ST. PETERSBURG — Sam Vuille walks between courts at the St. Petersburg Tennis Center, the sound of bouncing balls on both sides. He grew up with that sound.
A little before noon, it feels like somebody left the oven door open. But people are out there hitting, young and old, smooth-skinned and wrinkled. Every few minutes, someone recognizes Vuille, a teaching pro at St. Petersburg Country Club, and approaches him.
"I'm sorry about your dad," they all say.
Since the 1930s, the soul of Jim Vuille and that of the club have been pretty much one and the same. His sweat sank into its red clay courts, which then rubbed off onto his white shorts and shirt. Mr. Vuille, who might have done more than anyone to promote tennis in the Tampa Bay area, died Sunday. He was 101.
"He is the key person in Bartlett Park's history," said Bob Bushman, who, like Mr. Vuille, was a nationally ranked seniors player for 25 years. "We have a lot of people who have dedicated their lives and time to tennis, but none as instrumental as Jim."
A blessedly air-conditioned front lobby displays mementos of earlier times, with Mr. Vuille's stamp over all of them. A 1937 photo shows him standing in front of the clubhouse at 650 18th Ave. S when it looked more like a tool shed and shared that space with the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club. He is tall and almost gaunt, with keen eyes and jarring cheekbones.
A program mounted in a display case harks back to the 1965 Master's Invitational, which attracted pros like Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and Billie Jean Moffitt to Bartlett Park.
Billie Jean King, as she is now known, would lose an exhibition match at the club to an upstart teenager named Chris Evert, who played her first professional match here.
Out on the covered porch, a dripping 75-year-old holding a racket bounds up the steps to offer condolences. Dennis McDaniel, a member for 40 years, calls Jim Vuille his mentor because of his ageless vigor and an on-court demeanor so deferential it earned him the nickname "Gentleman Jim."
If an opponent's ball painted the line, might have hit the line or went a little past the line, he called it good.
"You don't see that too often," said Bushman, 86. "It just worried him to death. He was afraid he had called one out that might have been good."
Mr. Vuille was born in Huntingdon, Pa., in 1909 and moved to St. Petersburg with his family in 1915. He began playing tennis in 1919 at the Sunshine City Tennis Club at Mirror Lake, where the high bounce off concrete courts contributed to his unconventional grip on the racket.
His "frying pan," or "Western" grip provided a ton of topspin for the opponent to handle, and contrasted with the classic handshake grip that was taught.
"He probably had one of the greatest forehands anywhere," Bushman said. "He just measured that ball, and he could play with some of the best players in the country at that time. The man was phenomenal."
Today, the Western grip is by far the most widely taught grip for young players.
As a senior at St. Petersburg High School in 1926, Mr. Vuille's team won a state championship. He graduated from Cornell University in 1930 with a degree in chemistry and a math minor.
The 1929 stock market crash knocked out the job he had lined up. He operated a speedboat for tourists for several years and did research for Pennsylvania Glass Sand Corp. He served with the Army during World War II in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany as a triage medic, carrying a tennis racket and a can of balls in his backpack. In three years, he had just two opportunities to play.
Mr. Vuille became manager of the St. Petersburg Tennis Center in 1947, the same year he married Janet Sutor. He turned pro a year later and taught at the club until 1952, when he stepped aside. In 1957, Jim and Janet Vuille became the first husband and wife to each win singles titles for the city tournament in the same year.
He joined the seniors ranks officially as a 45-year-old in 1954, and remained one of the country's best amateur players in his age group for the next 50 years. In the 1960s, he was appointed to a task force on red tide and was assigned to study vitamin B12 concentrations in seawater.
A couple of summers, Mr. Vuille, his wife and five children packed up the car and took cross-country camping trips out west.
Mr. Vuille returned as club manager from 1974 to 1984. He remained among the top players in his age group nationally until 2004, when he was ranked eighth in the 90-and-older group. In 2009, the Florida United States Tennis Association inducted Mr. Vuille into its hall of fame.
Folks at the St. Petersburg Tennis Center are adjusting to the loss of Mr. Vuille, a member since 1930.
"Everybody is just shocked because it just seemed like he would go on forever," said general manager Jackie Keeler.
"And he will, I think," she said after a pause. "He will."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.