Playing Ball: Thanks, Coach

by: Steve Tignor | November 27, 2014

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Today is Thanksgiving here in the United States, a time to eat a lot, watch a lot of NFL football, and, if you know what's good for you, avoid having any political discussions with your extended family. It's also a favorite holiday for many of us, because, at least for the time being, there's nothing commercial about it.

Back in 2007, I wrote a column for this day giving thanks to an old coach of mine. Since there are (hopefully) a few people reading now who weren't reading then, I will post it again today. To all those who celebrate it, have a good Thanksgiving.

Tennis is an individual sport, the purists say, the ultimate test of inner resolve. Let those red-faced control freaks—a.k.a., coaches—throw chairs at refs and kick dirt on umpires. Tennis players solve their own problems, thank you very much.

If only the game were that pure. Unfortunately, learning tennis requires a coach—even Roger Federer had one once. I’m not talking about someone to show you the follow-through on your forehand, because that’s only the start. A coach may begin as your “teaching pro,” but if you take the game at all seriously, he or she will become much more. Drill sergeant. Surrogate parent. Partner in crime. The purists are right: Tennis is a solo endeavor, but that’s what makes its coach-player relationships more intense—and important—than those in team games.

I played the sport pretty seriously from ages 11 to 22, and during that time I had three primary coaches. Even in my late-30s, the lessons they taught me are obvious every time I step on a court. There’s one shot in particular I’m thinking of, my kick serve. It bounces severely to my opponents’ right sides (I’m left-handed), the opposite of what they’re expecting. More than one opponent has seen it coming, started toward the forehand side for the return, switched over to the backhand as the ball got closer, and ended up having to whip back around for a forehand. Some of these opponents believe that I was born with a freakish talent. I know better. I know this shot was the product of patient instruction and hours of practice. It’s even made me think that what we call athletic “talent” is less about innate individual ability than it is the result of those words—“patient instruction and practice.” It’s a collaborative effort.

The coach who taught me the kick serve was named Barry. When I was 12, he moved to the Pennsylvania town where I lived and became the head pro at our indoor tennis club. A fellow Pennsylvanian, from Erie, Barry sported a mustache and feathered hair parted down the middle. He was a smoker, a beer-can tippler, and a country music fan. Like many teaching pros, his strokes and competitive edge had been dulled by years of feeding balls. What hadn’t been dulled was his enthusiasm and humor. Barry made tennis fun, and even, against all odds, sort of cool.

The sport’s typical storyline starts with a rough-edged outsider who crashes the country-club walls (see Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi, for starters). My story went the opposite way. I was a quiet doctor’s kid who would have been inside the country club if the one in our town had had a tennis court. Barry’s first job was to teach me tennis, but he knew I would be better at it if I loosened up a little along the way.

As a 13-year-old, I rode with Barry and my dad to a junior tournament in Harrisburg. I won my first-round match and faced the top seed, a well-known redheaded ball-basher named George Zink. My name next to Zink’s on the draw sheet was almost embarrassing—it didn’t look like a fair fight. Barry didn’t help matters when he took a marker and scrawled an oversized exclamation point after my name. How could he do that? This was the draw sheet. What were the good players in the tournament going to think? What was George Zink going to think?

Nothing, it turned out. I lost to Zink, who never even glanced at the draw, 6-0, 6-0 in about 35 minutes. On the two-hour ride home, I sat in the back and listened to Barry tell tennis war stories up front. He knew how to change the subject.

My family had Barry over for dinner on occasion, and I traveled to various tournaments with him and a few other local juniors. He made sure to shock us now and then, and poke holes in our sheltered existences. During a tournament in his hometown, Barry showed up at the club later than scheduled on a Sunday morning. His eyes were slits. I asked him what he had been doing the night before. “Bar-hoppin’,” he said crisply as his smile widened. I was surprised at how cheerful he sounded. He opened one eye just enough to give me a wink and walked off to relive the previous night’s revels with his friends. At this point I’d never even tasted alcohol; my parents didn’t drink and certainly never went “bar-hoppin’.” The phrase conjured up the rough, mysterious, and slightly scary adult world outside my house.

