At one point in his 73 years of teaching tennis, Jeff Abbey had 150 South Bay residents on a waiting list for lessons.
The one-time Redondo Beach Recreation Department supervisor has literally taught generations of local families how to deliver scorching backhands and punishing overheads.
At 86, Abbey is still doing it—still teaching, still playing.
And the state of his game?
“I’m just starting to get the hang of it,” he joked during an interview at the Redondo Beach home of good friend, . After meeting Dreizler briefly at the University of Kansas in 1944, Abbey didn’t connect with her again until 1956. Both were married to others at the time and living in the South Bay.
"Jeff got me my first job in the Recreation Department," said Dreizler, who went on to an illustrious career, both as a volunteer on numerous boards and as the first female department head in the city's history.
Infamous for his high-top P.F. Flyers
Born April 16, 1926 in Oswego, Kansas, the tall, blue-eyed tennis pro—infamous for his high-top P.F. Flyers and penchant for history trivia (he can list every U.S. President in order)—was first handed a tennis racquet at age 10.
“My dad made me a little tennis racquet and hit balls at me, and I hit ‘em back,” Abbey said, remarking on athletic roots going back to his great-grandfather that "dribbled down to me."
Due to the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, Abbey's long-term memory is superior to his short-term these days. For that reason, the popular tennis pro, who lived for years in Hermosa and then Redondo before moving to the Huntington Retirement Hotel in Torrance, is more apt to say Bill Tilden than Rafael Nadal when asked who his favorite player is.
Abbey’s periodic memory lapses and tendency to repeat things haven’t stopped former history professor Dr. Judd Grenier from taking lessons from him at the Pier Avenue Courts—which Abbey helped engineer—in Hermosa Beach.
“So far as Jeff’s teaching techniques, he’ll remember them forever,” said Grenier, who lives in Manhattan Beach. “Those don’t change.”
Since he started taking lessons with Abbey “back in the mists of time,” Grenier’s technique is ingrained, he said, but “not as important (now) as the execution. I’m 82 ... and no spring chicken.”
On the other hand, he said, “Jeff still, at his age, manages to get that ball over the net and at your feet, so you have to dig down deep to return it.”
Although they don’t talk history as much as they used to, Abbey finds ways to compare California to some long ago event in the Great Plains area, where he grew up, said Grenier, a historian who wrote the 1986 book about the settling of the South Bay, California Legacy: The Watson-Dominguez Family.
“Mostly we just talk tennis,” Grenier said.
Like so many in the South Bay, Grenier sent all four of his children to learn from “the top dog” at Live Oak Park, including his then-15-year-old son Eric, beginning in the early 1970s.
People like Billie Jean King
Abbey “would bring in people like Billie Jean King to teach clinics,” the professor said. His son, who graduated in 1976 from the now defunct Aviation High School in North Redondo, talks about the clinics to this day.
Back in his Kansas high school days, Abbey lettered in five sports: football, basketball, tennis, golf and track, he said. His father, a teacher and politician, excelled at tennis, which along with history and music became Abbey’s lifelong passion.
A history major at the University of Kansas, Abbey's studies were interrupted by World War II, and he promptly enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
“I saw all my buddies go out to sea to fight the Germans and the Japanese,” he said, his smile broadening as usual. “And they sent me to the base in Gulfport, Mississippi to build tennis courts and give tennis lessons to the officers and their ladies.”
He hung his head, adding: “I’m not exactly a war hero. I’m kind of ashamed.”
The grin returns in an instant.
His stock with German prisoners of war, however, ordered to help him build tennis courts, was high. “I had the elite of the German Army, prisoners of war from General (Field Marshall Erwin) Rommel’s Afrika Korps. They all spoke better English than I did.”
Guarded by machine-gun-bearing U.S. Navy personnel, the Germans "came to me and said, ‘Jeff, they don’t need those machine guns to guard us. If I got free and went back to Germany, my butt would be on the Russian front. Believe me, I’m going to be right here, helping you build tennis courts,'" he said.
'I deserve a medal'
Abbey’s other war duty consisted of performing in the U.S. Navy Band. Proficient in all the brass instruments, he played “Anchors Away,” so often, he said, “I deserve a medal.”
