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From a Portland hospital bed, this tennis coach with cancer sits courtside for son's high school debut

Apr. 21—ROCKPORT — When Will Meyer is playing tennis, the voice in his head that coaches him belongs to his father. Seth Meyer is Will's tennis conscience.

"With technical mistakes, I can hear him correcting me, always. It's ingrained in me," said Will, 15, a freshman at Camden Hills Regional High School.

Will, the team's No. 1 singles player, played his first high school tennis match Friday afternoon. He defeated Noah Nelson of Messalonskee High in Oakland, 6-1, 6-0.

A few dozen people turned out to watch, but Will was playing for an audience of one. He was playing for his 47-year-old father, a renowned tennis coach who trains some of the top high school tennis players across the state.

From his hospital bed at Maine Medical Center about 80 miles away, Seth watched his son compete via a livestream sent to his iPhone.

"I've watched Will play one thousand matches, and each one brings me so much joy," he said after Will's match.

Seth was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma in January. He was taken by ambulance to Maine Med on Feb. 6 and has remained there since, through numerous complications and surgeries.

He spent a month in the surgical intensive care unit, his life very much hanging in the balance.

Maine's tennis community is small and close-knit, and Seth is a well-known advocate for the sport throughout the state.

A former state champion at Cony High in Augusta, he's dedicated his life to teaching the game to young people and adults alike.

Noah Capetta, in his eighth season as Camden Hills High boys' tennis coach, has known Seth for 17 years, when they began working together at Midcoast Recreation Center in Rockport, where Seth is tennis director. They're doubles partners and neighbors; Seth has coached Capetta's three children, as Capetta now coaches his son.

Capetta's wife, Kathleen, also has cancer. The families, Midcoast Recreation Center and their community are all in the fight together, Capetta said.

"Seth, Erin and Will are like family to us," he said. "I've known Will since the day he was born."

Erin Meyer, Will's mother, set up the makeshift livestream of Will's match, which required fastening her cellphone to a chain-link fence that encloses the school's four tennis courts. Erin watched her son play surrounded by friends. She said she admired how much her son had worked to earn the Windjammers' No. 1 singles spot as a freshman. As soon as Will left the court, she pulled him into a hug.

"Hey, get over here," she said as she extended her arm.

Friday marked the first day since Seth was admitted to the hospital that Erin had been home. She's been camped out at Maine Med for more than two months, often sleeping in a chair by his bed. Most of her days are spent consulting the many doctors involved in Seth's case.

Family and friends have been staying at the Meyers' home in Camden to care for Will, the couple's only child.

But Erin wasn't going to miss Will's debut match and made sure her husband wouldn't either, even if he had to watch it from afar. They had been anticipating it for so long.

"Seth and I have talked for Will's entire life about how excited we are for his first high school tennis match. I'm heartbroken he can't be here today," Erin said. "He gets so nervous. With no other student does he get nervous, but watching Will, he does. But he's excited. He's thrilled."

Krista Chase, Seth's sister, was in Seth's room on the hospital's oncology floor watching her brother watch Will's match. Seth had to have a tracheotomy and for a while was unable to talk. Although he can speak a little now, he remained quiet throughout Will's match.

"He didn't say a lot, but he kept score," Chase said. "The coach in him is always looking at it from a technique perspective. My brother is Steady Eddie. He's calm, cool and collected, even when battling cancer."

Support for the family has been immense. As of Friday afternoon, an online crowdfunding campaign set up for the family had raised more than $90,600, almost double its $50,000 goal.

Tennis has been an integral part of Seth's life since childhood. At Cony High, he helped his team win a state title in 1993 under Coach Carolyn Neighoff, his mother. As the tennis director at Midcoast Recreation Center since 2005, he runs leagues, camps and clinics all year round. He's worked to organize charity tennis matches, including Serve to End World Hunger and Serving to Prevent Homelessness.

It's in his work with younger players that he's made the biggest impact. Players like Lydia Garofalo, an eighth grader at Maranacook Community Middle School in Readfield, and Drake Turcotte, the No. 1 singles player at Skowhegan Area High School, travel more than an hour each way for lessons with Seth. They said they make that commitment because Seth makes tennis fun, and they see the results when they take to the court.

"It's a big commitment, but there's a big payoff," said Drake, who helped the River Hawks reach the Class A championship match last spring. "I've had hundreds of hours of lessons with Seth. I'm honored to be able to work with him."

Over the last few months, Lydia has sent Seth letters regularly, letting him know how her tennis is going and that she's thinking of him. When she started lessons with him three years ago, she was thinking of giving up the sport. He made her love it again.

"I definitely would not have continued without him as coach," she said. "It was always the highlight of my week. ... I just want to make sure he's in good spirits."

Seth and Erin said the correspondence from Lydia — including homemade cards and a Maria Sharapova bobblehead — has helped them through this tough time.

"My favorite part of my job is coaching young people," Seth said. "The notes Lydia sends just brighten my day."

The player Seth has enjoyed coaching the most is his son, Will.

Will grew up with the game. As a baby, he sat in the ball cart and watched his parents play. He watched his father coach so many players and idolized the ones from Camden Hills. One of those players, Ezra LeMole, was at Will's match Friday. A 2022 Camden Hills graduate and a sophomore at Middlebury College, LeMole was home on a break from school and came out to support the Meyers.

What makes Seth an exceptional coach is his ability to connect, LeMole said: "He could just match my humor and personality so well. Some coaches don't have that."

As she watched Will play, Erin said she saw similarities between her husband and son. Throughout Friday's match, for example, Will seemed to be thinking two or three shots ahead. He'd set up his opponent with multiple shots to the same area of the court, only to flick a shot to the opposite side where he had no chance of reaching it.

"That's from his dad doing it to him a 100 times until he figured it out," Erin said.

Seth said Will showed an aptitude for tennis at an early age. When Will was in kindergarten, his class did projects involving the number 100. Will decided his project should be a 100-shot rally with his dad.

"We got it on the first try," Seth said. "That's not bad for a 5-year old."

Like Seth, Will tends to remain calm on the court, not allowing a bad shot or close call to rattle him. The importance of sportsmanship is the biggest thing he's learned from his father, he said. When something doesn't go your way on the court, it's best to have a short memory and move on to the next play.

"Like he'd say, you've got to have the brain of a goldfish," Will said.

On Thursday, Seth went down a list of pre-match items with Will. Do you have your racket strung? Do you have all your equipment? Are you ready?

Tennis was in Will's life really since before he was born. Seth's co-workers at Midcoast Recreation Center threw Erin and Seth a baby shower.

"This is his home away from home," Erin said. As for father and son, she added, "It's amazing to watch their bond."

There's hope that, with physical therapy, Seth can get strong enough to go home soon. Then he could see Will play a high school match in person and thank everyone for their help.

"I've been overwhelmed by the support from tennis community and beyond," Seth said. "It brings tears to my eyes."

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