Fourteen. Do you remember that age? What I recall: No longer a child, far from maturity, my brain and body scattered by hormones, acne, braces, and the painful beginnings of an endless, awkward adolescence. It’s an age of experimentation, where risks are taken affordably, hobbies picked up and abandoned, friends gained and lost, ambitions declared and jettisoned. It’s the last age when a complete lack of focus in all categories is not just accepted but expected.
But for four San Diegans, 14 was anything but an age of disarray. All were celebrated tennis players, blessed with that puzzling attribute known as talent, as well as the even more mysterious quality of diligence. Peter Herrmann of Bonita was so aware of how high he stood that he sensed his inevitable decline. Walter Redondo of National City was chomping for his chance at the big time. Karen Hantze of Pacific Beach hardly knew or cared where tennis could take her, but, like Herrmann and Redondo, at 14 no American her age was her equal. Gigi Fernandez, then growing up in Puerto Rico, later living as an adult in Del Mar, was not highly ranked in America, but on her island she had been a celebrity since she was 10. At 15, she would carry Puerto Rico’s flag in the Pan-Am Games.
How nice, you might say. From a distance, tennis appears a genteel activity, often played at elegant clubs and wholesome parks. Unlike, say, football or boxing, tennis always meets with parental approval: a lifetime activity, a nice skill, a fine way to meet the right kind of people.
But in its competitive form, tennis has far more in common with football or boxing than you might think. “Me and you, baby, across the net, trying to take each other apart,” says Carlsbad resident and tennis Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, who was tennis director for a quarter century at La Costa Resort and Spa. The swank setting, even the mildly competitive player knows, belies the austere contest. Tennis is cockfighting for civilized people, a dance where you try to trip your partner. The minute you stop believing that principle, expect the next ball to compromise you severely.
These four grasped the meaning of tennis at a young age — and by 14, were better than 95 percent of the people who’ll ever pick up a racket. I, too, have been playing tennis for much of my life. I began at 12 and quickly saw how savage tennis could be. Take a prodigy like my peer Peter Herrmann, who’s played tournaments since he was 7. Were we football players, we might well have collaborated. Sure, his greater skills would have made him quarterback, while I protected him as a guard. Either way, as teammates we would technically be equals.
But in tennis, our relationship was adversarial and hierarchical. In February 1974, I entered a 14-and-under tournament in Whittier. It was played at a high school, on a bank of white-gray courts with metal nets. My first-round opponent was Peter Herrmann. He beat me, 6-0,6-0 in 45 minutes. The funny thing is, I played quite well, flicking several half-volleys, lunging for several backhands, even getting in a goodly number of first serves. But at 13, I was an adolescent, playing the match but also contemplating a post match bacon cheeseburger at Denny’s. Herrmann was a young professional, displaying the single-minded attention of a dentist drilling a cavity.
“In tennis, you always have your destiny in your hands,” Jimmy Connors once told me. Tennis helped these four grab destiny by the throat. Their journeys fascinate me. Herrmann was the lord of the junior world where I was barely a serf. During that same time, I witnessed the precocious majesty of Walter Redondo, two years my elder. As a student of tennis history, I’m mystified by the story of Karen Hantze. As a journalist for two decades. I’ve witnessed Gigi Fernandez’s entire career, earning battle scars when she once yelled at me.
While much has been written about the character-forming aspects of sports, this literature usually addresses team sports, highlighting how athletics helps people work toward a common goal by playing respective roles to achieve a shared objective. Basketball and football have been deployed repeatedly as tools for building character in battle and business.
Individual sports is a different creature. Tennis carved its way deeply into the sensibilities of such top-grade players as Herrmann, Redondo, Hantze, and Fernandez. What did it give them? What did it take? Just how complicated are those gains and losses? Watching 17-year-old Martina Hingis play, a colleague who never played tennis lamented how she was missing out on so much of adolescence— conventional peer relationships, classroom activities, the prom. Looking back two decades, I countered: the prom wasn’t so hot. If I could do it over again, I’d put more time into my serve. Then again, life is lived forward, but read backward.
There are other questions about these players’ post-tennis lives. Did tennis help or hinder their maturity? As early as 25, the age most careers are barely out of first gear, athletes begin contemplating mortality. In many ways, they die twice: once when they retire, and again, possibly after spending decades reflecting on their zenith, they die as we all do. Was an activity most of us play for fun utterly stripped of its joy? Speaking with a former junior champ, I could tell her reluctance carried this subtext: Once upon a time I was trained to be an assassin, not just an athlete, or a prodigy, or an artist, but a trained killer. Please don’t make me go there again. What kind of arc defines such a life?
Peter Herrmann: Bonita's Boy Genius
“The instinct to please and to belong are the two strongest instincts,” says Stacy Margolin Potter, a former touring pro who used to come to Coronado to play with Herrmann — the two hardly exchanging a word—and who has since become a psychologist. “And when you are at the age of 11 or younger, it is very strong and you think your parents are God and you will do anything to receive their love and acceptance.”