LOVE AT FIRST SET
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."
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."
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.
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."
Chet worked with him for two summers, sometimes from his chair, sometimes out on the lawns that surround the courts. "Now that it's kicked in, I'm hitting well," he says. "I'm a convert; there's no doubt. Last year I was 111 and 8 against 5.0 players using this grip." Two years ago he took a trip around the world following an itinerary plotted out for him by Chet. "Chet," he concludes, "has done a lot for my life."
Chet's other successes are more subtle. This year's Wimbledon tournament, for instance, was a confirmation of sorts for him. The Spaniards comported themselves well for the first time in decades, winning the women's singles and sending a man to the finals. (A coincidence that Chet used to teach in a particular part of Spain? Perhaps not, hints Chet. "Some of the Wimbledon players came from those areas," he says.)
More telling, the Continental grip seems to be making a comeback among the top-ranked, including Wimbledon's most recent winner. "You'll notice that Pete Sampras uses the Continental grip," says Chet. "Well, I was teaching the Continental grip twenty years before Sampras."
Chet tells me, "I've taught at clubs all over the world: Spain, Puerto Vallarta. I teach for free--I don't take any money or any gifts. That's because I do it for me. I do it for my amusement, not for yours. And I don't teach beginners. I don't babysit. I did that long enough."
"But," he adds, not so sternly, "your game will go up. You'll learn so much more about tennis than you ever knew existed. Some things that Tilden used. I've studied him a lot."
We arrange to meet tomorrow, afternoonish, so that Chet can begin teaching me the Continental grip, the entire system. (Chet doesn't do appointments. "Got stood up too many times," he explains.) As he walks away from the park--it is about five o'clock, and the second shift is over--Chet warns that I had better be serious about it; he's had too many students who've paid their money but who have not been ready.
"It breaks my soul to see someone who doesn't want to learn," says Chet.
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