"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

‘Totsiens’ to a tennis pro

By on April 25, 2021 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
Tennis pro Charl Grobler: Coming up with a new game plan for his next years.

Longtime WRAC fixture returning home to South African family — and the animals

By Jamie Howell

“I need to tell you something.”

That’s the kind of opener that gives anyone pause — revealing nothing except that, good or bad, it’s gonna be big. 

Wenatchee Racquet and Athletic Club (aka “The WRAC”) General Manager Evy Gillin took a deep breath, let the open front door she’d nearly made it out of swing closed again, and turned back to see her colleague of nearly 35 years, Director of Tennis Charl Grobler, looking serious.

It had been one heckuva year already, and it was about to get … heckuv-er. 

‘Totsiens’ is the shortest translation of what she heard next. That’s how they say good-bye in Charl’s native South Africa, a place he’d left at the age of 18 to pursue a career on the tennis court in America. 

Forty-two years later, the time had come at last, he said, for his return.

“It really is surreal for me,” said Charl (pronounced “Shawl”), sitting courtside at the WRAC outdoor facility on a recent spring afternoon, the very spot that won him over back in 1985 as he was passing through the Wenatchee Valley on a tennis trip. 

“I just totally fell in love,” he recalls. “I could see myself teaching on this court here and looking out at this mountain.”

Two years later, Evy hired him to do exactly that — teach tennis and see what he could do to expand the WRAC’s tennis programs. He packed his rackets and began his new life on the sunny side of the Cascades.

A teaching pro is born

“Formidable,” is the word Stew Cusick, son of one of the WRAC’s founding fathers and current vice president on the club’s board of directors, uses to describe the new pro’s prowess on the court upon his arrival in 1987. 

Charl continued to play competitive tennis even after signing on at the WRAC, showing up, often on a motorcycle with rackets poking skyward out of his backpack, and cleaning up at some of the biggest tournaments the Pacific Northwest had to offer.

“He’d come in from dinky Wenatchee and he would show them how to play tennis” recalled Stew. “He just is that good.”

He got that good while growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, where a passion for sports was standard issue. 

He attended the Pretoria Boys High School (the same school from which centi-billionaire Elon Musk would later graduate), where it wasn’t uncommon for the school, with its 1,500 pupils, to field literally dozens (each) of rugby, soccer and cricket teams.

South Africa had begun churning out some big players in the ‘80s, as well — Kevin Curren was making trouble in the majors, bouncing the likes of Connors and McEnroe out of repeated Grand Slam events; while fellow Pretorian Johan Kriek took two Australian Open titles.

Charl took the inspiration to heart, eventually landing himself a full ride tennis scholarship in America, where he played a never-ending circuit for Oral Roberts University out of Tulsa, Okla., until he graduated.

Post-college, he’d been having early success working his own way up the pro tennis circuits, pursuing ever bigger purses at ever bigger tournaments, until he slipped … in the shower. 

The resulting wrist injury proved serious enough to force Charl to consider developing some alternative methods of paying bills with his racket skills – and a teaching pro was born.

Expanding the 

tennis footprint

The tennis pro position at the WRAC had been a revolving door in the years preceding Charl’s arrival.

“That’s unusual, when you have a pro of that caliber who will stay around,” said Stew.

That long-term stability, coupled with an unflappable positivity and a heartfelt passion for sharing the game as integral to the WRAC’s growth over the past few decades, according to Stew. 

In his efforts to enlarge the footprint of tennis around the Wenatchee Valley, Charl produced new annual tournaments like the Cusick Cup, for example, and brought USTA League tennis to the area for the first time. At one point, the WRAC fielded 17 recreational traveling tennis teams in a single season, including one season when two of them (one men’s team and one women’s team) won the National Championship – quite a feat in a nationwide league with more than 300,000 players.

The Good Life 

— left behind?

“Wenatchee, to me, is a gem. A perfect place to live. It’s hard to beat, and I love what I do,” said Charl.

So, if you’ve found the Good Life already, why leave?

For Charl, at 60, it’s primarily a question of mortality and the importance of family. Both his parents passed away recently — parents he saw only periodically on return visits to South Africa every five years or so. 

He can’t reconcile the idea of extending his earning years in America with the idea of missing out on the chance to reconnect with his only remaining sibling, a sister 10 years his junior, while they still can.

He also confesses to being bothered by those stories you sometimes hear about people dying within the first three years of retirement. 

(In truth, there is a great deal more evidence to support the idea that working longer leads to living longer, but that doesn’t make the idea of retiring on Tuesday and kicking the bucket on Wednesday any less frightening.)

The animals of his childhood

But it’s also about the Wildebeests — blue Wildebeests, and rhinos, giraffes, impala, warthogs and, of course, oh my, the lions. 

He misses the animals of his childhood. As a boy in South Africa, he once held a weekend job manning the gates of a small game reserve, where the lions were kept on one side and everything else on the other. 

Charl’s job was to let visitors in and out without letting any lions slip across. 

Sitting there, a young man reflecting, getting to know the animals, taking in the smell of the Bush — he’s never forgotten it and he wants that for himself again.

That’s why he, his wife Chris of 30 years, and his sister now plan to share a house with separate living quarters on the outskirts of Kruger National Park. At 7,523 square miles, it’s one of the largest game reserves on the African continent.

“Soon, I’ll be walking out of my house and there will be a giraffe right there,” he said with a smile.

There do come some trade-offs with that kind of proximity – no pets, for example, unless you’re okay with them becoming hyena snacks. In fact, the neighborhood where they will live has a messaging system specifically designed to alert residents to dangerous animal sightings. But, Charl noted with a shrug, “They haven’t lost a resident in at least 25 years.”

“It’s all a leap of faith,” he added.

’N Vriendelike afskeid’ – (a fond farewell)

In the final months of his tenure at the WRAC, it wasn’t uncommon to find Charl on the court, feeding tennis balls to youngsters whose grandparents he had also taught to play tennis.

“I feel good about what I’ve done,” he said. “Tennis has helped tremendously at many times in my life. It’s enables you to enrich people’s lives.”

He will board a plane the first week of May, following a farewell tennis tournament and potluck in his honor at the WRAC – a marker of the many lives he has touched through tennis. For many of them, Charl had become a touchstone, an eminently reliable, kind and constant presence ready to share his time, energy and talents.

“I’ve had members tell me that it saves them going to a therapist every week,” said Evy. “I don’t think the members would have let him get out of here with anything less.”

“He’s given an awful lot,” said board member Stew, who, while wishing their departing pro only the best, maintains with a grumble, “I’m not happy about it.”

The sentiment is shared by many at the WRAC, and Charl would agree — there’s never a good time to go. 

But you know what they say about the present — there’s never a better time, either.

Jamie Howell, owner of Howell at the Moon Productions, takes breaks as frequently as possible from his writing and filmmaking by swatting at yellow felted balls on the tennis courts of Wenatchee.

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