The tennis wisdom of a groundskeeper & coach: Eugene St. Martin

Sonny Marks / Special to USTA Southern | October 25, 2022

More than 40 years ago, I played tennis at the country club in the Louisiana city where I grew up, Baton Rouge. I got to the consolation finals of my age group in the annual junior championships. My opponent was a younger kid playing up in age, puffing out his chest that he was going to beat me. My brother. I beat him 6-0, 6-0.


The groundskeeper peered at the match through the screen fencing behind the court. Dressed in brown coveralls, he found me after the match to give me congratulations I was not expecting.


“Civil war,” Eugene growled with delight. “I love it!”

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The tennis wisdom of a groundskeeper & coach: Eugene St. Martin, right, by Sonny Marks, left.

It’s decades after that match, and I’m across the net from Eugene St. Martin. We’re not at the country club; he doesn’t work there anymore and I’m not a member anymore. We’re at the public courts down the street from where I grew up, not far from where Eugene lives. The city’s recreation commission named junior courts across town for Eugene, to honor his service to the tennis community.


He looks the way I remember him – white, like me; under 6 feet tall, smaller frame than mine; glasses. Eugene speaks softly but certainly.


His family ran hotels. Eugene went to college, majored in psychology, got a master’s in it. Got a job testing children. Eugene told me he wasn’t good at that job, so he started over at what he knew – hotels. With a master’s degree, he went to the city’s major hotel and got a job as a bellhop, working nights. That left his days free to play tennis.


Eugene played at the public courts, City Park, where there was a singles ladder for men. If you won, you climbed the ladder. “I won very little, if any,” Eugene told me. When he got home after he played, he wrote what worked in his matches and what didn’t.


The hotel gave him a week off during the year. He saved his earnings to travel out of state to attend Dennis Van der Meer’s Tennis University and get certified to teach. Eugene continued working at the hotel, but started teaching lessons also. He taught tennis to a child in the driveway of the apartment complex where they both lived.


Eugene approached the nearby Catholic girls’ high school about teaching at their two courts. And so he began, at 50 cents an hour.

He saw an ad in the newspaper about a job in tennis. Eugene showed up in all whites, and the club pro told him to trim a bush, then tend a flower garden, then work on the clay courts.


“Both winning and losing are fleeting moments,” wrote Eugene in one of his books. “The real thing is that ball coming at me right now and for me to get that ball back over the net and in bounds. To play in the now, in the moment. Just this one ball now.”


Eugene taught tennis in the evenings after he got off work at the country club. He took a train annually to the US Open, mainly to attend the teaching clinics held there. It took him a day and a half to make the trip. He appreciated seeing the low-income parts of cities where the train stations were.


Eugene wrote this prayer in one of his books: “First and foremost do no harm … love each and every student and oneself. Refrain from putting ideas in their heads all the time … Help them to come up with their own solutions. May it be a cooperative effort … a shared mission.


“Teach the fundamentals … go strong on the process. Keep the teaching and coaching in accord with the game itself. Keep it fun and light … The purpose is to help prepare the person for the game … Then get out of the way … let them play … let them see the consequences … let them learn from their participation. Then work with them to help them get back in the game again.

“And thank God at the end of the day for being able to be part of this process.”


Sonny Marks lives in Lake Charles, La., and can be reached at He practices law during the week, and plays tennis on Saturday mornings. For this story, he used excerpts from “More Stories by E.C.” by Eugene St. Martin, which is for sale at Amazon.




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