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Broken Hearts

January 13, 2017 11:52 AM

Broken Hearts

When you least expect it, tennis can be a cruel sport.

By Toby Smith

If I happen to be driving east or west on Avenida Cesar Chavez, the broad-shouldered boulevard in the south of Albuquerque, my thoughts frequently linger on the Complex.  The city-run Albuquerque Tennis Complex, which opened June 1, 1972, sat just east of where the Isotopes now play baseball. 

At its peak the Complex offered 18 public courts and was home to numerous tournaments. For two years it served as host for the Virginia Slims of Albuquerque, a professional women’s event that I reported on for the Albuquerque Journal. I did the same for the New Mexico High School Championships, which encamped there on several occasions. A USTA junior tourney in mid-2006 may have been the last official contest held at the Complex. Soon after that the city bulldozed the courts, some of which had turned unplayable. The demolition was done to make way for a BMX dirt track. A gargantuan, gray, TV-tray-table-like structure now stands over ground where thousands upon thousands of tennis balls were once sent back and forth.

The Complex brought pleasure to many people. Starting in the late-1970s and ending in the mid-1990s, I played many times there with buddies and with folks I did not know well. My memories of the place are happy ones.  

Regrettably, the Complex was also the scene of two deaths, one in 1990, and another in 1995.  Coincidentally, two more deaths at different tennis venues in Albuquerque occurred in 2002.   

No clearing house exists of which I am aware of that tracks tennis-court fatalities. However, the number of such occurrences in Albuquerque, during a 12-year period, would surely be among the most anywhere. The four deaths in the city—all adult males and all literally heartbreaking—did not happen in parking lots, snack bars or restrooms at tennis sites. Rather, each took place on a tennis court—during a match.   

There is uplift in such sorrowful revelations.  As clichéd as it might sound, the four men, according to family members and others, departed this earth doing something they truly loved. It should be of no surprise then, that several pallbearers at the men’s funerals had tennis attachments. 

That being said, it is time these four, devotees of the game all, were recognized. 

“A Walking Time Bomb”

Keith_KielcheskiKeith Kielcheski did not take up tennis until he reached his 30s.  Stocky as a young man, he grew up in the isolated woodlands of northern Wisconsin, where his father worked as a forester. To get to school, young Keith took a 17-mile bus trip to tiny Winter, Wisconsin, and then back again.  

When it came time for college, Kielcheski went off to the Superior branch of the University of Wisconsin, where he may have played a little tennis.  But it wasn’t until he moved to Albuquerque, in the early 1970s, that he fully embraced the sport.  He had come to New Mexico to help his sister, Nina Komatz, take care of their aged parents who had relocated to the city. 

Soon after arriving, Kielcheski started showing up at the Complex.  He’d play with anyone, doubles or singles. On occasion he’d enter an organized tournament. Heavy as Kielcheski was, he moved around the court well.   

He worked hard at the game and became an accomplished intermediate. No county-clubber, he was a public parks guy. He used a dated aluminum racket and instead of a fancy zippered case he carried his tennis belongings in a plastic bucket. He seldom wore socks on the court and now and then played with his shirt off.  

His pockets were deep. Quick to pick up a court fee, Kielcheski insisted he supply new tennis balls. Confreres nicknamed him “Pffft,” the sound of a pressurized can of Wilsons being opened. 

As a young man, Kielcheski had been a big eater. As an adult, he continued to pack food away.  Toward the end, he weighed nearly 250 pounds.  “Keith loved to go to the Village Inn and sit down to one of those all-you-can-eat buffets,” said Bill Taylor, who put in 15 years supervising the Complex, starting the day it opened. Taylor became one of Kielcheski’s closest pals. 

Kielcheski wasn’t in New Mexico long before he took a job teaching at an elementary school in Bernalillo. That he would get the summers off delighted him, for he could play tennis every day at the Complex. Being divorced only solidified his tennis freedom. 

“Keith just didn’t just play for two hours, like most people,” said Taylor, “He’d play for six hours.” It wasn’t unusual for him to rack up 10 sets in a single day. 

In spite of such stamina, regulars at the Complex worried about him, and for good reason.  He was carrying too much weight and he smoked liked a condemned man.  “A walking time bomb,” remembered Fred Hultberg who, beginning in 1987, ran things at the Complex.   

