Joel Drucker has been writing about tennis since 1982, writing a variety of magazines and broadcast outlets. He has been part of Tennis Channel's team since the network stared airing in 2003, including ... read more
Joel Drucker has been writing about tennis since 1982, writing a variety of magazines and broadcast outlets. He has been part of Tennis Channel's team since the network stared airing in 2003, including work as story editor at all of the Grand Slam events, as well with various documentaries and special projects. Most recently, he was story editor-researcher for the network's "Barnstormers" documentary. Close
They came because they wanted to learn how to hit a kick serve. They came because they wanted to learn how to close out a match. They came because they wanted to master a topspin backhand. Drop volley. Return of serve. Poach. Overhead. They came because they were the only one on their league team who showed up two hours before the match. They came because late at night they’d closely studied YouTube videos of Roger Federer. They became because they meditated. They came because the previous year they’d heard a story of a loss that didn’t take place inside the lines, of a victory that had conquered the heart, of a struggle that drew on the wisdom of tennis but could never be as clear-cut as a third-set tiebreaker.
There they were, gathered at the fourth rendition of The Tennis Congress, 240 participants (pointedly called “athletes” by the event’s organizers) and 87 faculty members from Maine and Florida, Michigan and California, Colorado and New York and many states in between. They had come to Tucson, that enchanting city in the southwest located 2,200 feet above sea level. Tucson, where even in autumn, temperatures soar past 90, a heat index fortunately graced with minimal humidity and intoxicating mountain views that hint not just at heights, but perhaps even transcendence. Seminar, commune, retreat, vision quest – all viable for this populist gathering of tennis zealots who converge on Tucson’s Hilton El Conquistador Tennis & Golf Resort on Thursday, dig in for on and off-court lessons Friday and Saturday, continue on Sunday and, if desired, stay for a few more helpings on Monday.
Friday night, an hour short of midnight, 14 hours after morning sessions of yoga and stretching, the bar crackled, but not with sun-weary exhaustion.
“I’d go for an ace down the T at that point,” said the brown-haired male 4.5 from the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I’d want to be cautious and just get the game over,” said the blonde female 3.5 from Connecticut named Amy. “On the other hand, in the opposite situation, I’d want to go guns blazing.”
“Are you kidding? That’s exactly when I’d be conservative.”
“But I figure at that point I have nothing to lose, so I might as well go for it.”
The two had met over breakfast, headed off on their personal treks, and now were engrossed in clarifying how to play a point at 2-all, 40-love. Back and forth the two circled, listened, spoke. Come to think of it – a verbal rally.
“Here’s how it works,” said Craig O’Shannessy, the Australian-raised, Texas-based tactical maestro. “This is how you each need to understand it.” At which point, O’Shannessy trotted out a few figures from the extensive statistical tally he’s gained from breaking down thousands of points played by ATP and WTA pros over the last 15 years. O’Shannessy ordered a round of drinks and the conversation moved on: How to play points when running around the backhand.
New & Old All At Once
P.J. Simmons is the impresario of Tennis Congress. In one sense, Simmons is light years removed from the typical tennis weekend organizer: the experienced instructor turned director who organizes the seminar in linear (and often workable) fashion. Those weekends often began at the beginning, with the ready position in the morning, followed by groundstrokes, volleys, serves and so on. Such was the model for an analog world, masterfully brought to life in decades past by such gurus as Vic Braden.
But Simmons had come to the game at a different stage. An adult learner living in the 21st century, Simmons brought a heightened sense urgency to his education (see his blog, roadto45tennis.com) and the hopes of other fellow players. This was a digital era, one of criss-crossed content, fast-paced pictures, staccato-like statements, messages delivered via text, quick postings to friends, content absorbed through an app.
Eager and thoughtful, keen to embrace body and mind, Simmons had created a distinctly American event: one that would embrace multitudes. Gigi Fernandez on doubles. John Yandell on the slice backhand. Yandell, Jeff Salzenstein and Jeff Greenwald on the serve. Husband-wife duo Jorge and Marti Capestany on tactics. Emma Doyle on doubles formations. Father-son duo Bill and Matt Previdi on serve-and-volley. John Austin on transition. Scott Mitchell on groundstrokes. Emilio Sanchez on the Spanish method. Hall of Famer Owen Davidson on the Australian approach.
