AGOSTINI: Modesto tennis legend Teves lived life by example

ModestoJuly 6, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textRon Agostini
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Sports
    Bio: Ron Agostini has served as a sports reporter and columnist for The Bee for more than 35 years. His stories and columns have won state-wide, regional and national awards and he's a board director and past president of the California Golf Writers and Broadcasters Association. He's a graduate of Fresno State.
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To fully appreciate the life of Dan Teves, one must know where he came from.

That would be the ghetto of Lima, Peru.

It's also instructional to know where his life ended — in Modesto, the patriarch of a family which included five children, eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

How did he journey from there to here, from abject poverty in South America to success in the USA as a tennis player, teacher and coach? About 200 attended Teves' funeral service last week, and they paid tribute to a true original, a man who treated long odds like an easy put-away volley.

"My dad always said, 'Don't sweat the small stuff,'" said his son Danny Teves Jr. "He never let things get him down. He made people feel good and happy around him. His life was an example."

He died at age 78, only a few months after he won his last age-group tournament. As he promised, he gave the trophy to one of his great grandchildren. Basically, he didn't leave the court until stomach cancer claimed him. In fact, he's still ranked No. 2 in Northern California in the men's open 75 singles.

The guys at the Modesto Fitness and Racquet Club always knew what to expect from Teves — a tough match, a few laughs, and, always, the ball flying back at you.

"The spirit of the club has sagged the last few weeks. It's like we're in mourning," said Mark Fairchilds, the racquet club's director of tennis. "Dan brought life to everyone."

Teves' strokes were smooth, his legs were quick and his competitive genes burned. This week's temperatures wouldn't have bothered him. He loved the heat. He also loved to win. He dominated local age-group divisions for about three decades.

"When you came to the net against Dan, you had to be ready for the ball coming down the line, forehand or backhand," said Jack Bracken, the Modesto Junior College tennis coach from 1971 to 2003. "He was so steady from the baseline. I had to come to the net, or he'd win every rally."

Teves is a member of the MJC Hall of Fame because he didn't lose a singles match for the Pirates in 1957 and '58. Later, he went undefeated in singles at Wyoming.

Fred Earle, the prolific MJC coach, somehow lured Alex Olmedo from Peru to the valley. Tennis historians remember Olmedo, who won Wimbledon and the Australian Open in 1959, four years after he crushed everyone he faced at MJC.

But before he departed Modesto, Olmedo told Earle about another Peruvian player he should pursue — Teves.

As a kid no older than 11 or 12, Teves lived not far away from Club Tennis Las Terrazas (which still exists) in Miraflores, a Lima district. He often would retrieve the balls that flew over the club fences. Soon he became a ballboy and, after he salvaged a damaged racquet from a barrel, he banged balls against a wall for a whole year.

It was just the wall and him. He'd listen to the club pros during their lessons and apply what he learned to that wall. His passion for the game grew.

When he arrived in Modesto, he had nothing. For a while, he slept in a local laundramat for $10 a month. He told his son about the sting of discrimination he felt from time to time.

But Teves also understood the big picture. Tennis, of all things, was his vehicle out of Lima and into America. He refused to be defeated by the era's bigotry. To him, it was just another opponent. If he persevered, he would win.

"He was so thankful to the people who helped him, and he also loved Modesto," Teves Jr. said. "That's why he came back (after school)."

When he returned, he touched the lives of roughly 10,000 students as a Spanish teacher and coach at Roosevelt Junior High and Downey High. He also started a soccer program at Roosevelt and was active in local semi-pro soccer. MJC students learned English from him as a second language from 1972 to '96.

Simply, Teves made a difference. Many former students or players attended the funeral and heard beautiful words from Vanessa, his youngest daughter.

Unable to make the trip was Olmedo, a resident of Southern California. Though he and Teves were not MJC teammates, they struck a long friendship. From junior competition in Peru to Modesto, they shared the same bridge. The two played tennis and had dinner together last spring, not long before Teves' pain began.

"We kept in touch through visits and phone calls," Olmedo said. "It's a sad thing. The last time I saw him, he looked great. Dan was a very good man."

Only a few family members stood near Teves' casket as it was lowered to the ground. Appropriately, he had been buried in his tennis outfit with his favorite racquet. But something was missing — a tennis ball.

"I dropped a ball into the grave, and it bounced off the casket, out of the deep hole and onto the grass near our feet," Teves Jr. said. "I took the ball again and dropped it, and it bounced out again."

The group laughed. Of course, it did. The man wanted one last rally.

You still couldn't get the ball past Dan Teves.

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter @modbeesports.

 

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