Some of the lasting friendships of my life – as well as some of the solidest life-lessons – have come through the sport of tennis. The local game has lost a great ambassador. Charlie Garfinkel, the greatest racket sports man Buffalo has ever had, left us late last year, at 82. Oft-nicknamed, “The Gar,” Charlie was a career-long Buffalo Public Schools teacher who won significant titles in tennis, squash, and racketball. As the longtime columnist for the Buffalo News, Charlie was the voice of Buffalo-area tennis.
I watched many of his matches when I was a kid getting started with the game. He was one of the best we had in his day. A tall man, 6’6” at the least, he was surprisingly agile. That serve of his gave him a puncher’s chance against just about anybody. That shot was a legend at the quick McMillan courts at Delaware Park, traditional site of “Buffalo’s Wimbledon,” the midsummer MUNY tennis tournament. I bet he was routinely popping 110s, which was pro-class in the 1970s. Returning anybody’s serve was hard enough with the clunky, small-headed rackets they used to use. When the old balls lost their felt, as was their wont, Charlie’s serve skidded, then soared like a super ball.
Played well, racket sports are graceful to watch. They are actually pretty gritty when you play them under pressure. Racket sports take sustained mental focus, and the higher up you go, the more you need. Charlie had all that. You don’t win what he won by fearing the moment.
The Buffalo-area has a big tennis community, but many readers may not know much about the sport. The matches you see on TV between twenty-something tycoons don’t tell the story of local, regional, and college competition. You’ll get testy personalities, heated clashes, and grudges that last decades. You’ll get shenanigans, including dubious line calls. You’ll even get attempts at intimidation. It’s not the rule, but some people do anything to get an edge. (“This is our sport,” says Jim Courier of tennis’ twists and turns.) You don’t get far without having to deal with it.
Charlie had been the starting center at Bennett High, so you knew he could elbow and rebound, but he never bullied anyone. Never did he use his size, his standing, or anything but the quality of his tennis – and his concentration! – against an opponent. I know that firsthand. As a raw teenager, I played him on the worst possible surface – an indoor court so slick it sheened – when his status as a player was never higher. That match was unexpectedly close, close enough to test him. He was affable and fair the whole time, to a fault. That’s who Charlie was.
He never used his column to take a shot, either, and he had to write about some people whose competitive personae I know he did not admire. Charlie was able to separate a player’s comportment in moments of stress from his or her nature as a person, and that’s not easy for all of us. In someone so vested in tennis, it’s transcendent.
One time he commended me on “always being a gentleman” and I had to back him off. I’ve had my head-butting contests, particularly in my 20s, usually over the opponents’ line calls. He seemed shocked that that kind of fury had ever lurked within me and asked me to name some of the candidates. “Yeah, but they were a$$holes,” said Charlie after I did, with a touch of a chuckle. Confrontations were indeed routine for these players during their tournament days. No one knew that better than the voice of Buffalo tennis.
Charlie won in three different racket sports, which is even harder than it sounds. Being good at tennis is a head start into racketball and squash, but the latter sports have surprisingly few carryovers back. I could explain that, but just trust me. Charlie’s great strengths in tennis – his height and his powerful overhead motion – were no advantage in the two netless, wall-bounded games. Every hour he put into them took from his tennis.
Charlie made his national mark in racketball. He won 19 U.S. titles, 21 Eastern regional championships, and 25 state titles (see Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame). In 1972, he became the U.S.’ first professional racquetball player and for two years ranked among the top ten on the pro tour. In 1976, he had a win over the world’s No. 1 player, Bill Schmidtke, and years later went into the National Racquetball Hall of Fame right beside him. All told, he won five national titles, 27 consecutive tournaments, and 101 straight matches. (“It was such a fantastic record that even I was impressed,” he once told an interviewer. That’s sooo Charlie.)
On the local stage, Charlie was the only player to win the city championships in tennis, squash, and racquetball in the same year (1969). In 1971, he and Rev. Bob Hetherington won the doubles title in the National Public Parks Tennis Tournament. Charlie won nine City of Buffalo doubles championships with a variety of partners.
On the local stage, Charlie was the only player to win the city championships in tennis, squash, and racquetball in the same year (1969).
Charlie was the compiler of the News’ annual Buffalo-area Top Ten list, a big hit with the local tennis community. Most of us were flattered and honored every time we were included, but reactions varied. Some of the oft-mentioned liked to shrug and smirk skyward as if Charlie’s Top Ten was the least of their honors. Some of the unranked disparaged the ranking process, often with startlingly similar gestures.
I have to concede that Charlie’s system didn’t always seem to me to live up to its titular purpose – who was hot that year. To me it looked partly like a legacy award for people Charlie thought he owed for leaving them out before. I think a couple of my mentions were such payback. Some years in my 20s I had wins over guys at the bottom and middle of that year’s Top Ten and dogfight losses to guys in the top three. I wasn’t on it. Then in my 30s I had a nice match here and there and… there I was.