Simmons and the 287 athletes in Tucson didn’t want a tennis Moses to come down from the mountain with the tablets. They wanted to build, smash and reassemble the tablets from the ground up – again and again and again.
Drinking from the Fire Hose
“This is a massive amount of information, a lot you’ll be trying to drink in,” said the man on opening night. “You can’t drink out of a fire hose.” The speaker was Bob Litwin, author of the book Live the Best Story of Your Life. Litwin is also an accomplished age group player, winner of 18 USTA national titles. A founding member of the Congress, Litwin’s classes were focused on the psychological aspect of tennis, on creating the kind of positive, thoughtful story in one’s head that would propel one to success (perhaps not just in tennis). When he wasn’t in the classroom, Litwin roamed, from seminars to the courts, acting as an informal host, guide, presence. “What will be your story about all this information?” he asked. “You’re here to improve, not prove.”
Fire hose indeed. From the court to the classroom, from the bar to the dining room, Tennis Congress had the potential to blow one’s brain into smithereens. Students might hear one idea about a stroke in the morning – and then hear a different idea about it in the afternoon, another during a meal, another at night. Likewise with tactics, psychology, fitness, nutrition.
In the wake of the lively debate with Amy, the brown-haired 4.5 from the San Francisco Bay Area wondered if all this data would jam the circuits. Potpourri or blitzkrieg? Was it possible to binge too much on tennis? What would get through?
What would vanish? Did it matter? Off with the mask: The person asking those questions was me.
Vic Braden & The Tennis Democracy
Then I recalled the many great tennis minds I’d been exposed to – most of all, the genius of Braden. Vic too had taken in oodles of ideas from all sorts of realms. He’d been an innovator, shooting thousands of miles of video more than 50 years ago. But even more, he’d been a community builder, be it as a high school teacher and basketball coach, traveling aid de camp to Jack Kramer on the barnstorming pro tour, director at the infamous Kramer Club, creator of the first tennis college. To have come into Vic’s orbit was to enter one man’s supreme magical mystery tour – science, humor, compassion, all bound by his love for the massive personalities that make tennis such a supreme showcase of the human spirit. “If only life was as fair as a tennis match,” he’d once told me.
Another Braden colleague, player-coach and Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, had amplified that point. Tennis, said Segura, “is a great test of democracy in action. Me and you, man, in the arena. Just me and you. Doesn’t matter how much money you have, or who your dad is, of you went to Harvard, or Yale, or whatever. Just me and you.”
But all that singular merit carried a price tag. So many of tennis greats were loners, be it cantankerous champions such as Pancho Gonzalez and Jimmy Connors, as well as more subdued stars like Pete Sampras and Chris Evert. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”
Simmons’ genius was to recognize tennis’ virtue and vice. The Tennis Congress would be a correction, a way to balance out the solitude and competitive hierarchy with community and compassion. “I don’t care how well you hit the ball,” Davidson’s fellow Aussie, Roy Emerson, had once said. “I care how much you want to put your heart into your tennis.”
It was fitting that the final day of Tennis Congress took place on Columbus Day. If a cozy flight to Tucson wasn’t quite as arduous as the journey Columbus had taken 524 years ago, the 300+ attendees also were seeking new territory. “Tennis would be a way to think about change,” said Azin, a Portland, Oregon resident who’d played as a child and recently come back to the game after a long absence. “Tennis would be a way to think about many issues.” Tennis – macro in its metaphoric possibilities, micro in its literal demands. There was the ready position for life – alert, balanced, open. Then there was the ready position for tennis; well, how do you think you should hold the racquet? Which grip? Where do the feet go? On and on and on. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.”
How long does it take to become a tennis player? Certainly it takes hours to sharpen a stroke, a tactic, a playing style. But as Tennis Congress proves, defining oneself as an athlete can also take merely a single moment.