To Serve Mankind

On a recent afternoon, 25-year-old tennis pro Nabile Taslimant stood next to a clay court at Town Tennis, an unmarked club on East 56th Street, gloomily observing one of the tragic pantomimes of his profession. On the adjacent court, a weary-looking pro was intentionally losing to an old man who had demanded a match.

After the old man lifted a limp backhand to the pro’s forehand corner, the pro took a few steps and stabbed weakly at the ball, missing it completely. The old man puffed out his chest, pounding it with his fist. The pro smiled lamely, hung his head and clapped his racket with his hand. “Look at that guy,” Mr. Taslimant said with a shudder. “That’s my idea of hell.”

Mr. Taslimant doesn’t wear sunglasses or take off his Polo shirt while he’s teaching. He’s only ranked 1,300th in the world–in doubles– and he refuses to sleep with clients. But over the past two summers, he has become the most sought-after tennis coach in the Hamptons, where a quality backhand can get you into the Meadow Club–even if it can’t get you in the Meadow Club. With his rumpled charm, Mr. Taslimant has managed to navigate a world where one pissed-off client can mean the difference between getting $25 an hour to teach Junior the Continental grip at the public playground and $100 to trade forehands with machers on Daniels Lane.

In his former life as a Florida tennis bum, Mr. Taslimant lobbed balls at the Williams sisters for free pizza. Now he counts among his clients Peggy Siegal, Adam Lindemann, Spencer Segura (son of tennis great Pancho Segura), Nina Griscom, New York Times writer Rick Marin and countless others along the Palm Beach-Southampton axis who consider themselves too important to be mentioned in an article about their tennis pro.

“The clients I’ve been able to teach have generally stayed with me,” Mr. Taslimant said as he waited for his next student at Town Tennis, where he works part-time. “I think I give them something that they don’t normally get. I work on them as if I was working with a pro.”

Mr. Taslimant identifies his student’s weaknesses early on and then drills them relentlessly. In return, he is briefly allowed into an influential circle–not an insignificant thing for someone who has aspirations beyond the court.

“I’m done pretty soon with teaching tennis,” Mr. Taslimant said. “My goal right now is to be an analyst. A dream would be to work at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs. And then my clients will hook me up. I’ve put out hints all over the place, and no one will take them.

“Even before I was playing tennis, I wanted to be an office tycoon,” he continued. “Nine to five. No, not even–I wanted to be Richard Branson. That’s my dream. Why not? When you see guys in that position, there’s always something that they did before. If I have my way, I’d rather pay $100 or $200 for a lesson than give the lesson. Because if I’m in the position where I can pay $200 for a lesson, then I’m in good shape.”

So far, those who pay him $100 a lesson think he’s worth it. “He simplified my stroke and made it significantly better,” said Wall Street securities manager Mike Marchassalla. “He really does try to focus on your weaknesses versus just hitting with you.” Asked if he knew that Mr. Taslimant wants to be a banker, he–like other clients asked–was surprised, but said, “I think he’d be great on Wall Street. He’s got great contacts and great people skills. He’s intense yet detailed at what he does.”

Philmore Anderson, vice president of marketing at Columbia Records, said, “He’s bringing my game back to where it was back in my high-school days.”

By the time 10-year-old student Will Bancroft, son of the socially active Bill and Debbie Bancroft, gets to high school, he should be beating the crap out of his peers. After six months with Mr. Taslimant, he’s noticed a dramatic improvement. “He’s funny and he’s a good teacher,” young Mr. Bancroft said. “He’s much harder than the other coaches: He gives me tough shots and I have to run to get them.”

And though he may spend an inordinate amount of time with bored women in white skirts, Mr. Taslimant draws the service line at the court. “My rule is no extracurricular activity at all,” he said, his jaw flexing. “None. I’ve had plenty of opportunities, but I’ve wussed out every time. On purpose. Because, in my view, once you hook up with your client, the whole relationship becomes different.”

Courting Favor

With no permanent club affiliation, Mr. Taslimant has to think on his feet, either taking on students who have their own court or a club membership, arranging doubles games on other people’s courts, or leading them on outer-borough field trips to public courts in such exotic locales as Sunnyside, Queens. Mr. Taslimant spends his winters in Palm Beach, crashing with friends and playing with the same bunch he’ll teach again in the Hamptons come summer, when he lives in Elmhurst, Queens, with his parents. For two to three months each spring, he plays the International Tennis Federation Tour in Morocco.

Weekends, Mr. Taslimant can be found tooling around the Hamptons in his brother’s battered 1996 BMW with a basket of balls, a cell phone and a big black Filofax with clients’ numbers scribbled throughout the pages as he scrambles to hook up courts for his clients. (He’s currently looking for a personal assistant to help him with his “disorganized” state.) He stays at the home of nightclub owner Noah Tepperberg, where, if he’s lucky, he sometimes gets a bed to sleep in.

One recent Friday, Mr. Taslimant found himself in a pinch particular to the life of a freelance tennis pro: He had a lesson scheduled with a big-shot financier named Bill, but no court to give it on. So Mr. Taslimant had to hustle. He enlisted the help of a student, Shing Tao, a hedge-fund manager who was in the Hamptons for the weekend and who’d mentioned that he had a friend with a court. Completing the next day’s foursome would be Mr. Segura.