Nina Komatz, Kielcheski’s sister and a year older, worried as well. Their mother, she said, died of a heart attack and their father battled heart troubles. After experiencing a heart attack, Keith’s brother Carlin endured bypass surgery. Ultimately he had a pacemaker implanted. 

“None of these things bothered Keith,” Komatz said. “He just kept smoking and overeating.” 

By mid-morning, on June 2, 1990, a Saturday, the thermometer in Albuquerque neared 90 degrees. Undeterred by the heat, Kielcheski ambled out to play a first-round match of a Complex singles tournament. After winning that, Kielcheski remarked in passing to Hultberg that he didn’t feel all that well. 

Nonetheless, he stubbed out a cigarette and made his way to Court 13. His second-round opponent was Laurent Gruet, the owner of a winery and a fluid forehand. Gruet took the first five games of their match. During the sixth, Kielcheski halted and bent over for a moment. “You OK?” Gruet called. No answer. Suddenly, Kielcheski toppled to the hard, green surface. He rose slowly to one knee, only to slump again.  

Gruet raced to the Complex office and called 911. Play ceased on adjoining courts.  Two women rushed over to administer CPR.  Everyone huddled around the Complex’s familiar figure, including a distraught Gruet. “C’mon,’ Keith!” people urged. “Stay with us, Keith!” others shouted. Tears welled in the eyes of several onlookers. Kielcheski’s eyes remained closed and he did not move. The victim of a massive heart attack, Pffft was just 51.  

A gathering of considerable size said goodbye to Kielcheski at Fairview Memorial Park. His grave is located approximately half a mile from the court where he died. 

“He took very good care of himself”

Rudy_CordovaRudy Cordova was not a childhood tennis prodigy. He grew up in rural La Joya, New Mexico, never to be confused with La Jolla, California. A farming village 36 miles north of Socorro, La Joya sits on the east bank of the Rio Grande. The town never had a tennis court. For a spell the high school did not have a gym. The La Joya Bruins, for whom Cordova played basketball in the 1930s, held their practices and games outdoors. Rudy’s father, Hipolito Barela Cordova,  better known as “H.B, ” served as the school’s principal.     

Education ranked high for the Cordovas. After high school Rudy earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico. Much later he finished a Ph.D. in educational administration at UCLA. For a time he worked for the U.S. Department of Education, in Washington, D.C.

A member of the Greatest Generation, Cordova served in the Army during World War II. After the war, he began a teaching and coaching career at the College of St. Joseph, located on Albuquerque’s West Mesa.  He worked as the school’s basketball and tennis coach, from 1947 to 1967, by which time St. Joe’s had become the University of Albuquerque.  The U of A is gone now.  

Cordova had profound influence on many Albuquerque basketball coaches, including Jim Hulsman, Bobby Gibbs and Henry Sanchez, all of whom attended the College of St. Joseph and went on to achieve wide distinction. 

It is unclear to his grown children what led their father to tennis. It’s possible he picked up the game at UNM or by reading instruction books. In any event, he intrinsically knew how to coach. He took the St. Joe’s tennis team to three NAIA national championships in Kansas City. He drove the college bus deep into Colorado. He knew how to recruit. One of his very best players was Gerardo Salinas, an alternate on Mexico’s Davis Cup team. 

“He was definitely passionate about tennis,” said his son, Bob Cordova. Under his father’s tutelage, Bob Cordova spent two years playing tennis for the St. Joseph Dons.

Cordova’s players nicknamed him “Sideways,” for he constantly told his squad to turn sideways when hitting forehands, backhands or volleys.  Dick Johnson, who played tennis for St. Joe’s and has gone on to attain outstanding success as the boys’ tennis coach at La Cueva High School, said Cordova was important in his life. ”I was young and I had a bit of a temper.  Rudy got me to relax on the court, to breathe deeply and to focus on the task ahead. A wonderful man.”
Nearing 50, Cordova jumped into competitive tennis. “He wasn’t a power player,” Bob Cordova said, “but he could place the ball well and use spin.”

“Dad was crazy about competing,” said his daughter, Terry Harris. He signed up for USTA league play and tournaments in Albuquerque. On April 3 1995, he came to the Complex for a Senior Olympics singles match. 

