LOVE AT FIRST SET

CHET NIEMEYER HOLDS COURT ABOUT THE GAME OF HIS LIFE.SET FOR LIFE IF YOU CAN'T GET A GRIP, GO SEE WASHINGTON PARK'S TENNIS GYPSY.

Chet sits in a plastic-belted lawn chair facing the Washington Park tennis courts, classically dressed: white shirt, pocketed shorts, a white cap settled high on his head, smooth-soled canvas Converse sneakers, Jack Purcell edition. Next to him is a blue plastic bag. The handle of an off-the-shelf wooden multi-ply Cragin/Garcia 360 racket pokes out.

Chet's face is puffy, muffinlike, small-eyed; the left eye looks as if it is always narrowed at you. He is short, with a rye-bread tan. He has a fragmented mustache; it starts wide and traces his lip thinly. He looks exactly his age, which is 78.

To anyone who regularly spends time in Washington Park, glimpsing Chet is hardly unusual. For the past three decades or so, with breaks here and there, he has arrived every summer day, weather permitting, at 1:30, and left about three hours later. Ever since cataracts grabbed his eyes a couple of years ago--he had surgery in early July--he no longer gets out on the courts himself. He keeps busy, though.

Earlier this summer I watched him trap two young players waiting for a court. As they stood with their backs against a chain- link fence, he showed them about one hour's worth of the Continental grip, a compact and restrained racket-wielding style about as common today as grass courts or white trousers. A few weeks ago I noticed Chet again, repairing a gate on the link fence surrounding the south courts. With Shoe-goo.

Now it is June and sunny, one of the 300 or so tennis-playing days you read about in economic-development brochures sent to companies that might want to relocate from New Jersey. Chet is dispensing observations on the Continental grip to a heavy man in a sweatsuit who stands up and stretches through Chet's stream of words. "Yeah, yeah, Chet," he says, his eyes scanning the courts. It is clear that Chet has lost him.

Chet removes a battered book from his bag, The History of Tennis, published in 1951, and begins leafing through its smooth black-and-white photos of tennis greats: Henri Cochet, one of France's "Four Horsemen." Fred Perry, the Englishman who won Wimbledon three years straight beginning in 1934. Don Budge, one of only two men to win all four Grand Slam tournaments; he did it in 1938. And, of course, the best of them all. "Bill Tilden," Chet says to me right off, "was the greatest."

"You interested in Tilden?" Chet asks. I am, and I sit down. He reaches into his blue plastic bag. Pulls out the October 20, 1933, issue of American Lawn Tennis. It has a strip of gray duct tape down the spine. He hands it over.

"Now, here's George Lott," Chet says. "He played with Tilden a lot. They were national doubles champions. Here's Fred Perry. And you ought to read this article: `Tilden Gets His Revenge.' He went over to France to beat Henri Cochet. He had to take a steamer ship across the Atlantic to do it. But he did it."

Chet's Western twang is subtle and borderline Midwestern. He talks an unbelievable streak--on his terms. Inflection, for instance, seems not to occur to him, or he's gotten out of the habit. He quickly becomes irritable and combative when asked about race or religion, or where he lives, or at what time a particular event in his life happened, or when pressed too closely for details. He admonishes me to look at him while I talk, because his hearing is bad.

He launches into what turns out to be a twenty-minute story involving John McEnroe, the British, a Denver radio talk-show host and, of course, Chet. "Do you want to hear the rest of the story?" he asks, impatient. "Well, okay."

A clubby-looking player with tinted glasses is walking off the court in hot dispute with another man. He stalks by us and sits down at the picnic table. He trails a powerful slap of cologne. "Someone smells awful large," Chet observes loudly, wrinkling his nose.

Tinted begins making observations to no one in particular about events on the courts. Then, abruptly, he says, "We're not getting any exercise sitting around on our asses," and asks if I want to hit. I don't have a racket. He observes that Chet has one.

"Hey, Charlie, can this guy borrow your racket?" Chet turns to me and says, "Is he talking to me?"

Chet, says Chet to a space somewhere between the three of us, doesn't ever lend out his racket.

After a moment Tinted grabs a racket out of the bag in front of him on the picnic table and hands it to me. Thankful, I accept it and we begin to hit. Tinted is too stiff, and he strokes too close to his body. He looks a lot like he's fending off an unusually aggressive bee. We play for a time anyway.

Later, I see that another man has taken my place in the chair next to Chet. Chet is showing him the Continental grip. The man's eyes already are scanning the courts, and it is clear that Chet has lost him.

Chet Niemeyer first saw Bill Tilden in Oklahoma City.
By that time he had been playing tennis for about ten years in Denison, Texas, having picked up the game from his brother during the Depression. Because there were not enough rackets to go around, the older kids sometimes would borrow from the younger ones. If they broke, tough luck--start saving for another one. "That never happened to me, though," says Chet. "I never lent out my racket."

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