ST. GEORGE, Utah — Here is what I believe about tennis: In the beginning, God created the forehand. And He saw that it was good. So, on the second day, He created the backhand, in order to have something to laugh at.
That pretty much described my game. While my opponents laughed, I would race to the ball, whack it, then watch it clear the fence and land on a passing Buick, never to be seen again.
Until last week. My life changed last week. Actually it changed a few months ago, after my 30th birthday, an event I greeted with a calm and steady reserve that went like this: ARRRRGH. MY GOD. I’M 30! I’M GOING TO DIE TOMORROW!
This was followed by a trip to England to cover Wimbledon, where, in my suddenly reflective state, I realized I had never really learned to play tennis. Resolved to make up for lost time, I picked up Tennis magazine and searched for one of those faraway places that exchanges your hard-earned money for a week’s worth of tennis torture, after which you can beat Jimmy Connors in three sets.
There were many to choose from. Naturally, I selected mine in a careful, scientific fashion:
“What do you offer?” I asked.
“We have 19 courts, small groups, six hours of daily instruction, high speed videotape, special hitting lanes, ball machi-.
“Do you have cable TV?”
One week. Nothing but tennis. I realized I had never done any one thing for a whole week. This would be great. I would return as a tennis machine, able to destroy those who had once condescended to play me. I was so excited I immediately rushed to the store and spent $179 on a new racket, then dragged a friend to a nearby court to test it.
“Hey, this grip keeps slipping out of my hand,” I complained, after 10 minutes of hitting. “Maybe it’s too big? No. It’s the graphite, right? I knew it. I never should have bought gr–.”
“Take the plastic off,” he suggested.
The next day I was on a plane heading west. I leafed through the brochure from the Vic Braden Tennis College in St. George, Utah (about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas). I had chosen this place because 1) Vic Braden, a famous tennis coach and sports researcher, was from Michigan, my state; and 2) his ad featured two notable expressions: One was “Laugh and win.” The other was: “You’ll be famous by Friday!” I had checked the calendar. The U.S. Open began the following week. The wild-card draws were Saturday and Sunday. So, if I was famous by Friday. . . .
I leaned back in my seat. In the bag at my feet were sneakers, shorts, sweatbands and lots of underwear. I was chewing gum and wearing a baseball cap. As we began to descend, I suddenly realized an embarrassing truth of my 30-year-old life:
I was going to summer camp.
Now, some folks choose wonderful resort locations for their tennis adventures. I chose the desert. In mid-August. Very smart. Of course, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. Unless it’s 109 degrees, in which case, I promise you, it’s the heat.
But let’s get to camp. . . .
Day 1. Monday morning, 7:45 a.m. Our group — 10 adults — met in a green-carpeted classroom. We were introduced to our instructors, Dave Nostrant and Mark Jacques, two fine, athletic-looking men with deep tans and strong thighs.
Anyhow, they greeted us, and asked us to assess our games on one-page questionnaires. Best stroke? Worst stroke? Under “Goals?” I put “Qualify for the U.S. Open.” I’ll bet they had a good laugh over that one.
Then we marched out to the courts. Mark The Instructor announced we would begin with volleys.
“Two lines, please, each rushing the net.”
Now, I had figured we would start with something easy, like “Opening The Can Of Tennis Balls.” Rushing the net is not my strong point. I rush the net the way I would rush, say, the East German border. So I began my week by tiptoeing in, holding up my racket, and watching the ball go . . . flubpht.
And I slunk to the end of the line.
The others in my group — who were all older than I — glided through the drill with apparent ease. I tried to remember their names, in case I needed to notify their next of kin. There was David, an options broker from Vancouver, and Lamont, a psychologist from California, and Menlo, a fire chief from Las Vegas, and, my favorite, Mike Wong from Hong Kong. There were also five women in a second group. They all shared one trait: They were all better than I.
“What brought you here?” I asked Wong, between puffs of breath.
“I want to be the best in Hong Kong,” he said. “How about you?”
“I came for the food.”
After 40 minutes of rushing the net, we moved to forehands. I had listed this as my “best shot.” Everyone says their forehand is their best shot. The fact is, if you think your forehand is good, it probably stinks.
And I never thought mine was good.
INSTRUCTOR: OK. Keep your racket down. Turn your shoulders. Don’t lift your head. Make sure your grip is right. Lean into it. Hit up. Go for the topspin.
Somewhere around the three-hour mark, with the Utah sun now high in the sky, we broke for lunch. I returned to my room and stuck my head under the faucet.
In the afternoon, we worked on the backhand — but there was an added twist. Unbeknownst to us, we were being . . . filmed. Yes. Dave The Instructor took us into a little room with a TV monitor where we watched our strokes and analyzed them. I will sum up my few seconds on the screen with the following review: HAHAHAHA! . . . NO. YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.
