Throughout the years, Belleville East boys tennis coach Dan Skaer has conducted countless United States Tennis Association youth events as fundraisers for his Lancers program.
None were quite like the one this past weekend on the Belleville East tennis courts.
With her famous parents, legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky and actress Janet Gretzky, watching every point, 14-year-old Emma Gretzky raced through the 14-and-under age group bracket to capture the championship.
“They are very friendly, down to earth people. Janet is very outgoing, and she’ll talk your ear off,” Skaer said. “They were there, and I told Wayne that our girls tennis team was practicing at SWIC and asked him if I had them come over, would he pose for a picture with them? Sure enough when they got back to East, he posed right in the middle with the entire team.”
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Dustin Johnson was there, too. The No. 1 golfer in the latest World Golf Ranking is the fiance of the Gretzkys other daughter, model and pop singer Paulina Gretzky.
Skaer made copies of the pictures and had a couple of hats he wanted Gretzky to sign.
“When I asked, Janet said Wayne would be glad to sign, and then she said Dustin is here, too,” Skaer said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my, it’s Dustin Johnson.’”
Emma Gretzky, meanwhile, cruised through her bracket with ease.
“Emma hasn’t been playing very long, but she’s a nice player. She’s only in the eighth grade, but she would probably play in the top three or four for our girls team,” Skaer said. “Emma is registered to play a national event in St. Louis, and the Gretzkys are in town for a month. They were looking for a warmup event for Emma to play in.”
Janet (Jones) Gretzky is a St. Louis native, while Wayne Gretzky played 18 games with the St. Louis Blues during the 1995-96 season after being traded by the Los Angeles Kings.
Still known as the greatest hockey player of all time, Gretzky scored 894 goals and finished with 2,879 points during his career, which lasted from 1979-99. Gretzky won nine NHL MVP awards.
Skaer said he first got word that Emma Gretzky was interested in playing last Tuesday.
“The deadline was last Monday, but on Tuesday, I got a text from (East) athletic director Mark Larsen telling me he got a call from a lady named Gretzky who wanted to get her daughter in the tournament,” Skaer recalled. “Then, right after that, I got a call from a weird number. I picked it up, and lady didn’t give her name but said she wanted to get her daughter in the event. Well I was in the middle of coaching, and I was a little short with her. I just told her that I was coaching and that she should just send me her email.
“On the way home I got the email and it was from Janet Gretzky. That rang a bell, and when I got home, I Googled the name, and, sure enough, it was her. I’m like, great ... I was short with Janet Gretzky on the phone.”
Skaer then made contact with a tennis professional in St. Louis who verified that the Gretzkys were in St. Louis and wanted to get their daughter in the event.
“I wanted to make sure they (the Gretzkys) knew what they were getting into, so I got their number and texted them. A couple of minutes later, Wayne called me back,” Skaer said. “I just told him that I didn’t know if the tournament would give his daughter the competition he was looking for. He downplayed her ability and said they were looking forward to coming over and playing in the tournament.”
On Saturday morning, Gretzky was there with his wife and golf-playing future son-in-law.