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.

In between, Chet says, he would teach wealthy Argentine women to play the game. "The men there wouldn't play with the women," he says. "So I'd play with them and teach them. We had some beautiful girls."

When Chet arrived in Denver, in 1958, he started playing as a member of the City Park Tennis Club. He left there when many of its members scattered. Chet doesn't like to bad-mouth City Park, but the neighborhood was getting rough--some knifings nearby--and the club president wasn't quite up to the job. "The ladder wasn't handled particularly well," he recalls. "People would just move their names wherever they wanted to."

So at the invitation of friends, Chet migrated to Washington Park's courts. The place wasn't so genteel then, and the tennis could be unorthodox. There was the guy who played the back court the way Ali played the ropes, bouncing off the chain-linked fences after chasing a lob, using the spring to propel himself back onto the court. The stategy ended abruptly when he launched himself into the fence and hit a post instead. "He was laid up for years," says Chet, flat and emotionless.

Chet retired from full-time work in 1963 and immediately took off to circle the world. He brought his racket, hitting courts in Srinagar, in Tehran, in a British club atop a Malaysian hill station.

Inside Chet's blue bag is a scarred map, its seams held by tape and its surface glossy with finger wear. It is of the biggest of a group of islands off Spain, Palma de Mallorca. He'd been traveling there on his winters off for years, always playing tennis. But when the Swedish teaching pro of the island's most prestigious tennis club quit in 1965, Chet asked if he could fill in, and the club president accepted.

Mostly he taught children and women--the wives of players again--who were beginner-to-average. But there was one player, Tony, whose father decided to buy some lessons for him and came to Chet. Chet recalls working with him two to three times a week for three years.

He started Tony with the backhand and slowly taught him the Continental grip, the whole Continental system: the stiff arm, inside and close to the body. The cocked wrist holding the racket face natural and perpendicular to the ground--not floppy and clublike, like Borg's Western grip, or the wrist-thrusting Eastern grip. He taught the classic footwork: opposite foot forward on the forehand always, racket foot ahead on the backhand. Like the Rocket, Laver. Like Arthur Ashe.

A few years later, after Tony had moved on to other coaches, Chet heard that he'd won one of the country's most prestigious tournaments. The reason, says Chet, is no mystery. "He had the Continental grip. The other guys didn't."

"The influence he has," says Nick, perched on the edge of the picnic table gripping a Budweiser, "is unbelievable. The good he does is unbelievable."
At Washington Park, the gang talks of Chet and the Continental grip.
Nick swigs, continues. "Chet knows everything about tennis, everything. There are guys who swear by him. He's kind of like a guru here. Anybody who uses the Continental grip, Chet's their man."

Jimmy, who's fiftyish and wearing light- purple shorts, agrees. "Chet is a great guy," he says, draining the last of his Bud. He launches the can over his shoulder toward the green dumpster. It lands about eight feet short.

"Some people here swear by Chet," Jimmy continues. "But now"--he lowers his voice and shakes his head--"his eyes..." Jimmy turns back to the table and rips open the cardboard beer container in the center of the table, nabs the last can.

John sits to his right. He has reddish-blond hair. He speaks precise English with an Eastern European accent. He wears blue corduroy shorts. "Chet's an institution here," he says. "He's been here forever." John tosses a depleted beer can toward the pile.

"We used to put all the cans in the dumpster," Jimmy explains. "But the ladies just took them out anyway. One time one of them fell inside trying to get the cans. She wouldn't even let us help her out, I guess because her private parts were showing. Her sister was running around screaming. So now we just began tossing the cans on the ground. They'll be by in a few minutes."

We are at Washington Park's south tennis courts, Thursday, July, second shift. The first shift, roughly from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., is kids taking lessons, except on Fridays, when there are none, and the second shift gets to arrive early. The third shift--it begins around 5 p.m.--are the yuppies who actually work. "We don't know them," says Jimmy.

The middle shift, Jimmy philosophizes, is a paradoxical group: serious tennis players who know how to have fun by not being too serious. "It looks like a lot of people here are retired," he explains, gesturing to the group milling around the picnic table waiting for John, who has gone to pick up two more twelve-packs of Budweiser. "But not really. They work. But they work around their tennis." The players of the first and third shifts come and go as kids return to school and graduate, and the young professionals' careers and family lives pitch and turn. The second shift is a constant.

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