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Star Coach Retrains Redgrave

May 12, 1986|MARRISON MULL | Mull, a UC Berkeley graduate, is a Calendar intern. and

Imagine you're creating tennis ball shish kebab to improve your volley. See the ball as a revolving face, and skin it from chin to forehead on your next groundstroke.

These images, tried on a secluded platform chiseled out of a Malibu cliff, revived a tennis game, dormant for some 30 years, as actress Vanessa Redgrave learned to play tennis like a man.

And also like a man who became a woman.

Just how do you teach an actress to put away a backhand like someone who made the ultimate self-transformation?

There's nothing special about it, according to Forrest Stewart, who primed Redgrave for her role as transsexual tennis player Dr. Renee Richards in "Second Serve" (airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS).

"When you're talking about an actress of her caliber, she can play a tree. She did the toughest shot in tennis--running down a lob with a forehand--on the first take," he said, walking through the shot, and collapsing on his sitting-room floor to show his surprise. "I almost had a heart attack."

This latest assignment won't help Stewart live down a reputation he's held as "the coach of the stars" since he set up shop on Janet Leigh's Beverly Hills court after college and had a short, unhappy stint as a stockbroker. Stewart also used to street-race with Paul Newman and with his once-best friend Ricky Nelson (who got him spots on "The Ozzie and Harriet Show" during his UCLA tennis team days). He also was the personal pro of producer Bob Evans.

But now the 48-year-old health addict spurns the celebrity life style he gave up 13 years ago and darts around the tennis court in a baseball cap. His priorities now are teaching promising junior players and marveling at his two toddler sons, whom he worships with paternal awe. His teaching time is scheduled around them, but Hollywood's big names still meet him for tips at a Brentwood court he borrows from TV producer Roy Huggins.

It was five of his students, executives at Lorimar-Telepictures, who did the matchmaking for Stewart and Redgrave. He not only coached the star and her opponents but also served as the tennis technical adviser, choreographing the tennis scenes and camera angles and conducting every "boo" and "ah" of the tournament crowds as they reacted to the new Richards.

Though a double filled in for Redgrave on some long shots, 90% of the movie's six tennis scenes (three as Richards, three as the more aggressively played former Richard Raskind, in the film renamed to Richard Radley) are Redgrave. Six weeks of tennis, plus some weight training, turned Redgrave's "flamboyant, cumbersome" British game into a competitive-looking performance, Stewart said.

The right-handed Redgrave was so intent on looking authentic that she initially wanted to learn to play left-handed, as Richards does, but the producers told her not to worry about it, Stewart said.

It helped that Stewart, a former national amateur circuit player, knows the styles of Renee Richards and the former Raskind, who played with Stewart in a Forest Hills tournament a year before the sex operation.

Although she's "a natural player," getting Redgrave into shape took strategy, said Stewart, who also tuned up Robert Culp's game for 1967's TV series "I Spy."

"She played 35 years ago," Stewart said. "She smokes. She could only play five minutes at a time. If you're going out on the court for a couple of hours, you need to be in really good condition. My whole idea was to make sure she didn't get hurt in any way. I wanted to ease her into it."

Nevertheless, Redgrave did injure herself, pulling a groin muscle after taking two weeks off from her training to do Shakespeare in Australia, and then injuring the quadricep of the other leg.

"She's playing this real injured," he said, running the show's tennis scenes on a video machine that he used to critique her strokes while chatting with her about the style of their mutual tennis idol, John McEnroe.

Stewart has no time to teach people who aren't motivated. He turns away "haters," his term for youngsters who throw their rackets after missed balls, victims of pressuring and manipulating parents and coaches. He didn't need to alter his "m.o.," as he calls it, to assist the perfectionist Redgrave.

"She never once asked to stop except when very tired. She would take lessons after two hours of sleep, at 5:30 in the morning, and hit balls between scenes. She put her heart and soul into it. How can you not enjoy somebody when they do that?"

Though Redgrave probably won't have time to continue playing tennis, Stewart doesn't believe his efforts are wasted. "She brought out the best in me, and I'll always remember her for that," he said. "She confirmed that I really understand the learning process.

"She knows I'm as serious about my work as she is about hers. We take a task that's impossible and know we're going to do it. It happened."

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