When it comes to worldwide reach and scope, few sports hold a candle to tennis. To celebrate all that makes tennis so rich and deep, Tennis Channel kicks off "TenniScope." Authored by Tennis Channel writer Joel Drucker, these short pieces describe many of the fabulous moments and places, people and products that have added sparkle and passion to our sport.
Death Of A Player
By Joel Drucker
Though it had been 30 years since I'd last spoken to Seth Grinspan, when I heard the news of his death I recalled a classic tennis axiom: behind every tennis player is another tennis player.
It would be a lie to say that someone I hadn't spoken in three decades was a good friend, but there was a time in my teens when Seth Grinspan played a peripheral but helpful role in my own evolution as a tennis player - and, by extension, as a human being.
One day in 1971, my mother began playing tennis. One of her first partners at Stoner Park, a public park in the flatlands of West Los Angeles, was a woman named "Mike" Grinspan. Mike also told my mom about her son, Seth, and how much he enjoyed tennis. When I turned eleven that June, I received a racket as a birthday present. "Maybe you can play with Seth," said my mother.
Though I think most people define athleticism too narrowly, Seth truly was one of these people you instantly recognize as a great athlete. Even before I held a racket, I saw him on the playground of Brentwood Elementary School, dominating every sport possible. At Stoner Park, he'd already vaulted past the local instructor and was taking on adults while I was learning to hit balls against the backboard.
As it goes in childhood, we were flung into many of the same classes together. At Paul Revere Junior High School, I was a studious type, likely to read books on school buses. Seth lived in his body, a backroom smart-ass, behaving very similarly to another tennis natural I'd later encounter, the young John McEnroe. "Order, order," a teacher once declared. Said Seth, "I'll have a ham and cheese," his Peppermint Patty-like freckles and smile disarming the entire classroom.
When it came to tennis, while I was losing the first eight matches I played in junior tournaments, Seth was rapidly on the fast track. He soon became one of the best juniors in the extremely deep Southern California section. At Revere, he was just one of many superb players, including Scott Davis, a future Davis Cupper; Howard Sands, who'd beat Mats Wilander in the juniors; and many others who'd play at big-time schools such as UCLA, USC and Stanford.
All of this massively intimidated me. But Seth was always friendly. "Good job, Joel," he said to me ten minutes after I came off the court at the Los Angeles Tennis Club after at last winning a junior match. Was it the connection between our mothers? Was it the fact that he was impressed by my oral report on The Grapes of Wrath?
I think in some ways Seth could afford to encourage me because my proficiency was so far from his. At the age of 14, he was gearing up towards his dissertation while I was still taking lower division courses. But at least the wind created by his energy and so many other excellent players was pulling me forward, even if only in inches.
"Who are you playing today, Joel?" Seth asked me virtually every day of ninth grade algebra. "Why are you playing him? He sucks." One Thursday, three days before I played a tournament match at our local facility, Barrington Park, I told Seth I was about to play a guy named Mark Binstock - a snobby fellow who'd always refused to play with me. "You should beat him," Seth said to me. And I did.
Seth was by far the kingpin of our high school team, the one player in our age group who went toe-to-toe with all of Southern California's ranked juniors. Unlike today, where everyone who enters a tournament earns ranking points, back then only 20 to 30 juniors were ranked each year in this tennis-deep section. Calling yourself a ranked junior was a badge of honor. Assuming a player maintained the smallest pretense of academic achievement, a ranked Southern California junior was a lock to play top-flight college tennis.
Duty-bound to the tennis hierarchy, wandering in the limbo between playing every day but not good enough to be ranked like Seth, I barely let myself even look at the ranked aristocrats except for those days in places like Fullerton, Whittier, Glendora and Thousand Oaks when I would shake their hands after enduring a 43-minute whupping.
But it was fun to trek to these events, possibly earn a win or two and at least temporarily fall into Seth's orbit while he bantered with juniors such as future pros Robert Van't Hof, Eliot Teltscher and Ron Hightower. Ranked players received free rackets, clothing and other goodies. One day, Seth handed me a batch of decals he'd been given with the big-time logo of World Championship Tennis (WCT) - the equivalent, say, of today's ATP logo. It was like receiving a packet of guitar picks from a Beatle.
In a lot of ways, occasionally hanging around Seth showed me what it took to really pursue excellence. In the micro case the topic was tennis, but looking back, I see the bigger picture had more to do with what it meant to be a player not just on the court, but in life - to care and be keenly proficient and dedicated at any field of endeavor. While I had taught myself a moderate slice serve out of a magazine, Seth was taking lessons, perfecting a synchronized knee-bend on his serve and a well-timed loop backswing on his forehand. He was the first person I ever played with who could properly tuck a towel into his shorts and play an entire match. And as my Tennis Channel colleague and fellow Barrington Park player Harold Hecht recently reminded me, Seth was among the first teens to use an exceptionally large racket grip - a beefy 4 3/4-inch stick that demanded a committed stroke and, in Seth's hands, delivered crisp, accurate volleys. Even now I can picture him pointing up his non-racket left finger as he tracked an overhead and nailed it into a corner.
