WILSHIRE BLVD — Glenn Wong built his career around being consistent.
One nylon string at a time, during the past 25 years he’s earned a reputation in the Southern California tennis community as a premier racket stringer — an artist at adjusting tension to make a player’s forehand feel just right.
As other tennis shops on the Westside have closed down, First String Pro Shop, Wong’s tiny shop on Berkeley Street, has flourished. Six days a week, eight hours a day, Wong has been a Santa Monica fixture, and an expert sought out by everyone from pros like John McEnroe and Andy Roddick to elite college players at UCLA to hobbyists who appreciate a job well done.
So, for many longtime customers, it was a shock to walk into The First String last summer and discover that the owner had taken a leave of absence.
Last June, Wong, 49, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and told the disease had spread throughout his body, affecting his brain, liver, pancreas and spine.
Described by friends as unassuming and humble, Wong, a non-smoker, was reticent about his illness and didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
But as word got out, Wong’s loyal clientele started to organize.
One customer, Joyce Ng, who describes herself as a casual tennis player, set up a way for people to make tax deductible donations to Wong through a foundation set up to benefit the seriously ill.
She said she’s been going to Wong’s shop for several years, and though she wasn’t a close friend, she felt the need to help.
“He would treat Pete Sampras the same way he would treat me,” she said.
“Glenn’s never been seeking financial support from anybody and is not the type of person who would. He’s also extremely self-effacing.”
Another customer, Bill Schwartz, is putting on a tennis tournament on behalf of Wong to be held Feb. 27 at the Pacific Palisades Tennis Courts. Money will be raised through registration fees, a silent auction and a raffle.
“It’s been pretty overwhelming. You don’t expect anything like this, really,” Wong said in an interview this week. “It’s still a little shocking. People want to do whatever they can.”
Since his diagnosis, Wong has started brain radiation treatment and chemotherapy, which have shown some positive results.
Wong’s fiancé, Billie Parsons, said the cancer is considered incurable, but there’s hope that with drugs and treatment Wong can resume a normal life. Fewer than one percent of advanced-stage lung cancer patients live for five years after they are diagnosed, she said, but there are always significant exceptions.
After reading stories about cancer survivors, she said Wong “doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be one of those exceptional cases.
“The odds are not great but in spite of that I think he remains optimistic,” she said.
The tennis community, meanwhile, appears to be rallying, with donations coming in from customers and competitors alike.
“He’s incredibly well-loved and appreciated,” said Cary Wayne, tennis director at the Luxe Hotels, who called Wong “one of the best racket stringers in the world, without a doubt.”
“We’re all going to go to the wall to raise as much cash as we can for him. We hopefully can eradicate his bills,” he said.
Gene Farkas, a longtime customer and sometime golf buddy, said Wong’s connection with people was built on his laid-back personality and his dependability.
“Once you know people you trust, you go back to them,” he said.
Wong has recently made enough progress fighting his disease to return to work part-time and hopes to be on the job full-time soon. He’s also started riding his bike and playing golf again.
“I like being retired, but I’m not there yet,” he said.
To learn more about supporting Glenn Wong, contact Joyce Ng at firstname.lastname@example.org or Bill Schwartz at Bill@schwartzcompany.com