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Tennis with Emmett
by Greg Howard, September, 2006

Like any true blue Californian he loves to be out in the sun. The hotter the better. In pursuit of the lizard state. But this man is no chameleon. His favorite vertical-striped short-sleeve buttoned shirt and cutoff pants are not your standard Southern California tennis attire. He's definitely not blending in on the court. Nor do his gray hair and beard seem to fit the trim, healthy man beneath. Is his playing style a bit unorthodox? Of course! This is Emmett after all. Tennis is like everything else, customizing your approach is half the fun. Not content with a "standard" back-hand he switch-hits or employs a "two-handed forehand."

His first serve is fierce, and sometimes long or wide. It never goes into the net. His second serve is equally fiery, so there are double-faults, but no wimpy safe bets. Safe bets just get slammed back at you. It means his opponent, in this case me, has to always guess where it goes - no easy returns. And he likes to go for winners. We both tend to go for it. So we have few rallies. His shots are hard and deep into the corners, sometimes too deep. If I can just keep hitting them in I can sometimes count on him going for it a little too hard. But that's not a very good strategy, because I'm running around and today he's really hitting. When he holds back is when he falters. Caution doesn't serve him out here, in the heat. Today he's not holding back.

When I was a kid I played maybe a couple dozen times a year, but I'm not a kid anymore. Still, I'm 28 years younger than this guy, and he's making me run around the court like the unpracticed tennis hack I am. My first serve is all bluster, and it's usually long. On the rare occasion I get an ace, I can't seem to capture the formula. No consistency. My second serve limps over the net - always "in" but weak, like a jazz-man who finds the right note but doesn't know what to do with it...too late, now I'm running around, throwing up desperate lobs, or missing just wide with my too-aggressive passing shots.

Sometimes I can get him running around, too. He doesn't concede points. He always goes for it, even when it's hot, and each summer seems to be the hottest in years. No problem for Emmett. He's in his element. When he was a kid he played just a mile or two from this very spot, riding his bike all over Walnut Acres, what is now Woodland Hills in the western corner of the San Fernando Valley. Maybe it was just as hot back then, but the air was clearer. No jets flying overhead, or constant rumble of auto traffic everywhere. He says he can remember seeing ice in puddles sometimes in the winter. But that hasn't happened in decades. Sometimes we play out at Pierce College, virtually alone on the courts as it soars over 90 degrees before noon. Or there's a little park off Oxnard, just two courts in a quiet neighborhood with a little shade. We spare each other having to serve into the sun, so we trade sides after every game. Every few games I take some water. Emmett? "No thanks, I'm fine," he says, or occasionally, "maybe that's a good idea."

We play close games, often going to deuce, over and over. Between Emmett's withering double-faults and my wimpy second serve, there's no real advantage there. Sets are close, usually 7-5 or one of us wins a tie-breaker. I'm always surprised that neither of us can remember the exact rules for service, etc in the tie-breaker. We improvise. Victory usually comes down to his competitive spirit vs. my younger legs. I usually lose.

I only play here, with him. My tennis racquet stays in his closet, along with his collection of fairly unusual models. There's the one with the "alien-shaped" head, and the one with the custom wooden grip he made himself. It's longer, and the grip is bigger with more definded octagonal edges. More room for his hands. He wields it proudly. But then one hot, sweaty day out it flies with particular force during an attempted smash, rocketing toward the court and cracking. A bit irked, he examines the damage. A shame, but there's another racquet here. Not a great one, but we play on. Emmett doesn't quit. But that day he loses, perhaps distracted by the racquet mishap.

I lob a high ball way up. It bounces in. Emmett steps back to take a powerful overhead, and he misses underneath the ball. He falls backward, smacking his head on the court. Oh my God, he's down! What have I done? I've killed Emmett! No, he's stirring. A bit stunned, but okay. A little blood and a nasty bump on the back of the head. "Let's keep playing," he says. "No," I say, admiring his competitive spirit, "Call it a draw today." I take him home. He's fine.

For me, tennis is a reminder of how I don't have to be good at something to enjoy it. Hang out with a friend, soak up some rays, take a break. I like to see a man who works as hard as he does take the time for it. But for me, I always feel a bit out of my element. There's some fun in that, too. Thanks for the fun, Emmett.

This story was first read aloud by Dan Chapman, Emmett's brother, at his 70th Birthday party in September, 2006. Thanks, Dan!