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CP: Lion in Winter

October 19, 2012 04:57 PM



The Lion in Winter


Appreciating soon-to-be USTA Southwest Hall of Famer Jack Kennedy



Kennedy387The woman on the other end of the telephone was screaming so loudly I was sure a ruptured eardrum was in my future.


"I’m going to sue you! I’m going to sue you!" she shrieked over and over. "I’m going to sue you and I’m going to sue your newspaper."


I had written that morning in the Albuquerque Journal a column discussing why Roger

Federer cried after losing a Grand Slam final. "Torrent of Tears Embarrassing," the headline above the column read.


Fans of Federer will recall that following a five-set loss to rival Rafael Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open final, Fed shed tears. Buckets of them, it seemed. He sobbed so much at the awards ceremony that Nadal felt led to comfort him. 


There’s no weeping in tennis was the point of my 800-word essay. No big deal, or so I thought.

To this caller, in her 70s, I estimated, I had committed blasphemy. She worshiped Federer, it was clear, and to see his good name besmirched in print caused her to go into a crazed, howling rage.


"It’s a column," I explained as she quieted for a millisecond "It’s only my opinion."


"It’s wrong, wrong, wrong," she shouted. "And who is this Jack Kennedy anyway?"


In writing the column I had called up Kennedy to get his thoughts on Federer’s crying jag.


"It was hard for me to watch," Kennedy admitted. He liked Federer—as did I—but the blubbering bothered him.


"Did you ever cry after a tennis match?" I asked.


"Good grief no," Kennedy said. "Oh, I was a hell of a nicer guy when I won than when I lost. But I never cried."


John Lloyd Kennedy’s days on a tennis court spanned the early 1950s through the early 1970s. To the woman reader on the phone, I started to say, "Jack Kennedy was a standout player in New Mexico back …"


"Never heard of him," she yelled, drowning out my words. "What did he ever win?"



KennedyLeftyOverheadThe making of a legend


I never saw Jack Kennedy play tennis. He had stopped competing four years before I went to work writing about fun and games for the Albuquerque Journal, in 1977.  In the years that followed, our paths did not cross, oddly enough. Oh, I heard a lot about Kennedy, a longtime dentist in the city who many said was once the best player in the Southwest.


A 6-5, long-armed guy in Clark Kent glasses, people said. An aircraft-carrier haircut and a bombs-away lefty service. Came to the net and never left. Couldn’t pass him, couldn’t lob him.


Kennedy, I saw, was inordinately bright. He wrote a fine tribute to the Tennis Club of Albuquerque on its 40th anniversary, which was published in the Journal. He wrote another piece in which he astutely broke down Nadal’s game and why Nadal would always have an edge over Federer.


I finally met Kennedy in 2008, at the Albuquerque Marriott, near I-40.  We both had come there for a USTA Southwest Section meeting. I didn’t know it, but Kennedy was on hand to salute coach Dick Johnson, who was being inducted into the Section’s Hall of Fame.


When a fellow of about 70 hobbled toward to the lectern, my jaw dropped. I thought it was Howard Hughes, I swear. This person wore his long, gray hair in a thick ponytail.  Were his fingernails long, too? Was the Spruce Goose parked at the Sunport? I was halfway certain the nutty, legendary billionaire had somehow come back to life.


KennedyJohnsonTurns out Kennedy was a legend himself. I assumed he was already in the Hall of Fame, but for some unknown reason he was not. He will go into the Hall this month, and it’s about time.


Kennedy was the state’s best junior and the University of New Mexico’s first all-American in that era of bludgeon-like wood rackets. As an adult player, he traveled the country on the amateur circuit, whupping up on folks through his 30s and into his 40s, particularly in doubles. Then he dislocated his left shoulder during a skiing spill at Taos. He went right back to skiing again. After another bad fall, the shoulder said no mas.


Meanwhile, his knees went south as well. Twenty-some years on New Mexico hardcourts will do that.


Goodbye, shotgun serve. So long, paint-peeling overheads. At 43, he was done.


Left behind were stories, Jack Kennedy stories.  How as a youngster he beat all adults at the Tennis Club of Albuquerque save for Paul Butt, the progenitor of the sport in Albuquerque. How his friends told him tennis was wussy sport and he should dump it—until he showed them his trophies. How during college he had sobered up Whitney Reed right before the NCAA singles finals. Reed thanked him and went on to become No. 1 in the U.S. How during his time in the Air Force he wagered with Bobby Riggs and played mixed dubs against Billie Jean King and partner, all in the space of a month. (pictured below with Riggs - second from left - Kennedy is center)



Figuring things out


So here he is now, not looking a day over 74 and mellow as a Beaujolais. Sure, he’s got a gimp, but his brain hums.  He is sitting the study of his home in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, a quarter-mile from the TCA. Art, philosophy, psychology and literature books fill the study’s shelves, as do  photos—of Susan, his wife of 52 years, of their three grown children and their grandkids. Here and there are plenty of loving cups, those big silver jugs with two handles. Whatever happened to loving cups, anyway?


