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The $1 tennis lesson

September 3, 2013
LARRY ADLER , Lake Placid News

It's funny how a familiar smell or maple-tree-dappled light on macadam can evoke a host of memories and details, yet I struggle to remember if I had taken my multi-vitamin or locked the car, or who played opposite James Arness in "Gunsmoke."

Walking down Greenwood Street past the refurbished bed and breakfast, I glimpse the back portion of the St. Moritz Hotel, recalling it well in decline in 1958, with its pitted asphalt driveway and gray, discolored delivery bay doors. Rusting equipment and baled wire lay outside the rear parking lot along with the vintage hotel shuttle - a Chevy panel van. Also in evidence was the barely intact clay court - a remnant of wealthier patrons and better times.

Jay Jay Rand and I arrived that day in July with antique rackets in hand, scrounged from our storage attic at 5 Grandview Ave. Grandma Meta had been a twice-a-week-player in Konstanz, Germany before 1936 threatened her affluent lifestyle and very existence. The rackets with their heavy presses, along with the dark, mahogany European furniture and china set for 20, made it across on the liner Rex. "Oma" had lost all interest in the game, but my parents would bring my brothers and me to shag the perimeters of the public courts near the town beach. My mother took long, straight-elbowed swings that she had learned in Hunter College phys. ed. class (a requirement then). Dad, 5 inches taller at 6 feet, 4 inches, curiously took small strides and used his reach to wrist balls from the baseline at odd angles. As a result, we spent most of our time chasing errant shots that skipped to adjacent courts or soared outside the fence. Occasionally I got to swing the heavy wooden racket to the amusement of my parents. Neither of them had enough interest in the sport to coach us, so when I saw the "tennis lady" giving lessons on the St. Moritz court, it planted the seeds of an idea.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Historic Images Inc.s
Sylvia Henrotin receives an award from Sir Astley Cubitt of the Bermuda Tennis Club in a 1936 press photo.

It was a curious sight. She seemed to be in her 60s or 70s (hard to judge for a 10-year-old), giving instructions from a wheelchair to my neighbor, Terry Dennin, whose father was a town lawyer and a very good player. Fred, the dad, always played in whites and could be seen practicing his powerful serve with a bag of balls, his own two boys retrieving. Even without Fred's big neck and shoulders, Terry would go on to be a steady high school varsity player at Northwood School.

Standing next to the ancient coach, her husband (I assumed) tossed balls to Terry, who was perched at the service line "T," practicing volleys. The woman, in loose, summer slacks and pullover blouse, gave instruction in a clipped, lightly accented English. I was used to hearing different languages and lilts in Lake Placid, a town that attracted European emigres (including my grandparents) and French-Canadians. I deemed it to be a British accent, to my untrained ear, as she enunciated her consonants clearly and flourished long "a"s like the 1930s movie stars.

The pudgy man at her side called out to us, "Come on in, boys!" He was of medium height, had a round face and owlish glasses and receding brown hair, and his relatively unlined face made him appear younger than his companion. He was the one actually tossing balls to Terry while the woman shouted out instructions. She paused. Jay Jay and I greeted them cordially. (Remember to shake hands and look people in the eye, my dad always said.) They smiled, impressed with our village manners.

"Boys, this is Sylvia Henrote, a great tennis champion. She played at Wimbledon." We nodded. We had not heard of this place. We followed the Yankees and the Dodgers, and also had our local heroes, gold medalists at the '32 Olympics, who walked along Main Street as the local judge, the insurance agent and the lawyer. We even knew recent winter champions like our own Art Devlin, Jay Jay's dad Jay Sr., and the immortal Helmut Recknagel (world ski jumping champ).

"Let me see you hit," said Ms. Henrote. A few wild swings later left our observers chortling, much to Terry's amusement.

"You boys could benefit from a lesson," said the man. (We later found that he was, indeed, her husband.) The fee was a dollar each for one hour. We were used to dealing in pennies, gathering empty bottles on the side of the road in Jay Jay's sister Judy's little red wagon to trade for bags of candy at Lemoy's general store. This was a major transaction. In return for various duties around the house and yard, we each procured the funds for our morning lesson.

Upon arrival at the court, we approached the wheelchair. Sylvia's companion, whom I vaguely remember as "Bill," reached into a large canvas bag and retrieved a racquet that he handed to Sylvia.

"Come closer; you need to see the grip," she said.

"Pretend you are shaking hands," said Ms. Henrote. The handle was placed in my hand at a careful angle, and I immediately noticed its unusual construction. It was blond, natural wood with a clear varnish patina. The handle split in two as it reached the frame; one piece wrapped around the oval.