The night before that match Cordova told his daughter that he was not feeling up to par. He dismissed the feeling as tiredness. His singles match that day was held on Court 11.  Early in the first set, Cordova collapsed during a rally. For Fred Hultberg, who was still in charge of the Complex, it was déjà vu. A nurse tried to get Rudy’s heart going, Hultberg said. “Rudy’s wife was frantic. She yelled, ‘Oh, please, don’t let him go!  I’ve lost one person (her first husband) to a heart attack.’ ”

Paramedics were summoned and they managed to get Cordova’s heart re-started. Unfortunately, his internal organs were damaged. He was taken to Lovelace Hospital and placed on life support.  He never regained consciousness, and died there April 9.  Much like Keith Kielcheski, Cordova, for all intents and purposes, was gone the moment he dropped to the court.  

He always told his players that tennis was a lifelong game, said Bob Cordova. Rudy Cordova was 71 when his life ended.  He is buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. 

His death stunned the Cordova family. Rudy’s younger brother Vince, the longtime athletic director at Albuquerque Academy, said, “He took very good care of himself. He was quite a health buff.  He watched his diet and he exercised regularly.” 

But like Keith Kielcheski’s kin, the Cordovas had a history of heart issues. Ronald V. Cordova, Vince’s son and an emergency medical physician, died suddenly last September of a heart attack. He was 58. Vince himself had a heart attack while working out on a treadmill.  In 1983 he underwent triple bypass surgery. 

It’s called genetic predisposition and Bob Cordova believes his father had a place in line. “He’d had bypass surgery ten years before his death.”  Even H.B. Cordova, the patriarch of the family, was not spared. He weathered two heart attacks, but the end came from liver cancer.

“Life,” said Bob Cordova, “is a crapshoot.”

For his achievements coaching tennis and basketball at the college level, Rudy Cordova was inducted posthumously into the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame with the 1999-2000 class. 

“Dad was fiercely competitive”

Bob_ThomasBob Thomas had a standing doubles match at the Tennis Club of Albuquerque.  “Old-man doubles,” he called it. His group typically included Ray Doberneck, Bob Stamm and, at various times, Dave Kelsey, Russell Goodman or Gig Brummell joined in.

Thomas had gone to St. Mary’s High School in Albuquerque. From there he matriculated to Notre Dame but came back after a year to attend University of New Mexico, where he played football for the Lobos and lettered.  He opened an insurance business in Albuquerque and that left him time to play tennis in the mornings. He became a middle-aged athlete.

Thomas’s tennis ability, remembered his contemporaries, was 3.5, inching toward 4.0.  Tall and strong, he was no speed demon.  Gig Brummell kidded him about being slow afoot and having awkward strokes. To receive serve he would get into a strange stance and turn his right shoulder all the way around to hit the ball. “But Bob was a bulldog, particularly at the net,” Brummell said.   

Tennis became a large part of Thomas’s life. He took it very seriously.  If he lost in doubles, he might slam his racket down and storm off.  “Dad was fiercely competitive,” said his son, Jim Thomas. 

As dour as he sometimes could be on the court, off it Thomas showed a great sense of humor. “A prankster, but never mean,” according to his wife of 27 years, Rita-Loy Simmons. A “yarn-spinner,” Jim Thomas recalled. One such yarn stands out in the Bob Thomas Archive of Pure Blarney. When Thomas went off to Notre Dame to play football, he mentioned to members of the freshman team that he was from New Mexico. Apparently they only heard the word “Mexico” and so assumed he was from that country to the south.  That’s when Bob decided to have some fun. With a straight face, he revealed that to get to Notre Dame he had to lasso a wild horse and then ride it 100 miles. That brought him to the U.S border. From there,  he told the football players, he hopped aboard a stagecoach. He traveled by stage, he said, until he reached Kansas City. From there, he said, he managed to get a seat on one of those new-fangled flying machines, which took him to South Bend, Indiana.  Incredibly, many believed him. 

When he wasn’t playing tennis, Thomas was watching his teen-aged daughter, Clair, play.   She developed into a fine junior and finished runner-up in the state girls' singles while at Del Norte High School. 

“Bob put a lot of pressure on Clair,” remembered Ray Doberneck.  “He would sit near her court during matches and take notes on everything she did.  This shot went that way, that shot went the other way.”  

At one point Thomas took Clair and her brother Jim for lessons with Bill Taylor, at the Complex. There Thomas met Keith Kielcheski and the two became lasting friends. Clair, now Clair Bradbury, a physical therapist in Espanola, New Mexico, said, “Dad was really upset when he learned Keith had died.”  

