Jeff Borowiak was an NCAA singles and doubles tennis champion and achieved a top-25 ranking as a professional in the 1970s. Today he lives modestly>"/>
Jeff Borowiak was an NCAA singles and doubles tennis champion and achieved a top-25 ranking as a professional in the 1970s. Today he lives modestly in a U-District boarding house and spends his days meditating; performing a wide array of homemade tennis, piano, and flute drills; teaching the occasional tennis lesson; and working on his autobiography. It's an odd, admirably well-rounded, though rather unprofitable, mixture of leisure and industry, of dilettantism and a dogged pursuit of perfection. Has this lanky, erudite, loquacious 58-year-old figured out something the rest of us haven't?
A day in the life of Borowiak begins with the singing of Buddhist meditations, sometimes for up to an hour. He then heads outside where he hits a tennis ball with a piece of foam rubber he's attached to a wooden board. "My favorite is a squishy piece," he explains. "It makes no noise and it's so regular you don't have to move your feet; the ball comes right back to you. It's very repetitively similar in a way that's intriguing." If the weather's bad, or if he's simply feeling the urge, he'll pantomime groundstrokes by using sticks to hit a 40-lb. punching bag that hangs in his living room.
After a swim or a nap, he'll visit one of the University of Washington's music practice rooms for some work on the piano—despite having no affiliation with the University. "When I get into it I can play a couple hours. I've learned a book of Chopin preludes. There's quite a few pieces that take one minute, and I'll repeat them like 20 or 30 times in a row just to see if I can improve them."
This proclivity for repetitive, meditative pursuits was born of his relationship with a man named Torben Ulrich, a Danish former tennis professional and the father of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Borowiak calls Ulrich "the T-Factor" and cites him as a major life influence. The two met when they played a couple of off-season matches early in Borowiak's career; Ulrich was an eccentric 39-year-old pro and Borowiak an 18-year-old youth champion. (Borowiak says their second match was played at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia and ended at roughly 1 a.m., at which point there remained only six spectators, one of whom was Wilt Chamberlain.) Ulrich won both matches, and in so doing converted Borowiak to a new way of looking at tennis and life.
"He became a spiritual mentor for me," says Borowiak. "Some of the other players said, 'Jeff, why don't you pick John Newcombe or Rod Laver instead?' I said, 'You know, I like this guy better, because he's got the long beard and he's taking LSD and smoking dope and everything.' He was crafty and interested in jazz music and meditation and related subjects. He used to make movies about getting drunk and stumbling and playing tennis, with these repeating cycles in racket work. I've taken it a little further in some ways."
Borowiak hopes to tell of these and other lessons in his autobiography, work on which frequently occupies his evenings. In it are mischievous stories of his youth in tennis, of teammates smuggling hash in their racket handles across international borders and showing off photographs of their sexual exploits. But there are also accounts of worldwide travel and musings on geopolitical conflict, the genius of Charlie Parker, and the insights of Tibetan Buddhism.
While he's getting by on a combination of a pension from his tennis days and income from teaching the occasional lesson, Borowiak hopes the book might bring him money, though profit is not his primary focus. For now, he's showing it to friends for feedback. "Someone told me, 'You wrote the same paragraph three ways; is that because you want me to choose one of them?' Actually, I want all three of them, but I wrote them differently because I thought of a different way of expressing them. Three ways."—Damon Agnos