One day at our club I was listening to my Walkman. Barry asked what I had on. I lifted one headphone and said “Jimi Hendrix.” I’d just discovered Rolling Stone magazine and had bought all the cassettes in the bargain bin at Wee Three records that their critics recommended. Barry let out a startled laugh. He must not have been expecting that answer from a 13-year-old in a light-blue sweat suit and Le Coq Sportif sneakers. “Wow, that’s heavy duty,” he said. I answered, confidently, with words taken from the pages of Rolling Stone: “Hendrix was the most explosive guitarist of all time, maybe the best.” Barry laughed again.

The next day Barry walked up to me with a grin while I was warming up my serve. “Do you like pissin’ in the wind?” he asked without any preamble.

Now I was startled. “What?”

“You’re the music expert. You’ve never heard ‘Pissin’ in the Wind’?” I guess you don’t know your Jerry Jeff Walker.”

I knew who Jerry Jeff Walker was, of course. His records had received four stars in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. But I had never heard his music. He was country—redneck garbage, in other words. Either way, I knew he wasn’t the most explosive guitarist of all time, like Jimi Hendrix.

“Jerry Jeff? Sounds like a real hick,” I said as I tossed another ball up to serve.

A few weeks later, Barry picked me up in his car for a hitting session. As I climbed in, he stubbed out his Newport menthol—another minor shock—fanned the fumes out of his eyes, and flashed me another grin.

“This is called music where I come from.” He popped in a cassette and proceeded to belt the words out along with the singer, who I thought sounded a little drunk.

Pissin’ in the wind!
Bettin’ on a losing friend
Makin’ the same mistakes we swear we’ll never make again

It was awful. Traumatic. My appreciation of country music would be delayed for at least a decade.

What mattered more than anything was this: Barry was a good junior coach. He went to tournaments with us, brought in higher-ranked juniors to practice with us, and took the time to make us better. That last fact may sound too obvious to mention, but it’s beyond the job description of many club pros.

At some point, every tennis player must confront the kick serve. Like the bar chord for a guitarist, the kick, as unnatural as it may look, is the ticket to the game’s higher levels. When I was 14 or 15, Barry brought a hopper of balls back to the baseline and said the time had come for me. He demonstrated the kick and had me do it. Then he had me throw my toss farther behind me. Then farther still, until I couldn’t bend backward any more.

The next week we went through the swing, which at first it seems destined to send the ball hurtling into the lights above the court. The key is to swing as fast as you can. If you’re at all cautious, the ball won’t go anywhere. I struggled with putting all the elements together and winced every time the ball hit the frame. But Barry insisted on that one crucial element: “swing out.” Keep the arm loose, get as much action as you can on the ball, and don’t worry about where it goes for now. Then he said I would need to hit “a million of them” in practice. If I didn’t, I would never be any good at tennis. In his smiling, laconic way, Barry forced me to live up to my potential.

And he was right. Half a year later, after hitting innumerable buckets of serves, I had a solid kick. Lower-level players were bamboozled by it, while higher-level players were held at bay by it. The kick still keeps my second serve from being attacked, and it makes for a nice parlor trick during social tennis outings. Recently I played a doubles match with some colleagues. I served to an opponent I’d never played before, so I reached back and put a little extra English on my kick. The ball landed right in front of him. He took his racquet back to hit a backhand, but the ball jumped to his forehand side and he had to catch it. “Where did you learn that?” he asked. “It looks like some kind of mistake.” I thought back to Barry’s lessons and the thousands (millions?) of practice serves I had hit to get the ball to move just like that. I smiled. “No, no mistake.”

Barry moved back to Erie a few years later. I left the area for college and then for New York City. I wanted to be a rock critic (not exactly a surprise), but I ended up writing about tennis. I think of him now and then when I scroll through the “Js” in my ITunes. That’s where my Jerry Jeff Walker songs are stored. I’ve got a dozen of them, which is a dozen more than I have of Jimi Hendrix. I’ve learned to appreciate country music, Walker’s easy-come-easy-go stoicism, and his characters who happily abandon their dreams in the big city to get back to their roots.

These aren’t New York types—they’re loose rather than ambitious and hard. But like any other adult, I can relate to people “making the same mistakes we said we’d never make again.” Occasionally my IPod spits out a Jerry Jeff song when I’m on the subway or walking down the street. I can’t help singing along, just as horribly as Barry did 25 years ago. Call it a tennis coach’s final lesson.

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