One Saturday night when I was 15 years old, probably because his occasional practice partner Richard Gallien (who years later would become the women's coach at USC) had cancelled at the last minute, Seth called me and asked if I wanted to play with him at Barrington Park the next morning at 7:30 a.m. Maybe because Seth was tired, I won the first set. Eager as always to compete, he won the next two handily. But as a hardcore competitor, Seth wanted to prove his dominance with a vengeance, so off we went into a fourth - which I won. If Seth had his way, we'd have played a fifth, but now people were waiting for the court.
The next day at practice I couldn't help but tell our high school coach that I'd split sets with our best player. Hearing about that, Seth was livid. Two weeks later, playing an intra-squad tournament, we drew one another and the intensity he showed would have put Jimmy Connors to shame. I won one game in two sets.
The last time I saw Seth was in the early summer of 1978. I saw his yellow VW headed west on Sunset Boulevard just past the Beverly Hills border. We stopped to talk. I was going to a party, but Seth was on his way home. The next day he was going to play the finals of the Southern California Junior Sectionals. At the time the only events more prestigious were a small handful of national junior tournaments.
Though Seth lost that final, his tennis future seemed positive. Could he be a pro? Who knew? But there was a scholarship ahead for him in Arizona, and then time would tell.
But things went awry. Adolescent cheekiness had mushroomed into major discipline problems, starting with Seth's college tennis career blowing up virtually instantly. Over the last three decades, I've heard various forms of folklore surrounding Seth, ranging from jail time to robberies to time in other institutions. That his life culminated in a tragic death - he was stabbed near a homeless encampment in Pacific Palisades, not more than five miles from his parents' home in Brentwood - came as no surprise to anyone even faintly familiar with the last 30 years of Seth's life. Having grown up in a house where my older brother suffered a mental breakdown, I feel at once keen empathy, sympathy and, yes, dread.
So what's this have to do with tennis? There are many tragic deaths and random murders each year.
Seth's death makes me think about the odd nature of tennis as a community. If the upside of this sport is a wonderfully democratic form of self-reliance, the downside is a brutal form of loneliness. This is a sport for individuals. It's not one where you can lay blame on others or take solace in the bosom of a team. In this sense, for all the ways tennis is perceived as the province of the rich, in large part it is supremely fair, exquisitely American - and ruthless in its democratic flavor. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, "Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."
That night off Sunset Boulevard, Seth asked me how the junior sectionals had gone for me. When I told him I'd lost in the first round, he said, "So what? You're smarter than all of us. You're going to Berkeley. I've got to win tennis matches." Thinking back, I wonder just how much of tennis' isolation wore Seth down - and maybe, just maybe, that we American tennis players ought to treat one another with a little more mutual respect and kindness.
Two or three times a year I've had a dream where I see Seth and he tells me he's playing tennis again. We walk together on Barrington Avenue, entering the tiny four-court park where we played no more than six times. Though in the dream we've never hit a ball, I wake up thinking if I should call his parents and find out where he is. Alas, tennis is a sport where we form relationships that may or not necessarily be friendships.
Maybe when I think of what tennis gave and took from Seth it would be better if the lesser and the better players could put the tennis in perspective and simply value one another's company as adolescents enjoying a healthy activity with tons of physical and mental benefits.
Ten years ago, pondering the idea of writing a story where I'd hunt down Seth, I called his mother. Naturally we turned to tennis, and I told her how envious I was of Seth's skill and the way he and that special troupe of ranked players could play so well. "I always thought it was nice that he had made so many friends through tennis," said Mrs. Grinspan. "But do you know what he said to me? He said, ‘Mom, those guys aren't my friends at all. They'd walk right over me if I couldn't beat them.'"
Joel Drucker has been part of Tennis Channel since the network first hit the airwaves in 2003, most notably as co-producer and writer of "Center Court," as well as working for Tennis Channel at many tournaments as an analyst and writer and since 2006 authoring this website's "Roving Player" column.
Drucker is one of the world's preeminent tennis historians, having authored dozens of articles on every generation of the game's leading players - from past stars Don Budge and Jack Kramer to contemporary greats Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer. Along with Tennis Channel colleagues Bud Collins and Steve Flink, Drucker is one of three American writers on the International Tennis Hall of Fame Enshrinee Committee - the group that each year builds the ballot for the worldwide panel of voters. Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, is considered by Sports Illustrated to be one of five "must-read" tennis books.
Read all the Tenniscope columns:
Happy Birthday, Ken Rosewall | Davis Cup: How it all started | Mixing It Up In Mixed Doubles | Aussies Set The Tennis Code | The Royal Reign of Margaret Court | Reflections on Michael Chang | Let's Take it Inside | Warm-Up Suits | Death of a Player | A Tale of Two Backhands | Court Management | Movie Review | Racquet Racket | Sampras: Book Review