By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
After a heated discussion of Forrest Gump and In Search of Bobby Fischer, the talk winds back to Chet. Nick says, "We here tend to move our grip around a lot; an Eastern grip on the forehand, maybe Western, an Eastern grip on the backhand. Chet, he believes strongly in the Continental grip. He's pretty autocratic."
"Weeelll..." Jimmy says. "He's firm. He just believes that's the way it should be done."
Jimmy began coming to Washington Park to play tennis about fifteen years ago, first hitting by himself against the wall and then insinuating himself into games with better and better players. "I learned pretty quick," Jimmy says. "I learned that if you bring a new can of balls and cold beer, you won't have any problems."
He saw Chet play then. Chet's legs had springs and his eyes were clear. "He would drill with some of the best players out here," Jimmy recalls. "He was amazing--amazing--at the net. And, remember, rackets have changed. He would just handle anything with that little wooden racket. And those guys would blast the ball at him.
"I wish I'd taken a lesson with him. I learned some pretty bad tennis on my own."
Now that he thinks about it, Jimmy does recall getting one unofficial lesson early on. "Chet was playing with some guy named Brad against me and my friend." He shakes his head. "It was the best lesson I ever had. Lobs, finesse--they just carved us up. I remember it like it was yesterday."
Later, Jimmy returns to the picnic table, red-faced from hitting hard. He is a big man, round-faced and Mongo-like, with powerful ground strokes, as if he is swinging a two-by-four. The ball careens over the net and skids. After each point he wins, Jimmy raises his arms above his head, waggles his hands and simulates crowd noise: Ahhhhh!
"Who brought the beer?" he demands. The answer turns out to be no one. Fortunately, two men open their tennis bags to unveil plastic bottles filled with a vodka-based drink. Chet is already sitting at the picnic table. Jimmy sits to his left and begins to play chess.
"Where's your chair, Chet?" Jimmy asks. Chet ignores him. Instead he studies court number two.
"See that girl over there?" he says. "She's lithe, runs good. Maybe a 4.0 woman's player. She'll hit regular, flat balls back to you."
He looks over at the next court, where a man in purple shorts is getting run by an athletic woman dressed in black shorts and a black sports bra. "She's a good player," muses Chet. "I think she's better than him. He doesn't look too sure of himself. He's tossing the ball too high, for one."
Chet turns his attention to me. "If I were to tell you everything you needed to know to do the perfect, orthodox toss-up, you know how many separate things are involved? Twenty-five. There are twenty-five things you need to know to do the perfect toss-up. I could show you now if you wanted. We don't even have to go out on the court."
He turns to Jimmy. "Jimmy, did you ever go ice fishing?" Jimmy says yes. "You catch anything?" Jimmy says no. "Well, what'd you use for bait?" Jimmy says salmon eggs. "Well, that's the wrong bait," says Chet. "I'll tell you what to do. You take a club and a handful of peas. You break a hole in the ice. Then you sprinkle the peas around the hole. And when the fish come out to take a pea, you club 'em on the head." Chet chuckles. So does Jimmy. "Take a pea," he repeats, shaking his head. "Chet."
Chet must sense my reluctance to submit to his instruction, to the Continental grip, because he nods across the biking lane to the south of the courts. "I've worked with that man a lot," he says. "His game went up an entire ranking point while I was working with him."
The man wears yellow-tinted glasses and has stringy hair pushed to one side. He wears white and says that he plays at a 5.0, 5.5 level. Later I confirm that he is probably one of the three best players at the park.
He sits across the road, because he and Chet have had a falling-out recently and they aren't talking: Washington Park's tennis circles can be like an overly close bridge club, and players are constantly drifting in and out of grudges that can last for months and even years. Both he and Chet acknowledge the split, but they refuse to talk about it.
"Yeah, Chet helped my game quite a bit," says the man, who declines to give his name. "His big thing is the Continental grip.
"When I first came up here, about nine years ago, guys told me to stay away from him--they said he was kind of irritable. But one day I was bored and decided to sit and talk with him. He caught my interest."
The man was skeptical when Chet first started talking about the Continental grip. "I went to the Denver Country Club, the Denver Tennis Club and Gates Tennis Center, just to see if anyone could tell me if this eighty-year-old man knew what he was talking about. But none of them had a teacher teaching the Continental grip."