This Side Up

Still coaching at 90

By JOHN HOWELL
Posted 3/10/20

It's not customary to see a son hug his father at 7:20 a.m. at Tennis Rhode Island, especially when they're playing on different courts. But then Saturday wasn't just another day for retired Warwick teacher and Toll Gate tennis coach Bob Coker. It was

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This Side Up

Still coaching at 90

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It’s not customary to see a son hug his father at 7:20 a.m. at Tennis Rhode Island, especially when they’re playing on different courts. But then Saturday wasn’t just another day for retired Warwick teacher and Toll Gate tennis coach Bob Coker. It was Bob’s 90th birthday.

Dave gave his father a clap on the back before heading to an adjoining court.

Bob and Clyde Bennett, who turned 90 a couple of years ago, started the Saturday morning league soon after Toll Gate opened in the early ’70s as a means of building esprit de corps in the new high school. It worked, and many members of the faculty who hadn’t played tennis turned out with their spouses on Saturday to whack the ball.

Saturday morning tennis grew increasingly competitive. Players are ranked based on the number of sets won over six weeks and moved up or down a ladder based on performance. Some have been regulars for decades. Clyde, who went on to become superintendent of schools, retired from play more than a year ago, but Bob is still playing.

Bob holds the title of league commissioner, meaning he’s the one who ensures there’s a fresh can of balls for each of the six courts at Tennis Rhode Island – and the one who gets the call, always it seems at the last moment, when a substitute player can’t make it. Sometimes he’ll fill in if not scheduled to play, but more often than not he comes up with a player from the list he’s built over the years.

He didn’t need to search for players on Saturday. It was a full house.

We hit a few balls to warm up, Bob masterfully returning shots. His 90th hadn’t changed that. His partner for the first set was Eddie Blamires; mine was John Olerio. John is the youngster among us. He can hit a hard forehand and scoops them up at the net. That’s not daunting to Bob.

“When did you start playing?” I asked before spinning a racket to see who would serve first.

“I was 32,” Bob replied. I was aghast. I imagined Bob took up the game as a kid. At the time he was a Pilgrim teacher and the newly opened school was looking to build team sports, but no one signed up to coach tennis. Having played only a couple of times at best, Bob took on the challenge. He recruited players and went to work. When the season was over, the team voted him as the most improved player, he said with a laugh.

He still has the coach in him. I recall when I joined the league in the late ’70s watching Bob run his opponents around the court, hitting lobs just above their heads and returning seemingly impossible shots. But when they got a shot beyond him, he’d pause to raise his racket, clapping the strings in an applause visible to everyone. I remember the feeling of getting such recognition for a first time and I still feel it. What a way to build confidence.

Dave and the rest of the Coker family had much more than a pat on the back to celebrate Bob’s 90th. Unbeknownst to Bob, he would be returning to the courts that evening. The family strung black and gold crepe paper across the net, set up tables and chairs and had an artfully arranged spread including a cake with, of course, a tennis racket. There were accompanying tennis ball cupcakes.

The Coker clan – including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – were there, as well as current and past league players and family friends. Dave suspects his father knew something was up but hadn’t figured out it involved the tennis court. When his wife, Loraine, opened the door to the court, he was greeted by a chorus of happy birthdays.

That morning we played dumb about the event planned for that night.

Dave explained his display of affection – “it’s his 90th birthday today.” We acted surprised.

Dave returned to his court. John and I got off to a poor start, and the score was 2 games to 4 before we found ourselves. At 6-6, as the rules set by the commissioner dictate, we played a tiebreaker with the first team winning five points taking the set. There’s no winning by two, as some tiebreakers require. Everything is on the line with one point. Each player gets to serve twice except for the final player in the sequence, who serves three times should the teams be tied at four points each.

We reached that point. Eddie and Bob kept returning our shots. And then, when seemingly the set point was ours, I hit the ball into the net. It should have been an easy shot, but I blew it. The coach had done it again, and better yet this was his first set since turning 90.

I should have held up my racket and applauded. I didn’t. Rather I said, “a birthday present.” Truth be, my shot was no gift. Bob had hit a good shot.

It’s time I take some lessons, and I know the perfect teacher.

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