Glenn Hobson died on January 29th. He was a tennis coach, and, for many years, an important figure in our small town and influential in the lives of my children. He was too young to die, but, then, Glenn always did things differently from other people, and his death was no exception.
Glenn was a coach, but I prefer to say he was a teacher. Tennis is a game of body and mind that can encompass a universe of meaning. Glenn tapped into that universe and, for a number of years in the life of my family, presided over it. He was an eccentric and stubborn man, but great teachers often are. Some people in my town might question my view of Glenn’s exceptional abilities, but great teachers are not great for everyone. It is one of the paradoxes of teaching that it tends to be selective—it brings some into its magic circle while leaving others outside of it. This was the case for Glenn. He had protégés, and focused on this chosen group relentlessly, seeming to neglect, even dismiss others. But it would be wrong to say that he was capricious or elitist in his favorites. He chose people who chose him, who were willing to submit to his brand of training. He looked for drive and commitment and welcomed kids who might be underestimated by other coaches, convincing them that they could, with his help, triumph over the Goliaths who routinely defeated them.
Glenn insisted that his players begin by controlling the ball, which meant hitting it high and deep, looping it “like a girl,” as his detractors put it. But resisting mainstream criticism was part of the lesson—as was the result: his novice players could win against more experienced ones by being precise and indefatigable in their looping, wearing out their opponents and making them seethe with frustration. In time, as Glenn’s players added power and speed to their game, they might still choose to hit so high and deep and with so much topspin that the shots would send their opponents stumbling to the back of the court, hitting their rackets against the fence, as the ball bounced out of reach.
Analysis was another part of Glenn’s method. He could parse tennis as well as any literary scholar can parse text—and extract similar insights about human nature. He strengthened his players’ mental game and taught them how to read their opponents’ weaknesses and insecurities. He had an endless appetite for detail and would talk on the phone for hours after a match. His players inevitably had to cut short these conversations—to have dinner, do homework, go to bed. Life intruded on tennis, but the game and its guru were always waiting to pick up where they had left off.
Practice with Glenn was grueling but exciting. He drilled his players relentlessly, making them repeat strokes more times than seemed reasonable. Boredom was not an option; neither was rushing to the next step. At the end of a lesson, Glenn would allow his students to try to win points off him. They never knew whether they won legitimately or as a reward for a good practice, but it didn’t matter. To win a point off Glenn was to know you were on the right track. He wanted his players to beat him—but only when he decided they were ready. On the few occasions when someone won prematurely, he grew irritable and made sure he beat them soundly the next time.
To a parent, Glenn was an empowering figure, and a dangerous one. He was so full of conviction that his players were potentially great that parents couldn’t help but feel affirmed: he mirrored the extravagance of parental love. At the same time, it was necessary to keep him in check or he would take over and submerge a child’s life in the demands of tennis. On some level, I think, he understood this and respected parents who placed limits on his influence. He would boast about his players’ good grades, even when this was accomplished at the expense of tennis. He wanted champions but knew that most kids, even those with the most potential, wanted—and ought to pursue—something more. So he took what he could get and made the most of it.
So much about Glenn was paradoxical. He made his players believe that they could do anything when they stepped on the court, but he could also predict the final score down the numbers of games and sets his players would win. He hated it when his players lost, but taught them that losing was necessary to reach the next level of play and insisted that they always play to win and never not to lose. He was so invested in his players that he sometimes felt their injuries and illnesses in his own body; yet he insisted on a facade of eternal cheerfulness: “How are you, Glenn?” “Awesome!” he would always respond.
Glenn’s players achieved a special status at the club where he worked. They fairly lived there, practicing the same strokes for hours, feeding each other balls, analyzing each other’s play. They became Glenn’s assistants and often took over aspects of his job. They opened and closed the clubhouse, drove the tennis cart, strung rackets, and taught his “ladies” and children’s clinics. This allowed him to concentrate on a promising player or hit with a more advanced one.
His protégés mimicked his style, down to wearing the same sort of floppy hat, trying to keep to the same low-carb diet, and using the same vocabulary: this one was “lazy,” that one was hitting “trash,” a third had “potential,” if only she’d “commit.”
Glenn’s reign as a coach lasted from the early 1990s and to the mid-2000s, a period which his players called the Golden Age of the Field Club. I’m not sure which of them had the classical knowledge to coin the phrase, but it captured the sense of a fleeting, idyllic moment. And, inevitably, like any Golden Age, it ended.
There were many reasons for this. Glenn’s best players graduated and left. Players outside of his circle began to complain about his control of the club’s courts. Glenn himself lost focus, distracted by family and money worries. Eventually, he left the town and took another job, where things didn’t work out well. The Golden Age was over, and there was no re-creating it.
Glenn took meticulous care of himself—eating only the healthiest foods, slathering his skin with sunscreen, keeping in tiptop shape. And yet when his cancer took hold, he did not consult a doctor until the disease was well advanced. He thought he could conquer his illness through force of will and, when he couldn’t, he succumbed to it.
Glenn’s death was Glenn-like. Confined to his bed, unable to eat or speak, he watched the Australian Open and sent out a few texts to past players. He was complicated, but he insisted that things were simple, a contradiction that was part of his mystique. Some of us still can’t quite take in that he is dead. We imagine him somewhere feeding balls to his protégés, letting them win a few points off of him, and praising them for their glorious lobs.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.