His love of tennis was forged on the courts at City Park in Monessen.
The first hint of John Chatlak’s talent came in his freshman year as a member of the Monessen High School tennis team as he captured a section singles championship.
After moving to Donora to live with his grandmother, Chatlak became a force for Ringgold High School, placing as the WPIAL runner-up in his sophomore season and third as a junior and senior. He qualified for the PIAA Championships three times for Ringgold, advancing to the quarterfinals.
“I started playing at City Park, it’s where I grew up,” Chatlak said. “I also played a lot of tennis in Charleroi at a tennis club there (behind the old Montgomery Ward building). I spent most of my time from age 15 to 25 right there.
“Growing up, I played baseball and basketball. Tennis is really a combination of those two sports. They share a lot of the same qualities.
“Starting out in tennis, I had athletic ability. I didn’t have very good strokes. That changed over the years and allowed me to become more of a power player, I guess.”
Chatlak just got better with age.
After going to Penn State as a freshman, he transferred to California University and played for three years.
Chatlak credits good coaching and strong teammates for his improvement.
He played for Dr. Keith McMonagle at Ringgold and then for the late Dr. Allen Welsh at California.
“I was fortunate to have good coaches and I learned a lot because of it,” Chatlak said. “I felt I just kept getting better as a player and coaching was a big part of it.”
Playing at California University gave Chatlak a strong foundation and he built on that. He said once he reached 25-years-old, his game took off.
He taught tennis in Greensburg, Upper St. Clair, Peters Township and Washington in his 20’s and played on the pro circuit in Hawaii.
Chatlak’s tennis career continued to blossom as he played nationally and internationally. He finished second in both singles and doubles in the World Nationals in Turkey in the 45-and-over division. He was ranked No. 1 twice – in the 30-and-over and 35-and-over division – in the nation and owns seven national championships.
Chatlak played in the U.S. Nationals twice and played in the Davis Cup for men 40-and-over in Bolivia and 45-and-over in Turkey.
In 2006, Chatlak played for the United States in the Potter Cup, 45 and older, in Barcelona, Spain.
According to data on the Seniors International Tennis Federation website, Chatlak has a career singles record of 77-35 (.688 winning percentage) and a career doubles record of 10-3 (.769 winning percentage).
Lane Stoner, the tennis coach at Trinity High School, was a teammate of Chatlak’s in high school and college. The two also were on teams on other tennis circuits through the years.
He said Chatlak’s improvement as a player really came down to playing more and the teaching he did with other players.
“He was a leader but a quiet leader,” Stoner said. “He wasn’t one to jump in your face. He was composed. John was a fixed player, meaning he had an idea and a plan. He went with what was working.
“In high school, he practiced hard. But compared to Mt. Lebanon and some others, he didn’t have all those lessons. His success was from him. He played basketball (at Ringgold) and wasn’t a year-around tennis player until later in his life.
“When he put his basketball shoes away, he played a lot more tennis, and became more focused on the game. He played it constantly, whether in Donora or traveling with California. His teaching also gave him more access throughout the year.”
One of Chatlak’s unforgettable wins came in the West Virginia Open at Oglebay Park in 2003.
Chatlak first played in the tournament as an 18-year-old. His best finish was second place until playing for the 25th and final time.
Chatlak won the singles title with a 6-0, 3-6, 6-3 win over Ted Becker of Columbus, Ohio.
“The first time, I was just a kid from Donora,” Chatlak explained. “I didn’t know anything about tennis. I played at Ringgold, but I just beat people by retrieving. I had zero strokes. All I did was run things down and outlast people.
“I knew that (25th time) was going to be my last time in the open division. “Twenty-five years was enough. I barely made it through the finals. It was a significant win for me because it was close to home.”
Now in his late 50s, Chatlak and his wife, Nancy, live in Wheeling, W.Va.
He has been an instructor for countless years and currently serves as an assistant coach for the men’s and women’s teams at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He previously coached tennis at Seton Hill University.
These days, he can be found giving lessons at Oglebay Park in Wheeling and playing “some of the better” competition – non-competitively – in the greater Pittsburgh area.
“Tennis is not the same as it used to be in the Pittsburgh area,” Chatlak said.
He was the director of tennis at Oglebay for about 15 years before moving to North Carolina and eventually coming back.
Make no mistake, tennis remains a huge part of Chatlak’s life.
“I enjoy working with all different kinds of students and players,” Chatlak said. “From beginners to advanced players, I enjoy seeing them learn quickly and become better players. I’m big on fundamentals.”
Chatlak will be back in the Mon Valley this week as he plans to attend the Mid-Mon Valley Sports Hall of Fame banquet Friday night in Pleasant Hills to honor and support his late cousin, Patsy ‘Dino’ DeBerardinis, a 1968 Mon Valley Catholic graduate, and the school’s lone 1,000-point scorer in its basketball history.
“It will be nice to be back in the area,” Chatlak said. “I want to be there as my cousin is inducted.
“Growing up in the Mon Valley, I was constantly playing sports. At 12 years old, I got a bad arm pitching and started hitting a tennis ball off my garage door. (The late) Freddie Feldman gave me my first racket. He kept tennis going in Monessen.
“I really liked the game and just kept playing it.”