Live Ball: Tennis done differently (and better?)

Saturday, December 21, 2013 /by
Photo from latennis.co
Photo from latennis.co

LOS ANGELES—Given the frenzied, workout-obsessed world we live in, it was only a matter of time before tennis came along for the ride.

Live Ball. It’s been described as tennis crossed with aerobics, but really, it’s much more than that. Live Ball is the tennis equivalent to a video game; a unique on-court experience made for the Xbox generation.

Live Ball is the tennis workout that tries to check all the boxes: Fitness. Fun. Action. Camaraderie. It’s an approach to tennis where instruction takes a back seat to fitness, where servers and returners are replaced by champions and challengers, where hushed tones and handshakes are trumped by trash talk and fist-bumps. 

Many believe that the tennis clinics of old will be pushed aside, replaced by new approaches like Live Ball. That remains to be seen. The real question for me, pondered while walking onto the court with racquets in hand, was this: 

Could Live Ball live up to the hype?

*****

I’m told that the Thursday night Live Ball clinic is often a mixed bag. Player skill levels can range anywhere from 4.0 to 5.5. That’s quite a spread, and I’m worried about where exactly I’ll land on this scale. Normally, it wouldn’t be a concern, but the evening is chilly, I’ve been sitting all day, and my racquets haven’t left the trunk in a week-and-a-half. Not exactly the makings for a good first impression.

Including me, there are 11 of us in our group, and everyone looks like a player. Some have their game faces on, but others are loose and chatty. One guy shares that he’s out here three times a week. Another swears I’ll be hooked by the first basket of balls. A third mentions that he may have to cut out a bit early. Have to keep some perspective, he tells me. His wife and two kids are home with the flu.

Three pros will be running the show tonight, and they split us up onto two courts. I ask how long we warm up for and I’m told that we don’t. I ask what the rules are and I’m told that newbies learn on the fly.

Live Ball, it becomes clear, is all about the moment. It’s about enjoying a sport that we all have a passion for. Our group is comprised of a variety of players—different skills, different incomes, different ages—but there is one common thread: All of us are here to squeeze out every ounce of tennis that we can tonight. Fine by me.

Five players per court, one feeder, and away we go.

*****

Prior to starting the Tennis Channel in 2003, Steve Bellamy was a teaching pro in Pacific Palisades, California. He had spent years building the Palisades Tennis Center into a successful operation, but it bothered him that tennis in the rest of Southern California was moving in the wrong direction. Clubs were folding, courts were disappearing, and players were drifting away.  

It should have been a golden age for tennis. With Americans dominating the professional tours—Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Lindsay Davenport, and the Williams sisters were all topping the charts—the sport should have been expanding. Yet what Bellamy was seeing, at least in his neck of the woods, was a sport losing momentum. Something was pulling the players away.

“I was bummed out about this,” Bellamy said. “Because many of our players were choosing to take a spin class or a yoga class instead of a tennis class. The real question was why. What we found was the traditional tennis clinic had become stale.”

So Bellamy began to experiment. “We tried different tennis formats, different on-court activities. We tried to make it fun, to add some speed and energy. We tweaked it and tweaked it until, finally, we came up with the secret sauce. And that was Live Ball.”

In one form or another, Live Ball can now be found in different tennis pockets throughout the country. “It’s the perfect piece of software for the tennis court,” he said.

And more importantly, Bellamy sees Live Ball as vital to getting more and more people back into tennis.

“The goal is to get the fitness consumer excited about our sport again.”

*****

Traditional tennis clinics have the teacher on one side of the net and students on the other. Balls are then fed to a rotating group of players until the basket is empty. Forehand, backhand, approach shot, volley.

For some, the routine can be repetitive and the experience mundane.  Live Ball, on the other hand, is about spontaneity. A ball is put into play and then anything goes. 

The rules, it turns out, are pretty simple. There are four players in the point at any one time—two on the champion side, two on the challenger side. The feeder begins the point by putting a ball in play, alternating between each of the two challengers. To dethrone the champions, the challengers need to win four points. To fend off the challengers, the champions just need to win two. 

After a few minutes of play, my body gets warm and I start to get into the rhythm of the court. Overall, the group is a good one and our levels are pretty close. What takes some getting used to is the pace of the action. Not the speed of the balls, but the frequency of the feeds. One point ends and the next immediately begins. There is no pause in the action, no chance to catch your breath. The court is in a constant state of motion, slowing only to reload the ball basket.

Thirty minutes in and I’m exhausted and wobbly. I’m sweating like a mad fool, even though the temperature has dropped to the high 40s.

But I’m also starting to see the appeal of this game.

*****

Saturday mornings at Palisades Park are when Live Ball reaches a fever pitch. Six courts are going simultaneously, including the hallowed Open Court. This session is by invitation only, and it will often host a range of quality players, from top juniors to former touring pros. Certain players are invited based on reputation; others need to audition.

One person who doesn’t have to prove himself is Derrick Rostagno, once ranked No. 13 in the ATP and a frequent participant—and big fan—of the high-energy clinics.

“Nothing but good things to say about Live Ball. It is as close as you can get to being addicting,” said Rostagno, who now lives in Southern California and practices law. 

“It reminds me of what drew me to tennis in the first place, when I was a seven- or eight-year-old kid. Just playing sets of tennis—singles or doubles—can get old, at least for me. This adds a different level of excitement to the game. Depending on the mix of players, it can be intense. The points can be physical and competitive. There’s often smack talk and bean balls. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Before injuring his arm a few months back, Rostagno was out there at least once a week. “I miss it, but I’ll get out there again.”

“I’ve been the best player on the court and the worst player on the court, and it’s fun both ways. What really has the most impact, though, is the personality of the court. You get a fun group of guys, a good group of feeders, and that’s what can make the clinic.”

*****

From what I can tell, our feeders are at the top of their game. Young and experienced, they keep the game moving and the mood light. A good shot is praised, and a poor one is ridiculed—in a nice way.

The two hours fly by. I’m hitting the ball well by the end, and spend a fair amount of time on the champion’s side. Our group has now shrunk to nine, with a few members peeling off in the second hour. Not the guy with the sick wife, however. He remains to the bitter end, his family, apparently, all in stable condition. 

The last ball is fed and players say their good-byes. Many will be back Saturday, and then the following week. A few even carpool to the courts together. I’m encouraged to come back anytime and I ensure them I will. 

I scan the upcoming schedule and my eyes are drawn to the Open Level. They guard the guest list seriously, I’m told, almost like doormen at some Hollywood party. I ask one of the pros if he thinks I’m ready for Open. I’m half-joking, but he gives me a long, serious look. His message is clear: If you have to ask, then you probably don’t belong.

Something to aspire to. Until then, I tell him, see you next week.

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