APOLLO BEACH — He loved the game, but he couldn't play it.
Dipnarine Maharaj worked as a ball boy on tennis courts in a British subdivision during his childhood in Trinidad. Racism blocked his desire to play on the courts, but not his passion for the game.
"We were not allowed to play there because it was all white. No nonwhites,'' Maharaj said, matter-of-factly.
So he and friends developed their skills by playing in the street, using boards as rackets and pretending that a net divided the "court.''
When he grew up and made enough money, he built his own courts himself and taught his seven children to play. He taught them well. Their tennis prowess earned six of the children college scholarships. Two sons and a daughter are ranked by the U.S. Professional Tennis Association.
Maharaj is 93 years old now and still teaches several times a week. He's been an instructor at Apollo Beach Recreation Center since the mid 1980s.
A jovial man with an easy laugh, a devout Hindu of Indian descent, he radiates happiness. "Dip,'' as everyone calls him, no longer darts about the court. He stands in one spot and hits balls, making his students dart about the court.
"His placement is dead on,'' said Trish Pendry, 55, a nurse who wants to develop skills enough to play the game with her husband, David. She was chasing shots delivered by Maharaj on a recent day. As she did, the pro called out instructions in a cheerful tone.
"Left foot, left side. Circle back that racket. Left foot, left side. Again, Trish. Move in, Trish. All right,'' he calls.
"He's very patient and quite obviously knows what he's doing,'' Pendry said.
Maharaj himself was in his 30s when he was first able to play on real tennis courts — the ones he built himself.
It took years of work to reach that goal. He first got a job as a mechanic in the motor pool when the United States built an Air Force base there during World War II.
He saved his money and, when the base closed after the war, started his own repair shop, then bought a tow truck business, then taxicabs, then a BP gas station.
By the mid 1950s, he was able to buy some property. He built a tennis court even before the house went up. He cleared and leveled the ground, spread the sand and then put down the asphalt. He put up lights so the family could play at night after he got home from work. A year later, he built a clay court so his children could practice for tournaments on both.
In the 1970s, he and his wife, Banmati, started spending six months each year in the U.S. to visit their children. They became full-time residents when they got their U.S. citizenship in the early 1980s. They returned to Trinidad on visits, but Maharaj has not been back since his wife died in 2008.
"Too many memories,'' he said.
Maharaj says he doesn't know how long he will continue teaching. "My time is getting very near the end,'' he said.
The end of work? No, "generally,'' he said, and laughed.
He theorizes that teaching may be what keeps him going. He said he finds such gratification in seeing his students improve. And the fact that he spent a lifetime of cardio workouts on tennis courts may be another reason he keeps on going.
"If you look back into history, you will see, racket sports give you a longer life.''
Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.