After the war, he obtained his bachelor of arts degree in history and his masters in public administration from the University of Tulsa, remaining in Okalahoma to teach for an additional two years. “(I was) the youngest tennis coach in the country at the time,” he said.
Abbey had the further distinction of becoming the 10th member accepted to the U.S. Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) at the organization’s inception.
In 1954, he moved to California for the “year around tennis,” he said, quickly landing a job with Redondo's Department of Recreation (where, naturally, he taught tennis), a post that lasted until 1962.
(Divorced for years, he has a son, Kevin, in Claremore, Okla.; a daughter, Kim, in Las Vegas, N.M.; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.)
Abbey served as tennis pro for the city of Manhattan Beach from 1963-80 and for Hermosa Beach from 1980 until his “semi-retirement” last April.
Until recently, students like Carrie Yoshida of Redondo Beach switched tennis venues right along with the coach she calls “the happiest man in the world.”
Starting at Live Oak Park in 1984, “We followed him wherever he went, this is over 25 years,” Yoshida said. “I started taking lessons from Jeff with my best friend, Susie Moon … every Monday at 4 o’clock. We were both in education and it was just perfect on the way home.”
(Yoshida now teaches at Hawthorne High School, and her husband, Wendell, is athletic director at in Palos Verdes. Moon is retired.)
One of the things Yoshida appreciated was Abbey’s easygoing approach—how he allowed the two friends to catch up on school gossip while mastering backhands and serves. “He never got mad at us for chitchatting during the lesson,” she said.
The best part was when Abbey repeated for Yoshida’s son what had been done for him as a child by his father.
'Jeff made it so perfect'
Twelve years ago, after Yoshida gave birth to son Cole, she thought she would have to give up tennis. “Jeff made it so perfect, he said, ‘Just bring him!’” she exclaimed.
At seven weeks old, the baby “would sit in his little plastic bucket (infant seat)” on the side of the court, tracking balls as they flew back and forth over the net.
By age 2, the toddler wanted out of his stroller, Yoshida said. “Jeff said, ‘I’m going to train him to pick up balls.’ We thought we were so smart ... Cole was going to be our little go-fer, but that didn’t work so well.”
Cole wanted to play.
Abbey suggested a racquetball racquet, which has a shorter handle. “He showed him how to do a two-handed backhand, and a two-handed forehand,” said Yoshida, who stopped her lessons 10 minutes early so Abbey could bestow his wealth of tennis knowledge on her young son.
Although Cole, now 12, is into All-Star Baseball and Junior Golf at these days, he still plays tennis, his mother said. “We thank Jeff to this day for teaching Cole such a wonderful, lifelong skill.”
Another great thing Abbey did for Yoshida, she said, was mix-and-match his students. “Jeff would pair people up. ‘I think you would be good with this person’ he would say.” It opened her up to lifelong friendships.
What he excelled at, she said, was teaching tennis. “You get some of these flashy tennis pros at some of these clubs charging an awful lot of money,” she said. “Jeff did a better job … and didn’t charge much.”
When Mary Tarango signed up for tennis lessons at Live Oak Park back in 1966, little did she dream that she would end up naming her son after her new tennis coach. “Jeff was just wonderful,” Tarango said. “He inspired me.”
So much so, the Manhattan Beach artist, who “went on to play a lot of tennis,” became a coach herself. Although she now teaches 3- and 4-year-olds tennis, Tarango shaped her son Jeff Tarango’s game, using everything she’d learned from Abbey.
Jeff Tarango turned professional in 1989, his mother said, “and it’s all because of Jeff (Abbey).”
Ranked No. 6 in the world in doubles and No. 40 in singles at the height of his career, Tarango retired from the main tour in 2003 and now devotes his time to coaching and broadcasting for BBC, ESPN, Tennis Channel, Fox Sports and DirecTV.
As Abbey often did for others, he provided another invaluable service to Mary Tarango. “I met a couple of people (through Abbey’s classes) who turned out to be my best friends,” she said.
Most special of all, according to everyone interviewed, is the man himself, who is still "top dog" in the South Bay world of tennis to all who learned from him.
Aside from teaching Grenier—his sole remaining student—Abbey plays once or twice a week at the Pier Avenue courts, mostly on Court No. 5, which was dedicated to him at the unveiling.
"Just friendly tennis," he said. "I like to keep my hand in it."