Ex-Flying Ace now hits ‘aces’

David Catlett was just killing time when he first picked up a tennis racket on Midway Island.

The 22-year-old U.S Navy lieutenant was stationed there from 1967 into 1968 — and just for fun started hitting tennis balls using a wall as a backstop.

“There was not much to do,” he said.

His rudimentary gamesmanship caused more than a ripple of interest on base — specifically from his captain.

“He asked me to have lunch and then play tennis,” he recalled. “Then he asked me to be his partner.”

Catlett said he only had been playing a few days at that point, but “I was young and fast.”

From that initial meeting, Catlett said he and the captain played well on the island.

“I think no one wanted to beat the captain,” he said with a grin.

Regardless, the two went on to play in a tournament in Hawaii.

“We got beat,” he recalled. “But, I got to spend a week in Hawaii and play tennis!”

The affinity stayed, and as soon as Catlett returned home to Knox County, he joined a tennis club and has stayed with the sport.

Now 74 and a Farragut resident, he plays regularly in the U.S. Tennis Association senior league.

“It is a fun game, and you meet a lot of nice people,” he said. “It gives you something to do.”

He is modest about his exploits, but was finally coaxed into admitting that at one time he and his former partner, car dealer Jim Cogdill, were No. 1 in the state in the Over 50 League.

“His original partner got hurt, so he asked me to fill in,” said Catlett, who remained with Cogdill after that initial pairing.

They played together for about 15 years, until Cogdill’s ill health forced him to give up the sport about six years ago.

Up until that time, the duo played regularly – and well.

“We entered several tournaments and won most of them,” said Catlett, who plays locally at Cedar Bluff Racquet Club.

He admitted to having an advantage by using something he calls a “slice and dice” underhand serve.

“It throws people off sometimes,” he said. “It makes them mad sometimes, too.”

“It gives the ball a wicked side spin,” said Tim Phillips, who has regularly played against and with Catlett at the Racquet Club.

“It is tricky — you have to be on your toes.”

While Catlett certainly enjoys the sport, he recently began working with a veterans outreach program that he also is passionate about.

The Veteran’s Pre-College Program, administered through the University of Tennessee, helps veterans realize and take advantage of available educational opportunities.

“I believe that most veterans are unaware of the opportunities that their educational benefits offer,” he said. “And I need to tell them.”

As a vet himself, he has seen first hand how military service impacts its soldiers.

“Veteran’s Day ought to be every day,” he said. “A lot of people had it rough. They lost a leg, or an arm, or have PTSD. They paid the price and continue pay the price.”

That sentiment is why he is working now.

“I’ve had a good life,” he added. “I got to go into the Navy and fly, and I [have been able] to play tennis.

“But now, my focus is on veterans. Helping them is my purpose right now, and it is my hope to make their lives a little better.”