It was chilly in downtown Long Beach, but no night is too cold for Robert Abatiell and Rick Kiessling to take to the Drake Park tennis courts in their wheelchairs and hit worn, faded balls for hours under dim lights.
With an enthusiasm that seemed to betoken high hopes for the sport they have played for less than two years, the pair polished strokes last week that they had learned in a tennis class for the handicapped at Long Beach City College.
Both compete in national handicapped tennis tournaments--Kiessling, 41, in his manual chair in the paraplegic division, and Abatiell, 36, in his electric chair in the quadriplegic division. Abatiell was the top novice quad player in the country in 1990.
They practice at the underused park--a pocket along Loma Vista Drive near 10th Street and adjacent to the Los Angeles River--after wheeling over from the Beachwood Apartments, a complex for handicapped people, about six blocks away.
Far beyond the high fence that surrounds the two courts, the sloping Palos Verdes Peninsula loomed in the sunset's pink aftermath. "We joke that we can see Pete Sampras practicing," Kiessling said, referring to the pro player who lives there.
But the view in the middle distance, of warehouses and refineries, was as devoid of glamour as the courts themselves, which were littered with cigarette butts, marked with graffiti and divided by chain nets.
"This is an unpopular location for tennis enthusiasts, so it's kind of an advantage for us," Abatiell said. "And it's close to where we live."
From the window of an apartment building that overlooks the courts, a heckler used to harass the two players.
"He was scary," recalled Kiessling. "He had jailhouse tattoos. One day he loaded his car up with musical equipment and more musical equipment and more musical equipment, and he left. We never saw him again. It's been pretty peaceful ever since."
Kiessling, a former warehouse worker who was paralyzed when struck by an out-of-control car while sitting on the grass in a Los Angeles park eight years ago, was the first of the two friends to take up tennis. He attended the community college class about two years ago, then tried to get Abatiell interested.
He would tape a racket to Abatiell's hand so that Abatiell could hit balls in his hallway. "I don't have a grip; my hands are totally paralyzed," said Abatiell, a Poly High School graduate and former surfer whose spinal cord was severed in a 1975 car crash in Mexico.
When they first began playing at Drake Park, Abatiell, a slender man, said he could barely get the ball to the net. But now his topspin forehand shots clear it easily and sail deep, past opponents who can't catch up with the ball even with the two bounces that handicapped tennis allows.
After playing under Kiessling's tutelage for about four months, Abatiell also took the LBCC class and benefited greatly.
"This guy's really cleaning up," Kiessling said.
In 1990, Abatiell won six quadriplegic tournaments, including the U.S. Open at Irvine. At Pasadena, in his first tournament, he reached the finals in an open division against much more experienced players. Accompanied on the road by Lydia Hankins, his private nurse, he also won events in Reno, Nev., and Albuquerque, N.M.
"My gosh, I've done amazingly well," he said the other night as he strapped onto his right arm the specially designed prosthesis on which his racket handle is mounted. "I've been told I'm more of a power player. But I'm so new, I just play. I finish and it's kind of a blur. I can't really assess my game."
Kiessling, who is sometimes Abatiell's doubles partner, finished second in the novice paraplegic division at Pasadena last year and won a consolation tournament in Huntington Beach. "Hey, I got a trophy for it, what the heck," he said.
Both are pleased with the benefits of their new sport. "This is good for the health, just being out in the fresh air and moving around," Kiessling said, though the air is not always fresh with the refineries so close.
Until discovering tennis, both men's physical activity was confined mainly to just "pushing" in their chairs along the streets. Now they are on the court for up to five hours at a time.
"You've got to be a fanatic if you want to be any good," Abatiell said. His fanaticism extends to redesigning his chair so that it is more maneuverable. He's had the arm rests cut off, smaller tires put on and holes drilled in the frame to so that the chair is lighter. "A slim-line tank," he said.
Abatiell said he is grateful to Kiessling. "Here he is, a paraplegic with so much more strength and ability, and here I am a quad, slower and weaker. Yet he has the patience and time to encourage me. I owe a lot to Rick."
Abatiell also has patience and the gift of encouragement, as he showed last Sunday afternoon, working as assistant activities director at the Royal Care Skilled Nursing Facility, a home for elderly handicapped people next to Pacific Hospital.
No longer in his hooded sweat shirt and tennis shoes, Abatiell wore a madras shirt and loafers as he maneuvered in and around the other wheelchairs that formed the daily after-nap traffic jam in the dining room doorway.
Women, some old enough to remember traveling by covered wagon, listened to his kind words and looked at him with admiration.
"They seem to take a liking to me," Abatiell said. "I try to be a friend to them."
He would leave them in a couple of hours, wheel over to the bus stop or maybe to the Blue Line for the 20-block trip home. And then he would head over to the tennis courts, where, of course, Kiessling would be waiting.