"This is the one Ms. Henrote used in the French Open. It's handmade, bamboo." I was amazed at the lightness. What also struck me that Ms. Henrote's hands, so swollen and disfigured, could barely grip her own racquet as she demonstrated the correct form.

The backhand grip, with a quarter-turn and the thumb turned out, came next. We spent the rest of the hour hitting from the "T." Our shots went from pop-ups to "Texas Leaguers" to arcs that skimmed the net. All the time, in our ears was, "Be sideways to the net! Keep your racquet face open! Keep your arm straight! Aim for the center of the net; it is the lowest point." Jay Jay was tiny and four years younger than me, but his athleticism, already evident, allowed him to take good licks with his oversized antique. Neither of us was allowed to use the sacred bamboo relic.

I vaguely remember at the end of this lesson, or possibly there was a second, when she explained "the serve." We were told to make a healthy toss, straight up so that the throwing hand was above our head allowing the back shoulder to fully come through with force.

That was it. As a fickle 12-year-old I sought other, less demanding pursuits, like fishing with my dad or hanging out at the beach with mom and my baby brothers. The rest of my tennis education boiled down to buying a $12 Wilson racquet at Lake Placid Hardware (they had a toy and sporting section) the following summer. Marc Hess, roughly my age, would play sets with me at the public courts. I couldn't help noticing the better players, particularly an older man and his adult daughter, sporting standard tennis gear and hitting the ball baseline to baseline with velocity. All the while, the gent kept a lit pipe in his mouth. I was impressed with his casual ease and technique.

Pickup games with others continued up into my adulthood and indoor and outdoor tennis ladders. I am a "B" player with a solid serve and forehand, but a suspect net game. My lack of quick hands also impeded my ability to hit a curveball, relegating me to the bench during my four years at Northwood School. Would that I had gone out for tennis instead.

I continued to see Bill at the wheel of a blimp-like green DeSoto with Sylvia slouched in her seat, the wheelchair in the back. This continued for several summers, until they seemed to disappear from the scene. I hadn't thought of her until this day, under the sway of childhood memories, on this street. The St. Moritz still stands, with a fresh coat of paint, but is now boxed in by the Greenwood Apartments, an adjacent five-story assisted-living residence. The site of the court is just that, a site, with newly poured concrete and a plywood flooring ready to receive the studs of perhaps a two-bedroom summer home. The Dennins' house has new siding but looks the same, unlike other "Adirondackized" local homes with birch balustrades and darkly stained new shingles, green shutters throughout and an old-timey front porch.

I was curious. Was there really a Sylvia Henrote of note? I am a reluctant Web searcher, convinced that such resources are: 1. unreliable, 2. memory disabling (why remember anything if you can look it up?) and 3. socially impolite, interfering with eye-to-eye discourse. Any serious research I had done involved the "Reader's Guide to Periodicals," card catalogues at the university library and microfiche. This did not qualify as real research, just a twinge of curiosity to see if there was any basis to this story. Ms. Henrote did not laud her own history, wanting to concentrate fully on her pupils, all business. It was her husband who made these claims with a gleam of admiration in his eye. I hit gold when the Google screen asked, "Do you mean Sylvie Henrotin?" From there, a cascade of interesting facts emerged.

Sylvia was not a Brit but the French national. Born Sylvie Jung on July 10, 1904, in Le Havre, France she took her playing name from her second husband, C. Fernan Henrotin. "Bernie" Welton was her third husband, the man we saw at her side, assisting in the lessons. She is described as "very prominent as a doubles specialist." (footnote 1) In fact, Sylvie was a finalist in six grand slams between 1933 and 1937 that included the French Open, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon - either in women's doubles or mixed doubles. Sadly, she never won any of those titles. In 1935 she reached the quarterfinals of the women's singles at Wimbledon.

Ms. Henrotin, though faded from my childhood memory, had not left the local scene. She taught tennis at the Lake Placid Club, the Keene Valley Club and the AuSable Club, and hosted a number of local tournaments until her death in 1970 in Lake Placid. (2)

That my early memories were off the mark didn't bother me. Her record as a serious player came to me as a pleasant surprise, tinged with sadness. We know that people exaggerate their achievements, but here was a woman reduced by circumstance and health, lauded by a loving husband who could only voice faint echoes of a glorious past. Of course, there are the clippings, the photos and the roster of tournament records that will remain for archivists to explore and assemble. Meanwhile, when I take my two grandchildren out to the Cambridge courts at River Park, I hear myself saying, "Be sideways to the net, keep your racquet face open, keep your arm straight, and aim for the center of the net." The service game will come later.

Larry Adler grew up in Lake Placid from 1947 to 1964 and after college taught at Northwood School in Lake Placid for three years. Currently he works as an

educational consultant and college teacher in the

Boston area.






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