Tapping the Keg (16 December 1975)

It was 23 years ago, at the age of 68, that Jeremiah A. (Jerry) Counihan began thinking about plans for the “tennis match of the century” in 1984. He was to have been the principal  in that match, called by him the “century” battle because he would have been 100 years old then.

Later, when he was in 70s and playing better than ever, Jerry expanded his plans to a series. Instead of just one match, he would participate in an even 100 – starting in Florida, going into Western Pennsylvania and winding up in Cumberland. The climax, according to his long—range arrangements, would be played in Cumberland at the Garlitz courts. Jerry’s opponent in this one was to have been Joe Garlitz who will fall short of the century mark in 1984 by six years.

None of those 100 anniversary matches will be played, however, as Jerry Counihan, a man who didn’t start playing tennis until he was 52, died here Saturday at the age of 91 and was laid to rest this morning.

It was with tongue in cheek that Jerry, a retired insurance man, with typical Irish wit, began lining up his opponents for 1984. Just about everyone he asked to meet him in ’84 accepted the offer in the spirit in which it was made. No man, of course, is master of his own destiny but all of Jerry’s challengers liked the idea of still being alive when he would have been 100.

Jerry Counihan, while kidding about the 100 matches in his 100th year of life, was very serious about the net sport once he got started. In fact, he was playing  tournament tennis at 68. In the Pittsburgh Parks Tournament of 1952 Jerry won his first two singles matches but it was the third, the one he lost, that turned out to be most memorable for him.

As he was walking of the court following the defeat, Mr. Counihan was stopped by a man he did not at first recognize who offered his congratulations. “Why compliment me?” Jerry asked, pointing out that he was the loser, not the winner.

“I’m aware that you lost,” replied the stranger. “I watched the entire match. Your opponent was too fast for you but at your age you gave him a great game.”

The man turned out to be Julius Boise who at that time had been tennis professional at the Allegheny Country Club in Pittsburgh for 40 years. “Such a compliment from a man who knew so much about the sport was a great tonic for me,” Jerry was to explain later.

The ego building congratulations came just a couple of months after Jerry Counihan took his first tennis lessons at the age of 68. This was in Florida, 16 years after he had taken up the game in Cumberland.

While watching a match in the winter of 1952 in Florida, Jerry was so impressed with the play of one of the participants that he decided to learn more about the man. Told that his name was Russell Harned, pro at the duPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., Jerry lost no time in looking him up. As he put it, “I asked him if he could teach an old man to play the game.”

Harned was far from being enthusiastic about filling his request. “I won’t know if I can teach you until we hit to each other,” the pro confided. After about 30 minutes or so of stroking the ball back and forth, Harned was even more discouraging.

“I have never had much success in teaching a person as old as you,” the pro frankly stated. “Besides, just about everything you do is wrong. Getting you to change your style at this age will be mighty tough. I don’t think you would want to waste your money on lessons.”

Mr. Counihan, his Irish stubbornness showing through, was determined to prove Harned’s prophecy false. Harned was impressed with the determination of “Wrong Way Counihan” and finally relented, but informed Jerry he could give him only three lessons before returning home.

Changing his stroke and other techniques, Harned told his pupil prior to departing, “Don’t go back to your old ways even if you think you can win. It may take a year to catch on to the correct forehand stroke but don’t worry about it. You’ll get it if you practice.”

His showing in the open Pittsburgh tourney was proof that he practiced a great deal. Harned was apparently quite pleased with the way Jerry came around and as a result of those three lessons the two men became lasting friends. In fact, Jerry penned a long letter of recommendation that helped Harned land a profitable position with World Tennis in New York.

While Jerry’s enthusiasm never wavered as he advanced in years, physical fate dealt him an unkind blow. Arthritis caught up with him and while it didn’t exactly knock him off the courts, it prevented him from playing.  As his condition worsened his activity was restricted to standing in one place and exchanging shots with anyone who would hit to him.

In his boyhood days, Jerry played baseball and football in Frostburg. He was a lineman on the Crescent AC team that battled the highly—favored Frostburg Normal (now Frostburg State College) to a scoreless tie in 1903.

Source: J. Suter Kegg’s Tapping the Keg, Cumberland Evening Times, Cumberland, Maryland, 16 December 1975, p. 13.

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