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Tennis Anyone?

Steve Bracci

In their 1984, number-one hit ballad, Foreigner croons about wanting to “know what love is.” The answer is simple and unexpected, perhaps a bit odd on first impression but so true. Love, dear woeful rock band, is tennis. How fitting that the passionate term is used in the scoring system (love means zero) for the ultimate game of cat-and-mouse, heartache and glory, give and take, grit and grace. As a sport and a model for life philosophy, tennis is widely underestimated.

From a spectator’s stance, the player’s level of fitness and focus is not always evident, as there is a natural aesthetic to the sport’s movements—the fluidity of a service technique, the side-to-side agility, the crisp reflexes at net. But as many of Augusta’s league competitors and tournament qualifiers will attest, tennis, like love, is tough, demanding a harmony of athleticism, strategy and concentration that is totally worth the commitment of time, body and spirit.

Tennis demands technique in a pinch and...a lot of fast-twitch muscle action...

After 25 years of playing golf, 65-year-old Jim Spangler took a free tennis lesson. “And that was the end of golf,” says the Petersburg Racquet Club member, who has been enthusiastically hitting the courts instead of the greens for 18 years. “Golf is men out there eating cheeseburgers, drinking beer and smoking.  When I played golf I felt like I had to take a long walk when I was done. Tennis requires more physical energy and is a better workout.” As genteel as the sport may appear with its former tradition of all white apparel and enduring standards of etiquette, tennis is hard work and a formidable addition to most any exercise routine.

A groundstroke—forehand or backhand—requires the entire body to multi-task in a coordinated manner. A batter can wait in position at the plate for the pitcher to put the ball where he wants to strike it. But a tennis player must hit every ball that crosses the net in bounds, whether or not he likes its placement, trajectory, speed or spin, all of which he must read in order to effectively prepare for the shot. Even if the ball comes right to the player, preparing for a solid thwack involves several precise and quick adjustments of the feet while coiling back the hips, torso and upper body, and setting the racquet. Then the perfectly timed uncoiling and balance to hit the ball. Within seconds, that flash of yellow-green fuzz will be back, this time most likely forcing the player to execute all of those pre-strike movements, as well as make the racquet-to-ball connection, on the sprint. 

Tennis demands technique in a pinch and therefore results in a lot of fast-twitch muscle action (a player can change direction as many as five times in 10 seconds during a typical point). A lot is demanded of a tennis player—but that’s what attracts Spangler to the court five to six times a week for both recreational play and United States Tennis Association (USTA)-sanctioned mixed and men’s doubles league competition. “Tennis is great to keep your weight right, your blood pressure right. We’re old guys in our 60s and 70s. We know we can’t turn back time, but tennis helps us try to stay even with the aging process,” he says, adding that he and most of his tennis playing friends cycle and visit the gym a few times a week to augment their play. 

“Tennis is a lifetime sport; it truly is,” says Dick Hatfield, manager and director of tennis at Newman Tennis Center since 1990. The former coach of the then Augusta State University men’s and women’s tennis teams, Hatfield has been active in the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) and Professional Tennis Registry (PTR) since 1979, coaching juniors at the district, sectional and national levels in Florida, New Hampshire and Georgia. His work with adults is equally impressive and has had a significant impact on tennis in Augusta. “Years ago I taught a lot of beginner adults. At one point we had 250 league players that came out of the instructional program at Newman,” he says. “I like working with adults. The learning curve is so steep in those early months. It is such a joy to watch them come back week after week and see what they remember and how much better they’re doing and understanding what they need to do to control the tennis ball. You don’t have to be perfect to play this game.”

Proving that age doesn’t matter, Spangler qualified and went to four 2013 USTA state championships with his teams, to include men’s 40-plus, 55-plus and 65-plus teams and a mixed doubles team, all of which he also captained. A typical match lasts at least two hours and during tournaments players must often play two or three matches per day, depending on scheduling and how many different teams they play on in the event. Having been to 40 or 50 state tournaments, Spangler is no stranger to elevated, intense competition. “I probably stopped counting at 36,” he laughs.

To prepare for a tournament, Spangler says he must have the stamina for at least six hours of on-court action. He plays in practice matches five times a week during the month leading up to tournament day and takes lessons if a particular element of his game—like his serve—has developed a hitch. This hard work coupled with his domineering six-foot-three presence at net is the formula for his winning record and lasting memories of long, grunted-out victories. “Some of [our opponents] at state look like they just walked out of a tennis magazine—they’re super fit and younger than us. And then my partner and I play over our heads and pull off a win when no one expected,” he says. “People think, ‘Those guys don’t have a chance!’ And we just pull it out. Those are the ones we remember for a long time.”  