Charlie didn’t just write about local stars, though. He did frequent profiles of people who didn’t even play tournaments. You’d walk by a bank of courts packed with doubles matches and never pick them out for a single one of their strokes, yet Charlie found something noteworthy about them. Then his article came along and made them memorable, possibly the first and only time many had been heralded for anything. Charlie made the year if not the decade, for a lot of people.
Somebody at some tournament – who knows who, where, or when – gave Charlie the nickname, “The Gar,” maybe even, “The Great Gar,” and he ran with it ever after. Vanity license plates, e-addresses, embroidered warmup suits, stenciled racket bags… It inspired him to come up with mottos. (“Be a star, play like The Gar.”) At first sight this could all seem the signs of an ego, but I always thought the true point of the business was self-effacing. “The Gar” – a one-man theater troupe, always in character and mid-scene – developed so this big, accomplished, physically imposing man could put anyone he met instantly at ease and establish a human connection.
Here’s a another thing that came up in the first few seconds of any interchange with Charlie: He was a wise guy. He had more corny jokes than Santa has toys, and he handed them out as liberally. Almost none of them were PC. [Example:
“What’s this: Mark, mark, mark?”
“I’m afraid to ask, Charlie, but… OK, what?”
“A dog with a harelip.”
Charlie made his national splash in racketball, but his lasting impact was on the Buffalo-area tennis community. He was an inveterate student, I might even say, a fan, of local tournaments. He played three times a week into his 80s, and he loved hanging out, watching matches, and shooting breeze with the players. Most of my conversations with him came courtside at tournaments or clubs.
What a library of local legends Charlie was! His tales of matches and personalities were funny, charismatic, and endlessly fascinating. There was the book he should have written: about the last six decades of the Buffalo tennis community, particularly the dawn of the boom, the 60s and 70s.
What impressed me most about Charlie, though, was his humanity. His fellow beings truly meant something to him. I have another personal reason for knowing that. The first year he decided to interview me for a ranking he hunted me up the old-fashioned way, by looking through the phonebook for Winfields. The first one who answered was my beloved grandmother, the inimitable Mabel, who offered him my number and, surely, a few endorsements of her own. Whatever passed between them, Charlie seemed evermore convinced of the fundamental goodness of my character. (“Guy whose grandmother loves him like that… I knew you had to be a fantastic person.” Everybody’s grandmother loves them, Charlie.) I’d have forgotten the whole scenario had he not brought it up in one of our last talks at the Village Glen. The fact that Charlie never forgot a decades’ old conversation with a woman he never met stands out as more of a testament to his nature than mine.
Charlie’s tragic flaw as a writer was connected to his greatest gift as a human being.
Charlie’s tragic flaw as a writer was connected to his greatest gift as a human being. He was so bent on being nice to people he wrote about that he overpraised them all. He had no superlatives left when it came to the really great homegrown players. Take me, again. I was fast and scrappy, but you couldn’t say much about my strokes next to those of most guys on his list. Phrases like “highly regarded” and “superb conditioning” popped into the write-ups.
For some, tennis is no more than a game. For others, including some world class players, it is a business from which they are not pained to retire. Not so for Charlie. I remember spotting him – at 78 – working on his serve with Rob Gregoire, tennis director at the Village Glen. After my own match I found him in the lounge still trying to understand why his serve had lost so much of its former pop – in 1972. (I could have told him: Because your back and your shoulder are as frozen as Hell in February.) But he was out there. You may ask what kept him at it, but I have to agree with what I think he would have said: That tennis is simply the most interesting sport anyone could ever play. There will always be a shot we could have hit better, a stroke we could have improved, and a reason for either that could be understood. Maybe that’s why we had our simpatico, too: We shared that unquenchable thirst. We loved the game.
For some of us, tennis is even more than a game: It is a parable for life. I doubt Charlie would have put it like that, but it can’t be denied that through his columns, his portraits, and his Top Tens, he made local players feel like full participants in the global game and sense something archetypal about their on-court struggles and ultimately their lives.
Charlie and other revered Buffalo-area pros and coaches like Tom Lapenna, Joe DiCarlo, Karen Peterson, Terry McMahon, and the late Bea Massman and Bob Mack are special, too, to our world because of their influence on generations of youth. Their modeling of dedication, sportsmanship, and character go far beyond sport – and will last long after them.
When he wakes into a sunlight on the other side of this, I hope it’s courtside, with a good match – and a new shoulder! – waiting. For Charlie: The Gar. Yes, The Great Gar.
Lead image: Rackets photo by Cristina Anne Costello | Photo of Charlie, courtesy Section VI of NYSPHSAA, Inc.