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.

He did more than just play tennis; he worked it. At the age of eleven he purchased an awl (a hardware store ice pick, really) and a stringing vise--the job was all done by hand then--and began threading his own rackets. He also sold instructional pamphlets through an ad in a tennis magazine describing how to do your own stringing.

"Right off the bat, when I was young, I knew all about tennis," he recalls. "Most of the other players would just hit the ball and go home. But I was a student of the game from the beginning."

In 1932 Chet was in Norman playing for the Denison High School team, which had scheduled a match against the University of Oklahoma's B squad. Tilden was touring; the Sunday after the high school match he gave a clinic.

"I never met Tilden personally, but that day I attended his clinic," Chet recalls. "He was a big man, about six feet two. He had a tremendous stride. I liked his tennis for sure. He had flowing strokes, and he knew every stroke in the game, confident and comfortable. He had this cannonball serve and a talent for figuring out the other guy's game. He was the best player that ever lived, in my opinion."

Later, Chet even managed to wrangle a job selling programs for a stop on Tilden's tour, in Dallas. "After that I caught him two other times," Chet recalls, "although I can't remember where, because at that time I became a traveling salesman. He beat everybody."

Other tennis greats have floated in and out of Chet's life. Most have been small and distant, relationships the closeness of grandstands to courts. Except for the great Australian Lew Hoad, who won three out of the four Grand Slams in 1956 but lost in the finals of the U.S. Open in four sets to fellow countryman Ken Rosewall.

Chet recalls, "I used to play with Lew Hoad. Well, not with him, but at Hoad's tennis camp, in Spain. I used to sit down and talk to them, Lew and his wife, by the hour.

"Hoad was a very timid man. He wouldn't come up to you and talk to you much. But you could come and talk to him." Chet recalls becoming entangled in a discussion of obscure rules that lasted into the night.

Over the years Chet sent Hoad tennis memorabilia--old magazines, tournament programs from classic matches Chet had attended--for the Australian's personal collection. He intended to bring the old stringing vise to Spain personally, but two years ago it was stolen out of the trunk of his Oldsmobile.

Chet has not been just a tennis hanger-on, collecting names, recalling moments. The world has been his court, too. It started in Central America, in Honduras, in 1936.

Chet was 21, casting about. He decided to head to Central America. His brother, five years older, was a pilot there, flying heavy equipment from Tegucigalpa into a gold mine on the Honduras/Nicaragua border in an old tri-engine Ford. "The old Tin Goose, they called it," says Chet. "I think he still holds the world record for flying the most equipment on one of those planes." Once, his brother was forced to land the Tin Goose on a dirt runway turned to mud. As his wheels touched down he spun completely around, tail-first. Thinking clearly, Chet's brother gunned the engine and stopped the plane's momentum. "I think he was the first person to use an engine to slow down a plane," says Chet. "Sad to say that if it was a historical event, there was no one there to see it except a man, his wife and daughter and a burro."

Chet's days were slow. Fortunately, the company had dug a tennis court out of a mountain, a surface of natural Honduran clay on which Chet honed his game with the mining company's engineers.

Before and after settling in Denver, Chet would live cheap and save his money. Around October he would quit his sales job and head south, to Mexico or South America. He'd return in the spring--that's when he always seemed to run out of money--and pick up more sales work. Then he'd start all over again.

"That's why I never got married," he says. "I had chances to marry wonderful women several times. But I didn't want to give up my freedom. Besides, they wouldn't stay in some of the hotels I stayed in. I can wring out my clothes, hang them up to dry and put them on the next day."

The lifestyle had its benefits, though, particularly when it came to tennis. Chet says, "I've played tennis in La Paz, at 12,000 feet. It's a completely different game there. The ball bounces very, very long. It hits your racket real hard.

"Then there was this place outside of Buenos Aires where I ended up playing for about ten days. The guy I remember playing with the most was a reserve player from the Argentine Davis Cup team. He never actually played in the tournament, but he was to be there if anyone got injured. There were people there who were better than me. But he told me he just liked the way I hit."

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...