” he said. “I came home, changed clothes and I got over there around four o’clock. I hustled and I made it. He was already on the court.”

Pike said he was genuinely excited to meet the man who won 200 tournaments, including 11 majors.

Laver won the Grand Slam twice — capturing the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same year — and one of those times came when he was still an amateur. His 1969 Grand Slam still stands as the last time that feat has been accomplished in men’s tennis.

“I was so excited to meet him,” Pike said. “He had that Australian accent. My first impression was that he’s not that big. He was 5-8 or 5-9. Then I noticed that I thought his right arm was withered. It turned out it wasn’t. His left arm was just so big it made his right one look small. It was twice as big as his right arm. It looked like a leg.”

At the time, Pike was 38 and Laver was 47.

“He wasn’t at the peak of his ability, but you could still see how fluid his strokes were,” Pike said. “He was hitting from corner to corner to corner. The first two or three games I was really nervous. He broke my serve early, but as I got into it I thought he’s not going to overpower me.”

They were playing a pro set and they were tied at six games apiece. That’s when Pike began to think.

“I said ‘I don’t want to beat this guy,’ ” he said. “I did but I didn’t. I was not going to beat him. He’s probably the first or second greatest player in the history of the game.

“He’s won two Grand Slams, once as an amateur in ’62 and once as a professional in ’69. And from ’63-’68 he didn’t play because he was a professional and it was open only to the amateurs. So he could have won another 10 or 12 and he would have probably had 25 to 30 by the time he was done.”

After the match, eventually won 8-6 by Laver, the pro complimented the local player, who was ranked No. 3 in the South for players 35 and over at the time.

“He told me I played well,” Pike said. “He congratulated me and said he thought the people enjoyed it. That made me feel good.

“It was just an honor to be on the court with him and to meet one of the greatest players of all time. He was a gentleman, unlike the top players in the game at the time. He would give you the benefit on the calls. If it was close, it’s good. That’s the way they played back then. They were gentlemen. They don’t do that any more.”

During his career, Pike won several state championships, a few Southern Championships and he was the U.S. Navy singles and doubles champ. He was also inducted into the East Tennessee State Hall of Fame for his All-Ohio Valley Conference performances with the Bucs in the mid-1960s.

None of that compared to that one afternoon at Ridgefields.

“By far the most fun I’ve ever had,” he said with the smile of a man who meant what he said.

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