Kennedy_UNMIf you ask Jack Kennedy anything, even what he had for lunch two days ago, he will likely answer this way:  Well, what happened was . . .  

"Why don’t they give out loving cups anymore?"

"Well, what happened was . . . how the hell should I know?"

"How did you come to pick up a tennis racket?"

"Well, what happened was, I used to play pickup football games at Bataan Park. Then I dislocated my elbow and broke my collarbone. So my mother said I needed a new sport. I got a Montgomery Ward racket and she hit balls to me at Wellesley Park."


He loved to compete—at anything.  It was if he had something to prove. And maybe he did. At 12 he entered a city-wide yo-yo contest at Robinson Park.  "Well, what happened was, I was left-handed and I discovered that gave me an advantage keeping the string taut."


For winning that contest he was awarded a new Schwinn bike, one of those big Roadmaster jobs.  Kennedy was pedaling the prize back to his house when some older kids tried to take the bike away from him. Kennedy didn’t let them. What happened was, he beat them up.


Joe Ferguson, a builder of tennis courts and tennis players in Albuquerque, happened to spot Kennedy at 14 hitting balls. Kid, Ferguson said, you can play. Ferguson urged him to enter the Southwestern Boys Doubles, where he was paired with Paul Palmer of Phoenix. Kennedy had only been playing tennis for about eight months.


What happened was, they won.


Not long after, two anonymous patrons gifted Kennedy with a junior membership in the Tennis Club of Albuquerque.  His game soon rose a several notches. He got a job as a doorman at the Hiland Theater on Central Avenue. $18.75 a week.  He would use most of his pay to buy tennis balls. He’d call up the best players in town—much older guys, usually—and ask them to play. They'd hem or haw and surely think, who does this kid think he is? Kennedy would then pipe up, "I’ll bring new balls."


At Highland High School Kennedy was an indifferent student, residing in the bottom third of his class. "I didn’t think I would amount to anything," he says now.


Al Kaplan, then Highland’s tennis coach, stopped Kennedy at practice one day. "Jack, you know why you’re getting such poor grades?"


Kennedy shrugged. Nobody in his family had ever gone to college. Why should he study? Why should he care?  


007Kaplan went on, "You’re different, Jack. You’re left-handed, for one. You need to figure out how different you are and work on that, just as do on the tennis court."


A week or so later, Margaret Menagh, a Highland High guidance counselor, encouraged Kennedy, then a junior, to take a national achievement test, much like today’s SAT or ACT.  He scored the highest in the state.  He was, it seems, innately smart after all. 


"Well, what happened was, I figured things out."


Today, he continues to educate himself. If you thought this man spent all those years simply looking inside people’s mouths, you’re wrong. He reads.


Kennedy loves to quote people—Seneca, Mark Twain, Plato, even himself. Jack Kennedy: "Everything I learned about life I learned on the tennis court."


Such thinking helped him graduate No. 1 in his class from Baylor College of Dentistry.  In other words, he figured out what he needed to succeed in the first couple of weeks of school. Just as he figured out how to beat a baseliner who got everything back. 


Such thinking got him through a horrifying experience four years ago. Three blood clots and an imperiled heart arrived all at once. The perfect medical storm.


"Well, what happened was, I nearly died."


In tennis, he had learned to hang on. He knew how to pull out a long tough match. Hang on, figure out a way. Play to my strengths and the other guy’s weaknesses. He survived.


Make no mistake, Jack Kennedy does not live in the past. He follows the fortunes of David Ferrer, the gritty little Spaniard who is a third Kennedy’s age and who gets everything back.


The_Lion_in_WinterKennedy doesn’t get many balls back on a court these days, but he gives back.


He has helped more than one promising junior receive a membership in the Tennis Club of Albuquerque.


Each winter he and Susan spend a few months in an RV park in southern California. He started a successful tennis program there for the park’s many senior citizens.


Life is good, isn’t it?


He mulls the question, smiles.


"Well, what happened was, I got lucky."




Toby_Smith_tennisCOUNTERPUNCHER is an exclusive online series written by Toby Smith, former Albuquerque Journal reporter,  three-time USTA Southwest Media Excellence winner, and past Section Marketing Committee member. Smith knows the landscape of tennis well, especially here in the Southwest, writing on tennis for more than 40 years. 


To reach Toby, contact him at tobysmith68@gmail.com or505-681-0667      .  


View past Counterpuncher stories HERE