Words by Terrell Manasco | Images by Blakeney Cox
A blazing red-hot demon lurks overhead in the cloudless sky.
Each inhalation of the sweltering Alabama air is like gulping liquid fire into your lungs.
Grant Rolley settles into a chair under a shaded deck outside his office and flashes a grin underneath his white French Foreign Legion-style hat, his pearly whites gleaming like the snow caps of Kilimanjaro. With a martini-dry wit, he talks about tennis, drugs, beer, and how a guy from Wisconsin landed in Jasper as the Musgrove Country Club tennis pro.
Originally born in Milwaukee, Grant grew up in Minocqua. “Minocqua is a small town, actually an island of about five thousand people in northern Wisconsin,” he explains. “In the summer it’s about twenty-five to thirty thousand because everybody has lakes and resorts and camps.”
When Grant was thirteen, his father died of alcoholism at thirty-seven. Growing up, his primary influences were the loud, raucous, beer-chugging rebel types, like his basketball team mates at Lakeland High School. “The other day I was thinking, on the freshman team two guys are dead, I went to rehab, another guy went to rehab, one guy’s in federal prison and another guy took his family business and lost everything,” Grant says. “Those were the type guys I grew up with, kind of a rough, tough crowd, and there was a lot of drinking.”
Lakeland had no tennis team, so Grant and his buddies came up with a unique strategy. “One guy had a deep voice and he would call other athletic departments and say, (imitates a gruff, deep voice) ‘You wanna play our tennis team?’ We’d get a case of beer and drive the station wagon to play these teams. We won six matches, so that’s how we got started,” he says.
Public courts became their venue for financing beer runs by playing tourists. “We only had two courts in our town so that’s how we started hustling money,” he says. “We were good enough to play rich people from Chicago for ten bucks, so we had money for drinking beer. That’s how we kinda rolled.”
Grant’s high school senior year was at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam. Any illusions he had of sharing a campus with naive, innocent, Stepford robots was shattered the first day. “There was so much pot being smoked there,” he says. “The first day there was a guy smoking in the bathroom while my mom was making up the bed.” Grant managed to avoid being caught, but one friend wasn’t so lucky. “My roommate got kicked out with a week to go, so that was kind of a bummer, kind of a sad day,” he says.
Wayland is also where Grant’s official education in tennis fundamentals began. “I’ll never forget the first day, my mom told the tennis coach, ‘My son’s pretty good in tennis,’ and he said, ‘Lady, just move on, I’ve heard that for years,’ but he winked at me and said ‘Come see me,’” Grant recalls. “The first question he asked me was, ‘Do you know what the Continental Grip is?’and I said, ‘The United States?’ Grant was then given an assignment. “He said, ‘I want you to sit in your dorm room and learn how to volley off the wall, and come see me in a month.’ That coach was really good. He knew what buttons to push.”
In 1977 he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, but dropped out two weeks later after not attending a single class. He re-enrolled the following January but the coach wouldn’t let him play. Grant showed up one night at the next practice – after imbibing a few cold beverages. “I drank about fifteen beers,” he says. “The coach said, ‘You’ve got one ten game pro-set. If you win, you’re number twelve, you’re on the team.’ I didn’t want to tell him I’d drank a bunch of beers, so I got down like nine to one, came back and beat the guy eleven to ten.”
Grant soon rose from number twelve to number five. When the number one player, a guy named Bob Wolfman, lost his tennis partner due to a broken ankle, Grant was chosen to replace him. “Wolfman announced that he wanted to play with ‘The Walk-On’, (Grant’s new nickname) so all of a sudden I was playing number one doubles. It was quite an honor to play with him,” he says.
After Grant and his buddies got into some trouble his last year for stealing the school van, getting drunk and showing up late for a tournament, he was told he couldn’t play. He packed up and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, but returned to Wisconsin that summer. He was making a hundred dollars a day, as a private coach for a businessman and his family, more than enough to finance his indulgences. “Usually me and the kid would go get high,” Grant says.
Then, after flying under the radar for years, Grant’s luck ran out when he got the first of two DUIs. They said, ‘You can lose your license for a year or go to rehab for thirty days.’”
After a month of rehab in Florida, Grant worked at Bonaventure Resort in Ft. Lauderdale. Three years later he was back in rehab. He was also broke and homeless.
“After the second rehab, I didn’t have any money,” he says. “I had no place to go, and they had a guest cabin for four people. They said I was not allowed to sleep in there, so I pulled a box up outside next to the air conditioner, and I slept in a box for about a week. I finally realized it would be wiser not to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
In July 1989, while coaching tennis in Tampa, Grant got a call from the tennis pro at Musgrove, asking if he was interested in the job. Grant declined, but the next day his boss told him he was selling the club and gave him a thousand dollars. After interviewing with Musgrove, Grant was Alabama bound.
“The first year I coached the team here, we were second in state. We beat Mountain Brook, Vestavia, all of them, right?” Grant says. “I won thirteen men’s doubles titles and the mixed doubles once with Lynn Moseley.” He has also helped Walker High School’s tennis team since 1989 with eleven championships. Several of Walker’s players have received college tennis scholarships.
In 2002, Grant started having serious health issues. “I’d walk around and then I’d just take a nap, and I had these major headaches.” After a biopsy, doctors diagnosed him with neurosarcadoisis, a condition in which inflammation occurs in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the nervous system. “My brain wasn’t draining, and the day they were gonna put a shunt in, my appendix ruptured,” he says, pulling up his shirt to reveal a long, dark pink scar on his stomach and chest.
Grant underwent brain surgery at UAB Hospital and stayed forty-six days. “It took me awhile. I had to relearn all my strokes, had to reconnect all the pathways, ” he says.
Nowadays Grant still plays doubles occasionally, but basically coaches and gives lessons. His students have ranged from age three to ninety-one. “For me, tennis is a footwork game. Everyone is focused on strokes, but if you can’t run, you can’t really play tennis. Footwork is the most important thing,” he says.
Grant keeps in touch with many former students, even coaching some of them in areas that have nothing to do with their grip or backswing. “I always help the ones who have family problems,” he says. “I’ve mentored several people with addictions. I love my players and the competitive part of sports. I love the players who work hard and put the time into the game.”
He has also stayed in contact with two people who he says have had a tremendous impact on his life. The first is a lady named Rere Boudreaux. “She helped raise me, and she gave me my first racket. She is eighty-eight and lives in Minacqua. We talk twice a week,” Grant says. The other is Charlie Owens. “He’s my tennis idol. Playing with him in two national tournaments has been the highlight of my tennis playing career. He is uniquely cool and I have gained a wealth of knowledge from him,” Grant says.
Among all his trophies, titles, undergoing brain surgery, and three rotator cup surgeries on his right shoulder, there is one accomplishment he considers his tour de force.
“I’ve been clean for thirty-one years,” he says. 78