By Eric Schuster
"I started playing tennis on red clay when I was three," recalls Chevy Chase. "And then I moved onto grass when I was well into my, oh … fours."
From that early, multi-surface exposure to the sport, Chase, 66, has kept his feet firmly planted in tennis throughout his life. Hired in 1975 by Saturday Night Live as one of its original writers, Chase rapidly rose to national prominence with his distinctive, and often physical, comedic performances. As a writer and actor, Chase has compiled a body of work that has left an indelible mark in the world of entertainment, and from the beginning, tennis has made an indelible mark upon him.
It was Chase’s father, the late Edward (Ned) Chase, himself a talented writer and editor, who introduced young Chevy to tennis, providing a tie that would bind the two men together.
"You don’t see your father much, but when you do it’s going to be on a tennis court," Chevy recalls. "My dad was a total racquets guy, a very good tennis player… always winning. And I never knew another fan like him."
In fact, one of Chase’s fondest early memories is riding the subway with his father out to Forest Hills to watch the 1962 U.S. Championships men’s final between Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, only to discover Emerson riding along in the same car alongside them. "My father thought Roy was the best," Chase says. "And there he was. ... It was exciting to see [Emerson], but at the time, my teenage thoughts were mainly on, you know … girls."
As the years passed, Chase would bring his father to the US Open whenever he could, and he names the memorable 2001 quarterfinal match between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras as one of their favorites. "I still love going to the US Open, more than anywhere else, to see tennis," he says.
Today, Chase has passed on the love of tennis that he inherited from his father to his wife of 28 years, trailblazing environmental activist Jayni Chase.
"I love playing tennis," says Jayni, who co-created the groundbreaking Center for Environmental Education in 1988, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to schools to help educate teachers and students about the environment, climate change, greener facilities and sustainable lifestyles.
"Most of the time, Chevy wants to play a ‘boys’ game more than with me…but when we go out to play, we always have a great time and laugh," she says.
"Our three daughters learned to play as kids," she adds. "We put a court on our property shortly after we moved (to upstate N.Y. in 1995). We took very few trees out!"
Jayni, whose more recent endeavors extend to combating childhood obesity, also recognizes some additional perks to the sport. "You’re not only getting important exercise, but you’re outdoors and communicating with nature," she says.
Chevy, who also champions many of the causes that infuse his wife’s life, credits Jayni for passing along her "activist vision" to him, something that she inherited from her father. Although he admits, "I certainly didn’t start dating her because she couldn’t wait to green a school!"
Busy nowadays starring in NBC’s hit sitcom "Community" and refining his craft as an avid jazz pianist, Chase hasn’t been playing as much tennis as he would like, due in part to a hip replacement in 2005. But when he’s on the court, he still enjoys himself as much as he ever did.
"I’m actually better with lateral movement on the court because of that hip operation," he says. "I know the strokes, I know the game, I know every move and I know how to make those moves. It’s always a question of practice and doing it over and over. "I’m 66 years old, but I now feel like … 60."