Quirks had a place in Thomas’s tennis world. “Bob was anal,” said Doberneck.  “He had a Rolodex with a card on every guy he had ever played and the scores. One time after I beat him he said to me, ‘That’s 15 straight sets for you.’  “I had no idea how many sets it was.”  

No one questioned Thomas’s fitness on the court.  “No fat on him at all,” according to Doberneck.  “Bob had a gym in his garage.” 

Pranks and quirks aside, Bob Thomas was well-liked and deeply patriotic.  He had served with honor in the U.S. Marines Corps.  Starting in 1982, and with the City of Albuquerque’s blessing, each morning he raised an American flag at Bataan Memorial Park, then lowered it at night.  

On the morning of August 25, 2002, Doberneck, who was to play a singles match at the TCA, started for Court 9.  As he did, he saw Bob Thomas sprawled face down on Court 8. He rushed over and amid the hubbub gave Thomas CPR.   “He was not responding,” said Doberneck, an Albuquerque surgeon. “Apparently he had just served and had followed the serve to the net. He went to hit a volley and dropped dead.”

Clair Bradbury’s version is that her father had hit a winner down the line. As soon as he did, he cried. “Oh, I feel dizzy!” and toppled to the court. In a futile trip, paramedics took Thomas to UNMH. “There really was nothing anyone could do for him,” Doberneck said. 

Leslie Robert Thomas is buried at Albuquerque’s Sunset Memorial Park. His death at age 67 shocked many. A few weeks before he died he had undergone a full medical checkup. No signs of a problem emerged. He had never smoked, he did not have high cholesterol or abnormal blood pressure. 

But like Keith Kielcheski and Rudy Cordova, generational heart problems likely shadowed him. Thomas’s father and his uncle both smoked and each of them suffered heart attacks. His uncle, Bernie Thomas, was the director of the Albuquerque Little Theater, a job he held for  20 stress-filled years. Seldom was Bernie seen without a cigarette between his fingers.   

“I think there probably was a genetic link,” said Clair Bradbury of her father. “Some people have an expiration date on them, but it’s often not visible.”

“He Didn’t Like to Lose”

Richard_RubinIf you were looking for an example of a Type A personality, Richard Rubin would be a good choice. Rubin thrived on pressure. A native of New York City, Rubin grew up in the borough of Queens, where he opened what became a busy law practice. At the same time he took on important duties with the Queens County Democratic Party, the State Assembly and the State Legislature. He became a high-profile New Yorker. 

A pretty female attorney, Terry Lee Heller, occupied an office next door to Rubin’s.  The two got to know each, began to date and eventually married. Rubin had already grown fond of tennis. He told Heller that he wanted to retire early and do so where he could be involved in tennis year round. That was his dream.

The couple had visited Albuquerque and immediately liked the city’s lifestyle. On the last day of 1990 they arrived in New Mexico—for good. Scouting various tennis clubs, Richard fell in love with Highpoint Sports & Wellness. 

Rubin swiftly threw himself into the local tennis scene. Because of his keen legal mind, he became a certified tennis referee and he officiated at many local tournaments. Together with Bill Long, who then was head of officials for the Northern New Mexico Tennis Association, Rubin for three years helped run the annual APS Singles Tournament. “He worked hard and clearly knew the rules,” Long said. 

For three years running Rubin assisted Dick Johnson in supervision of the New Mexico Junior Open.  “In this Brooklyn-like accent, Richard would gently explain to a kid that he wasn’t going to make such-and-such a call, but that he should have,” Johnson said. 

From 2000 to 2002, Rubin served as president of the NNMTA. At the top of his agenda in that position was building up youth tennis. For his efforts, he was named Northern New Mexico’s junior tournament director of the year. His dream was becoming realized.

Meanwhile, Rubin threw himself into playing as much tennis as possible. He took lessons once a week from Highpoint pro Molly McGrath and lifted his NTRP status to 4.0. “He was ferocious on the court,” said McGrath. “He was intense, he didn’t like to lose.” Indeed, Rubin’s drive to get better and to win knew no bounds. He once told a mixed doubles partner that he didn’t want her to socialize with opponents on changeovers during club matches.  

