Editor's note: This is second part in a multipart series chronicling the life of Enrique "Rick" Ninete, a tennis instructor who was born on Guam into Japanese occupation during World War II and forced to make a potential life-threatening decision regarding his health and well-being.
When Enrique “Rick” Ninete was in his early 20s, the desire to travel and explore the world consumed him and he left Guam for California. With a little money in his pocket, he settled down in the northern part of the state and took a job as a chef at the University of California at Berkeley.
After a short time, he met Cecilia Taitano and the two married in 1967. Together, they had three children, Cecilia Ninete, Joaquina Fejeran and Esther Ninete Figiir.
While on a family outing, the Ninetes had a chance encounter with George Sablan, a CHamoru man who happened to be at the same hamburger restaurant in Concord, California.
After breaking bread and sharing stories of Guam, Enrique Ninete and Sablan became close friends. Over the years, Sablan introduced him to tennis and convinced him to become a certified instructor, which led to his new career.
By the late '70s, Enrique Ninete became an accomplished instructor and his following grew.
“After I was certified, I just taught at the public courts in Martinez,” Enrique Ninete said. “Word got around, and so forth, and before I know it, I was loaded with students from beginner to advanced.
“And then, later on, I was tennis director for Piedmont City, right near Oakland, for the recreation department.”
In Piedmont, working for the city, Enrique Ninete hired professional tennis instructors and located them “where I wanted them to be teaching,” he said.
With a tennis career in - pardon the pun - full swing, another encounter with a CHamoru man eventually paved way for his return to Guam. Ricardo J. Bordallo, the two-term governor of Guam who served from 1975-1979 and 1983-1987, was on a stateside recruiting trip to convince CHamorus to return to Guam and give back to the island.
In 1985, the Ninetes moved to Guam and Enrique Ninete was hired to head up the Guam Department of Parks and Recreation tennis program.
“When I came back, I was hired by the Department of Parks and Recreation under (former DPR Director) John Palomo,” Enrique Ninete said. “They took a chance and hired me. And, believe it or not, in that point and time, there was a hiring freeze with the government of Guam.”
When Enrique Ninete left Guam, there were virtually no public tennis courts. His first task, upon return, was to travel the island and take inventory of Guam’s assets. He was surprised to learn that Guam had 22 public tennis courts and be began to plan how to grow the sport and bring tennis to the people of Guam.
“I visited all the schools on island, elementary through high school, introducing the sport of tennis,” he said. “And then, at one point or another, I scheduled field trips from the schools, public schools, and they come down and I (would) do the clinics and that was pretty successful, at that time.
“From there, I had after-school programs for the parents that could not pick up their kids at the time that the school was out. So, lots of kids would show up and I would work with them. … That was also pretty successful.”
Enrique Ninete also worked with Guam Special Olympics, he recalled, adding, “we did a summer camp for the kids.”
Growing tennis was hard work and the time Enrique Ninete devoted to building the sport took its toll on his family. In the states, making ends meet had been much easier, but with five mouths to feed, his thin GovGuam paycheck left his wife uneasy. Two years after relocating to Guam, the Ninetes divorced.
“The first paycheck was not what I was making back in California, because they pay a higher rate over there,” Enrique Ninete said.
When he received his first paycheck, Enrique Ninete recalled the confused look on his wife’s angry face.
“She said to me, ‘is this it?’” Enrique Ninete recalled his wife having told him.
“I said, ‘yes, I’m working for the government of Guam,’ which was $6.25 (an hour) at that time,” Ninete said. “When I left California, I was making $14.75 (an hour).
“There was a big difference in salary and the wife said, ‘Oh my God,’” Enrique Ninete recalled.
Ten years before returning to Guam, a four-court facility called the Agana Tennis Courts was constructed for the 1975 South Pacific Games. Little more than a huge slab of concrete with lines and nets built among marshlands in the jungle, the courts served their purpose, but were less than inviting.
Enrique Ninete felt that the facility could have been much more, so, he went to work.
There was “grass all over the place, and I was fighting with the bees,” Enrique Ninete said. “It was just a jungle area. I cleaned it up.
“I bought a lawnmower. I bought a bushcutter, on my own, and started clearing the area so it looked like a tennis court,” he said.
After a short period of time, the merely adequate facility transformed into the the Enrique Ninete Tennis Center. In 2004, under the Felix P. Camacho administration, the tennis center was named for Enrique Ninete, earning him the title of living legend.
“They had a ceremony and a signing at the tennis courts,” recalled the 77-year-old Enrique Ninete, who still manages the facility and teaches nearly every day. “It was really appreciated for me, for them to do that, but I did do a lot of work.”
In March of this year, at the beginning of the coronavirus-inspired public health emergency, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero ordered all nonessential businesses to lock down, including tennis courts and all other sports facilities.
At first, Enrique Ninete ignored the order and kept the tennis center open. He figured that tennis is a socially distanced sport and that the government had overreacted.
“It’s an open area, and the player is on the other side of the net,” Enrique Ninete said. … “I thought it was OK. I never closed it.”
Shortly after Enrique Ninete’s 77th birthday, March 12, Figiir, as she had done before on her way to work, drove to the tennis center to turn off the lights. Instead of being greeted by the resident boonie dog, she was met by the DPR director and a staff member who had locked up the entryway to the courts.
“She called me and said, ‘the director’s here, and … they are putting chains around the gates, and the court’s closed.’” Enrique Ninete recalled his daughter having told him. …
“It was a little disappointing.
"We’re human beings, and we pass away," he said.
With very little reproducible scientific information surrounding COVID-19 and its spread, and with DPR’s two recent leadership changes, Guam remains in Pandemic Condition of Readiness 2 and the tennis center is open.
Whether the courts stay open for much longer in anyone’s guess, but, if GovGuam orders another closure, Enrique Ninete will support the decision.
“If it’s for safety reasons, I don’t have a problem with it,” he said.