Too often, big words like "grit" and "courage" are used to describe things that happen on a tennis court. Today, Butch Walts, the 470th-ranked men's player in the world, lost a tennis match, 7-6 (13-11), 2-6, 3-6, 3-6. Big words should be used to describe his effort.
It was just about this time last year that Walts began to feel some unaccustomed soreness in one of his testicles. One day, a couple of weeks after he had lost in the second round of the Open, he was doing some yard work. The swelling and soreness were much worse. Walts said, "I called a urologist I know in Scottsdale (Ariz.)," who examined him. "He said, 'You have cancer.' "
Walts was 26, ranked 81st in the world, when doctors operated to remove the testicle with the malignant tumor. A month later, in November, further surgery -- retroperitoneal lymph node dissection -- was performed to see if the cancer had spread. "It had," he said. "They call it stage two. They removed the nodes. Then the next thing was chemotherapy. They started it while I was on the operating table."
The doctors say, "Things look good," Walts said. "If you're going to have cancer, this one is the best one to have."
According to Dr. Gary Lieskovsky of Los Angeles, who assisted on the second surgery, the incidence of this disease in men between 16 and 45 is three in 100,000. "A patient with his particular stage of the disease has a 92-94 percent chance of being cured," the doctor said.
The first year means a lot. "My doctor has only had one patient who had a recurrence after a year," Walts said. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed for another four or five months."
The chemotherapy treatments, which cause nausea and weight loss (35 pounds in Walts' case), lasted until the first week of June. This summer, he played team tennis for the San Diego Friars. The doctors had told him it was all right to play, and so he had started to practice in late March. "It makes me forget the agony," he said.
The doctors told him that because he was an athlete, "a perfect specimen," he tolerated the chemotherapy well. "They also said doing things your body gets its strength back a lot quicker," he said.
But not quick enough. "The doctor says I should be feeling better and stronger but I'm not," he said. "So they're going to do some more tests when I go back out to L.A."
Walts played in his first tournament, the ATP Championships, in Cincinnati and lost in the first round. Then he went to Atlanta to practice for the Open, in which he was given a wild-card entry. He saw his doctor in Atlanta. "He doesn't want to give me any possible negative feedback. He's not going to say, 'You're not really doing that well.' He told my wife I might have some possible lung damage from the chemotherapy."
But he didn't tell Walts. "I want to know," he said. "It's discouraging beating your brains out and not getting better. It may be something that's cured easily by not playing for a while."
After the match today against Terry Moor, Walts was weary. "I should have been coming into the net more," he said. "But my legs just couldn't go fast. I kept getting caught . . . Basically, before it was effortless to stay 50-60th in the world. I had a good, comfortable life. Now, it's frustrating. If I had a little more strength, I could do so much better. I wasn't outplayed. My body just couldn't give me enough to keep going."
But he does. Although it has been difficult to be away from home, his wife and 13-month-old twin daughters for four weeks, he perseveres. Partly because he loves to play; partly because he needs the money. After the Open, he will go home for a few days and then to a WCT tournament in Los Angeles, the Sawgrass doubles championships, and on to Hawaii and Asia. He does not know what to expect.
Once, not so long ago, certainly as recently as 1978 when he was a quarterfinalist here (beating Guillermo Vilas), Walts was known as something of an angry young man on the tennis court. There is no anger at his disease. "Why torment yourself?" he said.
But he has changed. "I was always tennis, tennis, tennis. I still enjoy it. I want to come back and play. But if I don't, it's fine. My family's first."
He is more tolerant now and he gets up early in the morning. He says he doesn't want people's sympathy. He merely wants to win.