Rubin relished men’s doubles, where his left-handed hook serve could cause foes trouble. Ralph Thompson and Jim Wessel were among those who frequently joined him. Typically Rubin would play doubles three times a week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On October 23, 2002, a cool Wednesday morning, Rubin appeared at Highpoint for a scheduled doubles match. Jack Hostetler, who played with the group, remembered that Rubin seemed to have no spring in his step when he walked out on Court 15. In the second set, Mike Dana, who had played tennis for Rudy Cordova at the College of St. Joseph, recalled that a struck ball went into the net.  “Richard and I were on opposite sides and we both went to pick up the ball. Richard suddenly stopped and said, ‘Oh, my God.’  That was the last thing he said in his life.” Dana tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, alternating with Hostetler, who pressed down on Rubin’s chest.   

The paramedics, Hostetler said, “took forever” to arrive. They transported Rubin to Presbyterian Hospital where he was placed on life support. That ended on October 27, when physicians told Heller that her husband had suffered brain damage. 

“I know they did everything they could for my father,” said Joshua Rubin, a gastroenterologist in Boca Raton, Florida. “It’s my belief that he died on that tennis court.”  He was 61 years old 

Slender of build, Rubin looked to be in good shape. That was deceiving, for he liked junk food, particularly candy.  He was taking a statin for high cholesterol, but most alarming was his tobacco habit. He was a heavy smoker and had been for years. “He loved tennis and he loved cigarettes,” said Hank Paskiewicz, who played with and against Rubin at Highpoint often.  Joshua Rubin was on his father all the time to stop smoking. “Everyone told him to stop.  He had an addiction.  I’m sure that contributed” (to his death).  Terry Lee said he had cut way back in his last years, but that clearly was too late. 

Her husband’s death devastated Heller. She was not at Highpoint that morning, but friends immediately called to tell her the news. The next day she went to the club to see the court where he died. However, it took a good while for her to return to Highpoint regularly. Though the Albuquerque tennis community rallied around Heller, being at Highpoint became too painful. She is no longer a member of the club.  

His dream may have ended, but Richard Rubin is not forgotten. A stone bench at Highpoint bears his name. So does an umpire’s chair at the Lobo Tennis Club. He is buried at Fairview Memorial Park, approximately 100 yards east of where Keith Kielcheski lies.

“A Child Could Do It” 

DefibrillatorThe risk factors that may lead to a heart attack for men 45 and older are well known. Less known is an apparatus that can prevent heart attacks from becoming fatal.  That said, could any of the four deaths of Albuquerque men have been prevented?  Richard Cordova’s daughter Terry Harris  thinks so. Harris, ironically, is the executive director of the New Mexico Heart Hospital Foundation.  One of her tasks in that job is to spread the word about the necessity of AED machines, also known as alternate external defibrillators, and “defibrillators” for short. “I know my father would have lived had an AED machine been used at the Complex tennis court where he died.”

An AED is a portable device that checks the heart rhythm and can send an electric shock in an attempt to restart a normal rhythm.  AEDs are used to treat sudden cardiac arrest, or SCA. An SCA is a condition in which the heart unexpectedly stops beating.  Blood ceases to flow to the brain and to other vital organs. Rapid treatment with a defibrillator is absolutely critical.  

AEDs were first introduced in the 1960s but didn’t get into wide use until the late 1990s. Fred Hultberg said that during his time at the Complex he was never able to persuade the city to purchase a defibrillator.  However, the Jerry Cline Tennis Center, which replaced the Complex as a large public venue, has an AED, according to Cristin Chavez-Smith, the center’s manager. “We need to get more people trained on it,” she admitted.  

“People have to be trained to use a defibrillator, which is not complicated at all,” Terry Harris said. “A child could do it. However, without training, simply having an AED on hand is useless.”  

The Tennis Club of Albuquerque did not have an AED machine in 2002, according to former club manager Tom Aicher. The club has one now, said manager Liz Briganti. “Fortunately we’ve never had to use it.”  Jeremy Dyche, Highpoint’s tennis director, said that club owns several AEDs and that the entire staff is trained in their use as well as in CPR. On October 8, 2016, David Peercy, 72, a retired Sandia Labs scientist and president of the Albuquerque Public Schools Board, suffered a heart attack while playing handball at Highpoint. Two employees of the club quickly sped to the scene with a defibrillator. They saved Peercy’s life. 

Toby Smith, a member of the board of directors of the Northern New Mexico Tennis Association, can be reached at tobysmith68@gmail.com