By J. Fred Sidhu, special to USTA.com
The gift exchange between teams has been a long-running tradition at USTA League Nationals. Most teams exchange a small trinket or a souvenir from their home state.
At this weekend’s USTA League Adult 40 & Over 3.5 National Championships at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, however, one player is presenting his opponents with a piece of his pictorial work.
Marlon Long, a 51-year-old resident of Albuquerque, N.M., is an official photographer for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which bills itself as the "world’s premier balloon event."
Thanks to Long, some of the players competing against the Southwest Section men’s team received a full-color glossy 2014 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta calendar, which features some of Long’s work.
Long, who owns a hair salon in Albuquerque, has been associated with the International Balloon Fiesta for 19 years and has worked at his present position there for two years.
“It’s a nine-day event," he said. "I start at four in the morning at an event called ‘Dawn Patrol.’ There are 10 balloons that go up. They check the weather and then report back to the pilots on the ground, who are waiting to see what the conditions are.
“As the morning progresses, the sun comes out and the beauty of ballooning comes out. We launch anywhere from 500 to 600 balloons every day. It’s a beautiful, spectacular event. Albuquerque is the largest ballooning event in the world.”
Long, who says it’s an honor to get his photos published in the calendar, estimates he shot between 20,000 and 25,000 photos at last year’s fiesta.
This year, he completed his photo assignments at the fiesta early and chose to miss the last four days of the event in order to pursue an opportunity close to his heart – the chance to play in this weekend’s USTA League 3.5 National Championship.
Long had played tennis back in high school, and a few years after moving to Albuquerque from Reno, Nev., he started a junior tennis program in 1984 on a U.S. Air Force Base. His junior tennis program began with just kids but grew to 128 children in 1995.
Later Long was diagnosed with a thyroid-related illness. He did not play tennis again for nearly a dozen years.
“I stopped completely because I had no energy," he said. "It took me almost 12 years to get back to health. It was a slow process."
About a year and a half ago, Long was invited to play tennis again. Even though he had a few doubts, he picked up a racquet.
“The first week was awful and rough and my hips didn’t move,” he said.
Long continued to play and eventually joined a USTA League team, which won its league with a 10-0 record and then swept three matches at the Southwest Sectional Championships to earn a spot in the 3.5 Nationals.
“To be out of tennis for 12 years and then to come back within a year and a half and come to Nationals, for me, (it’s) amazing,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to come back and do what I love. There was no way I was missing it. I’m just happy to be here.”