When I was a freshman in college, I played tennis for The University of Hartford. Late in the season, we were playing an away match against our arch-rivals, Central Connecticut, and two Italian female students, accompanied by their male chaperone, followed us to the match. What we did not know is that they also brought along with them a camera. Two weeks after the match (which we won and I defeated the #1 ranked player for all #2 singles players in our D1 division), the male chaperone came to me and handed me a picture he said his two female friends thought I would like to have. I looked at the picture and it showed me in the process hitting a serve where I was fully stretched about to make contact with the ball. Then he said I should take a look at the message the girls wrote to me on the back of the photo. When he walked away, I flipped over the picture and it said, “As a tennis player, I do not know. But as a ‘classic dancer,’ you are fantastic.”
Am I bragging? You would think that I am, but the point I am trying to make is that the sport of tennis, and most sports in general, is a dance. It’s a movement. And when I teach tennis, yes, I sometimes bring up the story when I received the photo from the two Italian girls. But more important, it is also my way to have my students know that they are about to get connected with their own enjoyable feeling of a dance which will help them play the best tennis they can play.
I have been teaching tennis for nearly thirty years. It is not my full time occupation, but any chance I get to go out on the court with someone who is looking to improve, I show up with my basket of tennis balls and off we go. I don’t even play anymore. Teaching and watching the improvement of my students gives me more joy than winning and playing ever once did. So why am I telling you this? I realize that what I love most about teaching is that I help create, with each and every student who both improves and falls in love with the game, someone who has become their own piece of physical art.
Starting with the beginner student, I guess you can compare it to “stick-figure art,” because the initial movements these players learn probably seem a bit robotic and mechanical. But once these players start to feel they can put their own personality and physicality into the mechanics they are taught, this is when the color of the initial stick-figure starts to get filled in. And for me, the director of their growth who continues to help add more color to their movement, it becomes an absolute joy to watch any new player blossom into the best piece of art their physical capabilities will allow.
Recently, I have been working with a high school senior who I have said for years could be the best player in our town if he only had the time to put in the work. “Senioritis” has kicked in and he has finally been given the time needed to help him potentially become the #1 player on his high school team. But when we started working together, regardless of his given-talent to play tennis, he was like my beginner students; he was stick figure art. There was so much I had to teach him.
Though he thought after the first week of our lessons he was ready to take on the world, I knew he was not. And when I got a call from him that he lost to a player who rarely played tennis but compensated for his lack of playing with his great athletic skills, my student was ready to quit the game. After “talking him off the ledge” and getting his head back together, I told him we have just begun the process to improve his game so let’s see what happens the next time you play that player.
As I said, I firmly believe my student could be the best in town. So I knew that I, as the director of coloring his athletic movements into tennis-art, would not only help him defeat the player he lost to, but he would start having more joy for the game. And just a week after his humbling loss, he defeated that player and came to me and said, “Now all I want to do is win!”
It’s been a month since that initial loss and he no longer plays with that player for he has beaten him two more times and he knows he has moved beyond that level. So have I created a monster who only wants to dominate the world of tennis? No. All I have done, as a teacher who knows how to put physical movement into balance and rhythm, is created the best “dancer” my student can be. And he is still improving and has many other things to learn. But watching his ability to hit some of the most difficult-to-learn shots in tennis with both beauty and ease leaves me with the feeling that in some amazing way that I am a tennis-artist as well.
From the beginner to the advanced level player, it is an absolute joy to watch all my “works of art” play and have them enjoy the most beautiful sport of tennis. And I know there are many other tennis teachers who feel the same way I do regarding our journey to help our students improve. So if there is anyone who happens to have a camera with them while watching me teach, please don’t hesitate to take a picture and write on the back of the photo, “As a tennis teacher, I do not know. But as a painter of physical art, you are fantastic.” Enjoy your art, tennis players. May you continue to add more color to your game and your love for the sport.