To cement the transaction, Mr. Taslimant showed Mr. Tao a night on the Hamptons. Through Mr. Tepperberg, Mr. Taslimant–clad in black jeans and a blue striped Oxford shirt–got private tables at his clubs, Conscience Point and Jet East, where the managers all know him. Although Mr. Taslimant didn’t get Mr. Tao laid, he did get the court. (It should be noted that Mr. Taslimant parlayed his bed at Mr. Tepperberg’s into some action with a bleary-eyed party girl who showed up at 5 in the morning, whose name he couldn’t quite remember, but who was really, really psyched to have somewhere to sleep.)

On the morning of the lesson, Mr. Taslimant was late. And lost.

“I think I should have made a right on Main Street,” he said as he guided the BMW around a sand dune. “I think it’s the first right. Actually, you know what? I think it’s supposed to be off of Daniels Lane.” He glanced at the dashboard clock. “I’m 15 minutes late,” he said. “We should be all right. I told them I was going to be late to get balls.”

A bald man in a silver BMW convertible sped down Daniels Lane in the opposite direction.

“Is that Bill? Is that Bill?” Mr. Taslimant fretted.

Venus, Serena … and Nabile

The son of Moroccan immigrants, Mr. Taslimant grew up in Queens and attended the Dwight School in Manhattan. He realized his talent for tennis early. During high school, he was sponsored by a Kuwaiti businessman, a friend of his parents. He played on the International Tennis Federation junior circuit for three years, taking a year off in 1992 before enrolling at Michigan State University to attend the Rick Macy tennis camp in Florida. It was there that he got his first big break, when he was chosen to be the hitting partner for Venus and Serena Williams, then just two bratty unknown tennis prodigies with a crazy father.

Under Mr. Macy’s and Richard Williams’ tutelage, Mr. Taslimant learned how well hard work and discipline can pay off. The grizzled tennis gurus offered Mr. Taslimant a free dinner at Pizza Hut if he could beat Venus 0-0. Another activity consisted of standing Serena at the net while Mr. Taslimant nailed forehands at her. “If I hit her, I got a T-shirt,” he said–a reward system that apparently still drives him today.

Meanwhile, Mr. Taslimant’s own tennis career was on hold. “I could have had better coaching and I could have had a little more attention,” he said. “Things didn’t work out the way I hoped. But there’s a lot of intangibles. Parents, coaching–everything has to be in its right place to be successful.” He didn’t find success as a professional, but he soon found it as a pro.

“I heard that you could do it–that you could teach at people’s houses in the Hamptons,” Mr. Taslimant said. “I thought that sounded cool. You see lots of houses and you meet a lot of people.” Beginning in 1997, he spent his first few summers knocking on strangers’ doors and going to tennis shops, even teaching children.

His first entrée was through Westhampton tennis-shop owner Matt Levy, who recommended Mr. Taslimant to a local couple. Then he landed Randy Schindler, founder of Hamptons magazine. Soon after, publicist Peggy Siegal was on board. Then Nina Griscom. And suddenly, Mr. Taslimant was the hottest thing on the beach–even without playing the Williams-sisters card.

“He’s turned his tennis into a business,” said Mr. Tepperberg. “He’s traveled the world and met a lot of interesting people. I’ve been really impressed with people I’ve met through Nabile.”

Back in Southampton, Mr. Taslimant finally found the house where Bill and Mr. Tao were impatiently waiting. Five women in gray uniforms made preparations for lunch.

On the court, Bill stretched against the net and complained about a groin injury he’d sustained playing golf the day before. The three warmed up as they waited for Mr. Segura, who showed up 45 minutes later.

“Where the hell were you? You’re an hour and a half late!” Bill barked as Mr. Segura ambled across the lawn.

“Don’t tell me Nabile didn’t tell you I would be late!” he said, looking incredulously at Mr. Taslimant.

“What do you mean? You never said you would be this late,” Mr. Taslimant replied.

“You don’t know what kind of morning I’ve had,” Mr. Segura said.

On the court, it was Mr. Tao and Mr. Segura against Bill and Mr. Taslimant. Mr. Segura wildly practiced his serve.

“These are good,” he said.

“Get one in at least,” Bill said.

Mr. Segura won his serve when it counted and was feeling cocky. After a scandalous miss at the net by Bill, Mr. Segura won his serve at love.

“Your serve,” Mr. Segura said, tossing a ball to Mr. Taslimant. “These guys are so bad, they’re lucky to be in from the hospital. Let the Moroccan serve. The guy from Morocco is nervous.”

Mr. Taslimant glared at Mr. Segura and, abandoning his professional obligation to play to the level of the competition, nailed a ferocious ace down the service line.

It began to rain and the match was over. Bill got on his cell phone and handed Mr. Taslimant two $50 bills. “It should all be in there,” he said distractedly.

While driving back to Mr. Tepperberg’s house, Mr. Taslimant reflected on his future.

“Coming out to the Hamptons, I get inspired,” he said against the slap of the windshield wipers. “Weaning out of tennis is tough, but I think I’m almost there. I never wanted to become a tennis bum. A tennis pro has limited appeal. It’s not like I’m saying I’m a matador. If you say you’re a matador from Seville, you’re going home with the girls nine out 10 times. A matador always gets the girls.

“I’d say a tennis pro ranks above a fencer and below race-car drivers and matadors,” he continued. “In Europe, they’re above a hockey player, but in the north of the U.S., definitely below hockey players. But being a tennis pro … there are worse things to be.” To Serve Mankind