Cologne to Saarlouis: Expensive beach, German clay and free Ben & Jerry’s

If you arrive in Cologne by train, the Dom, the High Cathedral of Saint Peter, the Cologne Cathedral welcomes you with all its 157-meter Gothic might. The most visited landmark of Germany is right outside the central train station and you have a great view of it as the train slowly comes to a halt. The views at night are even better with the lighting on the dark ceramic construction intensifying all its crevices and gargoyles.

Jackson was there to pick me up in his nippy little Peugeot and continue on to Saarlouis to sign in. Took a while to find him in the rush, even though he had told me where he’d be standing. I found his car first and soon him too.

We were going to his place briefly to pick up his stuff before we hit the road. He remembered that I only had hard court tennis shoes and not clay. I didn’t care a whole lot as I had always played with hard court Nike Vapors no matter which surface. He swore that they’d make a huge difference in my movement and if I was going to be playing in Europe for a few weeks at least, all on clay, it’d be a good investment. I wasn’t going to spend a dime over €50 on tennis shoes, even that would be pushing the limit.

I haven’t bought tennis shoes since 2009 when I got to the University of Idaho. I wouldn’t have bought any sports gear at all if it wasn’t for ITF rules on logos on clothing. The college gear we get has the Nike logo plus the university logo, name or mascot. ITF doesn’t allow that. I’m not sure about the exact rule but you cannot have large print or multiple logos. You can have your personal sponsors’ logos on the sleeve, if you have any. The likes of us don’t have to worry about that.

In short, our University of Idaho gear, except shoes, doesn’t work for ITF events, so over the last 4 years I’ve had to, very reluctantly, buy some Nike gear (Nike because we score a discount through the University as we’re sponsored by them).

He lives right in the city center and there are several sports stores near him, so he took me. They all had the usual expensive tennis shoes, nothing near my range. I did set a very unrealistic range, knowing how much tennis shoes cost, especially outside America. In the last store we found a pair of Head tennis shoes that was 40 something euros was great. Opened the box and they were a shocking neon blue with bright orange-ish red. Not my type, if you know me. The Nike Vapors I brought for the trip were plain white with a black swoosh. But that was the only pair even close to my range so I bought them as I needed them next day for the matches.

We got back to his apartment and Jackson didn’t look like in any sort of a rush. I assumed he knew the time and what he was doing. When at about 3 pm he still wasn’t pushed, I had to say something. I knew the drive was around 3 hours and we had to be there at 6pm. He had lost track of time completely. We loaded up the Peugeot soon after, plugged the destination in Maps, and were ready to go at about 3:15pm. Only issue was, we had 2 hours and 45 minutes to make the 2 hour and 45 minute trip, with a stop for gas.

I’m not sure what speed Google Maps expects you to go on the Autobahn, it is computable I guess, but I was hoping it was no more than 140 kmh as I’m not the biggest speed junkie. That didn’t quite matter as we made it to the club with 10 minutes to spare. Jackson drove at an average of 170 kmh, with a top speed of 196 kmh. His little Peugeot couldn’t touch 200. I couldn’t sleep for a second, even though I hadn’t slept all night and I love sleeping on drives. I was very nervous.

We went straight to the ITF tournament supervisor and signed in. Had a hit, ate the food I had cooked and packed like a grandma at the Airbnb in Netherlands. We both went to see if the draw was made, it was about 7:45 pm, but it wasn’t. Jackson asked if he made it in the qualifying draw and he did. I didn’t ask, I knew if Jackson is in, I should be in too with the help of my 51 week old points.

The referee asked me if I was Akbar. I said yes, hoping for some good news. Next thing he said: ‘You can’t play here this week as you’re supposed to be in … after looking at his computer screen for a few seconds … Middelburg. The software has blocked you because you’re signed in in Middelburg.’

I’m holding my head in my hands thinking I could have stayed there played doubles at least, and how on earth am I signed-in in Middelburg? If I was, I’d be there, in the draw, playing on Saturday instead of traveling to Saarlouis in that nerve wracking Mission Impossible fashion that I did.

I was hoping to play a tournament that week, my first in Europe. Not to be in Netherlands as planned but I was sure I’d get to play in Germany if I could make it in time. Didn’t quite work out still. Jackson and I got a hotel, I crashed immediately as I hadn’t slept in 24 hours.

Jackson didn’t play till later so we got to sleep in, had the breakfast we had bought the night before from the super market, checked out and went to the club. He was to play his second round same day if he won his first, and if he won both, then we were going to look at hotels again, and if he lost, head back to Saarlouis. I warmed him up, he played a good match against a tough opponent and we headed back to Cologne.

In Cologne he had spoken to the coaches at the academy he trains at, about me jumping in for a week of training. They were extremely kind to let me play and condition with them for a week completely free. The owner and head coach of the academy was Mark Goellner, former #26 ATP and number 2 in Germany, only behind Becker.

Met Nikolay Davydenko’s brother and lifelong coach who was at the academy, training his son who was up to 300 ATP and was headed to Saarlouis for the main draw that day.

Stayed with Jackson and his two German apartment mates who are great people and were extremely welcoming. They all took me around in the evenings after work and would give me tours of the city.

One of the nights his apartment mate took us to the Ben & Jerry’s festival. They were showing a movie at the race course, where the entire stand was packed, along with a 60 x 40 meter sloping grass lawn below with groups of youngsters sprawled out. They were selling the usual German sausages and beer but there was another line that was coiled around the entire place which wasn’t for either of that. It was for the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream truck, handing out free ice cream. We were in the line for 30 minutes and there was still a 100 meters and 200 people between us and the truck – when they ran out of ice cream. Extremely disappointed, we went looking for a place to camp out which wasn’t looking very promising either. We found a little triangular spot on the lawn in the middle of the crowd where all 3 of us fit.

It was an English movie, in German, which wasn’t very exciting. I was there for the ice cream only anyway. I managed to pass out in jeans, leather shoes and a jacket in a thin L-shaped spot on the grass that I barely fit in. I woke up to the organizers throwing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream sandwiches into the crowd. I scored 3. We left soon after, in the middle of the movie.

We trained in the mornings at the academy, in the evenings Jackson coached at a different club where I would tag along. I got to jump in on some of his lessons where we played doubles with the kiddies or the oldies. It gave me flashbacks of the doubles battles with oldies at GHQ in Pindi throughout my childhood.

One day between training and coaching, Jackson took me to the beach in Cologne. If you look at the map of Germany, you’ll be as confused as I was. There was an entry ticket of €5. That is €5 more than what I paid for all the beaches I’ve ever been to combined. I was not sure what to expect.

It was a little lake, a very little lake, in the middle of some houses. There were no more than 40 people there and it felt crowded. I skipped a rock and the fourth bounce almost broke the window of the house on the other end of the lake. But there was sand and some water, so I guess they can call it a beach, barely. And to charge €5 for it on a Thursday afternoon, absolutely mind blowing – not in a bad way, in a hilarious way.

It turned out to be a terrific week in Cologne thanks to Jackson, his apartment mates and the Goellner Tennis Academy. I got a week of high intensity training on clay, which I definitely needed as I hadn’t trained that way in a few years, under a couple of great coaches, with some touring players, who later became friends – got to go to the most expensive beach I’ve ever been to, play kiddie tennis with some German tiny tots with absolutely zero verbal communication, some classic oldie doubles, with almost no communication, and of course, free Ben & Jerry’s.

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