Of course, losing is also a part of tennis and can pose psychological challenges in addition to the physical ones. “In my industry I deal with mental fitness as well,” says Hatfield.  “You have a meltdown on the court—why does that happen? It’s an experience—everyone who participates in tennis learns to handle competition. It is my opinion that we have wuss-ified our nation. Everyone gets a trophy. But you feel much better about yourself when you learn something than to be given something that you know you don’t deserve. Our sport is the only individual sport where a person gets to evolve.” 

You could be playing the best tennis of your life—practically feel primed for Wimbledon. But then you step on the court for a match and the opponent, whom you’ve beaten before, is suddenly hitting winners—impossible to reach shots—off nearly every ball. The frustration rises in the form of a distinct heat on the back of your neck; a primal scream is perched on the vocal chords. You’re about to go Johnny Mac out there. “What is going on?” you think. “I’m supposed to be winning.” Tennis has a way of keeping your confidence in check—never too much, never too little. The mental game hangs in a delicate balance where aggression is harnessed but not diluted, where you are ready but not waiting, calm but not nonchalant. It’s one of the toughest tightrope acts in sports.

“Tennis has been a vehicle for women in particular to evolve in their understanding
of competition. Each generation is passing it down to their daughters.”

“People change on the tennis court,” says Deanie Barksdale, local USTA league coordinator and former president of the CSRA Women’s Tennis League (WTL), comprised of approximately 500 players from Augusta and Aiken. She recalls a match at West Lake when one woman was in tears because she didn’t play well, desperately imploring her teammates to help her figure out what she needed to do differently to win next time. “Many of these women [on the CSRA WTL] are stay-at-home moms and it’s interesting to see their competitiveness come out. A lot of ladies have not ever experienced competitive sports,” adds Barksdale. 
Hatfield attributes the surge in popularity of women’s tennis to Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 that requires equal budgets for male and female sports in any federal institution that receives public funding. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years and what we’re seeing in our industry is that women in the ’70s didn’t understand competition as women do now,” he explains. “Many women then did not have the opportunity to play high school sports. Tennis has been a vehicle for women in particular to evolve in their understanding of competition. Each generation is passing it down to their daughters.” 

Fortunately for Barksdale, who is almost 50, her parents, then members of Augusta Country Club, exposed her to tennis. “I took my first clinic in Pendleton King Park when I was a little girl. I’ve been doing it on and off since I was about 7 years old,” she says. “After all this time, I feel like I’m finally at a level where I’m stable, especially over the last six months.” Playing five days a week, including two private lessons and two clinics (organized group drills with a tennis instructor), Barksdale has improved her rating from 2.5 to 4.0. The USTA has a classification system that identifies and describes the general characteristics of different levels of tennis-playing ability, from 1.5 to 7.0, with 7.0 being a world class, professional tennis player. Having a USTA rating allows you to play on leagues designated for your level, so a 2.5 player would never have to weather a 5.0 player in sanctioned competition.

A 4.0 player, like Barksdale, is considered by the USTA to have “dependable strokes, including directional control and depth on both forehand and backhand sides on moderate shots, plus the ability to use lobs, overheads, approach shots and volleys with some success.” Barksdale has worked particularly hard on her backhand, court movement and net play, which must be more aggressive at the 4.0 level. “This is the only exercise I do,” she says. But unlike running on a treadmill like a hamster or most other repetitive workout routines, tennis is exercise that often doesn’t feel like exercise because of the diverted attention to point construction (i.e., hitting the ball near the baseline and then dropping it short on the next hit to force the opponent into making a mad dash for the net and, potentially, lose the point). “It’s a lot of fun,” says Barksdale. “Every game you play is different; there’s different opponents. It’s a real thinking game.”

“You can [enjoy] the same experience as someone who has been playing for 20 years,” adds Hatfield. “The skill level is the only thing that is different. What’s common are the things going on in your head.”

Veterans of the court know, and newbies will quickly discover, that tennis is a relationship involving mind games and surprises…ups and downs. Even from a physical perspective, tennis seeks a unique union. Virtually every muscle group in the body must be engaged in correct timing to reach the common goal of a well-executed shot. The shoulder cannot precede the hips just because it wants to uncoil first; the hips cannot lean over to help you reach a ball without the feet first shuffling under. Fighting among your muscles, fighting with yourself in your head, fighting with your doubles partner—it will definitely happen. But so too will days when your forehand does you justice during a big match point, when your doubles partner carries your weight when you were struggling, when you notice the widespread toning of your body, the quickness in your step. This is what love is all about.

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