By the way, this was not our only video experience. We saw film clips throughout each day, every time we took a break. The films all featured Vic Braden, the Big Kahuna of our camp, who obviously cannot be there all the time, but was always there on the screen. We saw Braden on the forehand, the approach shot, the serve, the volley, the lob, the grip.
“How are you feeling? Tired? OK?” the instructors would ask.
“Fine,” I would say.
When I finally trudged back to my room that night, after seven hours of tennis, I pulled off my shoes and saw that my socks were spotted with blood. My hands were dotted with blisters. I lay down on the pillow. I had lasted one day. I felt proud. I felt content. Also, the temperature had dropped to a comfortable 94 degrees.
Of course, the problem with feeling proud the first night is how you feel the following morning. Stiff? You could say I was stiff. I don’t usually take 40 minutes to walk to the bathroom.
Then came . . . The Serve.
Here is The Serve the way I always practiced it: Toss the ball up lightly and poke it with your racket and hope it lollipops over the net.
Here is The Serve According To Tennis Camp: Toss the ball halfway to the moon, swing the racket in a whippet motion behind the head, uncoil the body, corkscrew the arm and smash the ball with an explosion that rivals Mt. St. Helens on a bad day.
“Got that?” they said.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
I was not bad at the serve; I was nonexistent. I was the guy they put in the corner and said, ‘Just try not to hit anyone, OK?’ “
And we went for an orange break.
And some more film.
By the way, I should say right here that the instructors at this place were marvelous; they never once hit me; they never even raised their voices. They were patient, good-natured, consistent, and I am going to nominate them both for sainthood, as soon as they track down all the balls I hit into the sand dunes.
Let’s talk about the machine.
The machine is neither kind nor good-natured. The machine is a firing squad. Serious players love the way it coughs out balls on a perfect arch. Serious players refer to the machine as “the ideal practice partner.”
I refer to it as Freddy Kruger.
We took on the machine at least two times a day. There was one indoors and a number of them outdoors (on specially constructed tennis “lanes” that simulate a real court). These things spit out something like 900 balls an hour. I never beat the machine. But I now see yellow tennis balls coming at me in my sleep.
“Do you ever get people here who just are so horrible they don’t improve at all?” I asked Dave, hoping he wouldn’t point at me and say, “Yeah. You. Heh-heh.”
“No,” he said, “you’re gonna improve if you stay here. You’d be amazed. We’ve had a 76-year-old man, a beginner. He was great. We had this couple once who won a weekend here as an office prize. They had never played tennis before. They showed up for their first lesson in street clothes. But they got better.”
I wondered where those people were now. I wondered whether their feet still hurt.
Naturally, as with any good camp, camaraderie plays a big part. And our group developed camaraderie. We became comrades in arms. Then comrades in shoulders. Then comrades in sore wrists and sore elbows and shots into the net.
We had lunch together. We hung around the pool. We learned each others’ secret tennis desires, which, in their cases, was to beat the best guys at the office and in my case was to keep the ball off the highway. One night, the instructors took us all to Zion National Park — an area of majestic cliffs and yellow- red sandstone, which, I must admit, was breathtaking — and then we ate outdoors at a tiny Mexican restaurant and we were laughing and having a great time and the food came and it was the first good, fattening food I had seen all week. And as I lifted my fork, a grasshopper came out of nowhere and landed in my rice.
I am not making this up.
And then it leaped away.
By the third and fourth days, we were into the heavy stuff, such as approach shots and doubles strategy. I had learned to stay away from my serve, as had my co-campers. Actually, Mike Wong was fond of yelling,
“INCOMING!” whenever I hit one, which I thought was kind of funny.
But here is the thing. Slowly, painfully, I got better. I really did. I developed a backhand. I discovered the volley. There was a certain pop to the ball off my racket — not all the time, but some of the time — and once, on Thursday, I rushed the net and whipped that ball into the corner and Dave The Instructor lunged for it and missed and he cheered, “Nice shot.” It was as satisfying as pumpkin pie.
And that about ended it. The last day was filled with drills and more drills and reviews and taping and happy talk, the kind you always get on the last day of school. It was Friday. We were not famous. And I guess I’m not going to the U.S. Open.
But the question is how good do you get by spending a whole week on one thing? And the answer is . . . flubpht.
No. Ha. The answer is you get a lot better than you think. Which only makes me angry that I didn’t start this when I was nine years old.
Anyhow, we shook hands and exchanged addresses. We had a little ceremony where we all sang the tune from the Vic Videos, then marched up and received our “diplomas” — which certified that we had “Learned to Laugh and Win.”
Well, laugh, anyhow.
And now I sit with scabbed toes and tape around my fingers and a steady throb in my wrist, writing this as I stare out my window across the desert mesa and into the big Utah night. I don’t know whether tennis camp is the cure for growing up. I do know this: For the first time in 30 years of staring at the moon, I realize it looks a lot like a tennis ball. And I have this strange urge to whack that sucker with topspin. I really do.CUTLINE: Mitch Albom demonstrates his improved form.