Your Serve: Lessons Well-Learned
While hoping to give back to tennis, a new high school tennis coach finds this game continues to give to him.
By Randy Walker
Tennis has given me much in my life — friends, exercise, world travel and many great jobs and experiences. I was fortunate to have amazing opportunities with the University of Georgia men’s tennis team, with the USTA as Player Development, Davis Cup, Olympic team and US Open press officer, and in my current marketing/ publishing role at New Chapter Media.
Of late, I was looking for more ways to give back to the sport that has given me so much. I decided that I wanted get back on the court doing some teaching on the side, hit with upcoming kids and be a mentor. I learned of a job opening as the JV boys’ tennis coach at Columbia Prep high school in New York City. I applied for and was offered the job.
During team tryouts, my friend Bill Mountford at the USTA implored me not to cut any players from the team. Keep as many as really want to play, he said. This keeps the kids interested in tennis for their lifetime. Being cut from a JV team can be traumatic and push them away from the game forever.
As the JV team materialized, it was apparent there would be a sharp divide in ability between the top and bottom of our team. How was I going to have these players participate in the same practice, potentially on the same court, and keep them all engaged? The school wanted me to take only 10 players, but there were 13 who wanted to play. It would be much easier for me to manage the team — and practices — if I cut three kids. However, Bill’s message was clear; I didn’t cut any of the players.
But still, how was I going to handle this steep divide in ability at practices? I applied a lesson I first learned from Billie Jean King at the Olympic Games in 2000, when she was working with Venus and Serena Williams — better players would use practices and matches against lesser-talented players to work on their weaknesses. Our top player, for instance, was then charged during practice matches to serve and volley on every service point — first and second serves — and to only hit slice backhands. Those were the skills he needed to perfect for more variety in his game.
I also noticed that some players seemed to get down on themselves quickly and would give up on matches when they would get behind early or lose the first set. To help inspire them, I gave each player a copy of my book, “On This Day in Tennis History,” and told them to read through it and pick out the biggest comeback wins they could find.
Another simple lesson I gleaned from another book, Rod Laver’s “The Education of a Tennis Player,” was to have the mindset of not making mistakes. Wrote Laver, “You win tennis matches on the other guy’s errors and by keeping the ball going.” This would also become team doctrine.
In a recent match, one of my players, who was competing in singles for the first time, quickly found himself down 0-3 in the first set and was getting discouraged. I told him to think of all of those great comebacks he had read about and, like Laver wrote, just concentrate on not missing a ball. Keep the ball going. My player then reeled off 10 straight games and ended up winning the match.
Then I glanced over at the No. 1 singles player, who was banging ground strokes fearlessly. However, lo and behold, he was throwing in slice backhands every once in a while. Then he stepped up to the line to hit a first serve, followed it to the net and knocked off a volley winner. He stayed at the net and waited for his opponent to shake his hand. He had served and volleyed on match point!
Two of my players were out sick, so another student — one I had thought about cutting early on in tryouts — found himself in the lineup. Weeks before, he was barely able to hit balls in play. But I switched him from a one-handed to a two-handed backhand and taught him to aim higher over the net for more margin for error, and he soon was winning challenge matches and moving up the lineup. Playing the first “official” match in his life, he and his partner won the clinching match for our team’s victory. His smile after the match was as big as I’d ever seen.
Randy Walker is a PR, marketing and publishing specialist and the managing partner for New Chapter Media (NewChapterMedia.com). He is the former press officer for the U.S. Davis Cup and Olympic tennis teams for the USTA and author of the book, “On This Day in Tennis History.”