Your Serve: Respecting the Wisdom of a Lesson Taught Years Ago
By Mark Rearden
Years ago when I was young, I decided I needed a tennis lesson. To no one’s surprise, there was no tennis professional to call upon in Edgefield, S.C. At the time Augusta, Ga., was the largest city I had ever frequented, so I convinced my parents to let me make a couple of long distance calls to see if I could line up a lesson. I eventually got a lesson time and was able to pay a friend gas money to take me to Augusta.
I showed up at the Augusta Tennis Center, a six-court rag of a facility by today’s standards, and started looking around for my instructor. All of the courts were taken by players who seemed to be experts and who must be about to go on tour or who had been on tour at some point. “Boy, this is great,” I thought. “This is where I want to be and what I want to do.” And then my pro spotted me.
“Are you Mark? I’m Mr. Charlie Fortune.” My heart sunk. This guy had to be at least 70 years old. All of these major tennis studs spanking balls all around me, and I’m going on court with the tennis version of “The Old Man and the Sea.” I was crestfallen. “Let’s go hit some balls,” he said before I could make up a fictitious name and get the heck out of there.
On the walk to the back teaching court (not one of the six with actual lines), he began asking me questions about where I was from and how I came to travel from Edgefield for a tennis lesson. It took the entire walk to our court to get my arms around the fact that I was going to be paying this guy with my own money.
The entire lesson was somewhat of a blur, and to my surprise the hour was up before I knew it. At the end I did what every good Southern boy learns to do — I made eye contact and offered my hand, not too hard and definitely not the dead fish, the appropriate squeeze that lets adults know you were raised right.
Before we parted, he offered one question: “Mark, do you know what the most important shot in tennis is?”
“Well of course,” I answered. “It’s the serve.”
“Nope,” he said, knowing I was not going to get it. I guessed several times before I gave up and asked him to deliver the answer. “It is the next one, Mark,” he said, with a gleam in his eyes. I just stood there like a deer in the headlights.
Recognizing he had caused me to brain cramp, he went on to tell me what he meant. “The next shot is the only one you can do anything about.”
“Oh, it was a trick question,” I replied. This is where our roles reversed. Mr. Charlie Fortune is now disappointed about Mark Rearden being his student. He went on to tell me that tennis is played one swing at a time, a concept I was too immature to understand at the time. He explained that until I learned to deal with what is before me, there is no way I will ever learn how to construct an entire match. My heart sunk again.
Now, 46 years later, I listen to tennis pundits talk about how Rafa never takes a point off, meaning to him the next swing is the most important shot in tennis. And this is why he is considered the most difficult opponent to put away.
Recently, I shared this story with a student who is only a bit older than I am. Unlike young Mark Rearden, she absorbed the truth of what Mr. Charlie Fortune told me years ago. Not only did she mentally absorb it, but she put it to use the same day and discovered what I wish I had grasped so long ago.
I may be a few decades late, but I will never again sully the wisdom of a man I should have respected when I had the chance so many years ago. And I’d like to share Mr. Charlie Fortune’s wisdom with everyone: The most important shot in tennis is the next one!
Mark Rearden is the Head Tennis Professional at Palmetto Tennis Center in Sumter, S.C. A career tennis professional, he is a certified PTR pro and an Elite Pro with the USPTA. He authors a weekly newspaper column titled “Mark My Words.”
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