Tennis has not only given me much, it has taught me much. It's no accident that tennis uses the language of life, service, advantage, break, fault, love; the lessons of tennis are the lessons of maturity. –Andre Agassi
I thought it was the greatest scam going.
My high school administrators allowed athletes to leave for an athletic study hall during the last hour of the school day to begin practice early. So, by 2:30 pm every afternoon, I was on the familiar concrete tennis court with white lines, and nets that were probably a few inches too low, ready to play the only sport I’ve ever really loved to play.
On the days when nobody else showed up early, I had the coach all to myself. His name was Phil Gradoville. His personality was an odd mixture of snark and stoicism, but you never doubted that he cared about you, or the game. He wasn’t the type of coach who pushed you if you didn’t show the desire to be pushed, but it you wanted to improve, he was there for you.
On the days I showed up before other players, Coach worked with me on my volleys, feeding me one ball after another. My body type wasn’t exactly conducive for tennis, so it made sense for me to try to end points early. He knew that.
“Don’t swing at volleys,” he would say. “Punch them … like this.” He would show me the proper motion – no more than six inches of racquet movement – and when I listened to him, my volleys sprang to life. And since this was before the modern advancements in equipment, the serve-and-volley game was still a winning strategy for those who had the hands for it.
So that’s what we worked on – my serve, and volleys.
Coach Gradoville placed tennis ball canisters in various places of the service boxes and told me to hit them. At first, I couldn’t pull it off, even with a full basket of balls, but eventually I improved to the point that I could hit them several times per basket. Coach was teaching me the importance of hitting my spot on command, so I could charge the net while my opponent was in a defensive position.
“You need to be inside the service line by the time you hit your volley,” he would say. “Don’t get too close to the net though because that makes you susceptible to the lob – especially from a player who is on the defensive, but try to get a couple of feet inside the service line and then meet the ball.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a life lesson. All of life is about proper positioning. If you talk to the right people, and contemplate what they say, then take action, you’ll find you are exactly where you need to be when the right moment comes along. I only wish I had realized this sooner.
When tennis practice began officially, Coach had the team work on other fundamentals. And I benefited from all of them. In fact, playing the serve-and-volley game, as well as sticking to the other fundamentals Coach taught, helped me transition from hack to good player status. I was never great, but I was as good as I could be and that made me feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life.
As the overweight kid who simply wanted to blend in, I rarely did. Instead, I picked up size-related nicknames: Big Guy, Big Man, and later, Slow-Mo (“because you look like you are in slow motion when you run”). Most of the nicknames faded over time, but they did their damage – driving an already shy kid even further inside himself.
I worked hard during the summers leading into my junior and senior years to get into the best shape possible, and as I look back on those photos now, I realize I was in the best shape of my life. But the track and field coach still wasn’t going to come calling. In my mind, I was still the same kid who didn’t want to poke his head into reality – fearful of what new nickname might be waiting for me.
Over time though, tennis, and Coach Gradoville, changed that. As I implemented what he taught, my tennis skills improved. My intuition on the court did, too. I ran down balls I had no business running down because I could anticipate where an opponent was going to hit his shots before he actually did. I made volleys and half volleys that would satisfy the best of players. And to my surprise, and delight, I wasn’t Slow-Mo on the court. I was Normal-Mo – maybe even Fast-Mo.
That’s why this article in the Wall Street Journal nearly ruined me, in the best way possible. It’s a story about a high school tennis coach named Ward Gay from Massachusetts who made a tremendous impact on his kids over the course of 40 years. He passed away recently, but his legacy lives on in those boys.
I know how that feels.
Coach Gradoville passed away twenty plus years ago after health complications set in from a car accident. I took time off work to attend his funeral. The church was packed with former players and students. Many wore green (the color of the school where he was teaching when he died) blazers to show their support. We mourned, and celebrated, en masse.
And every year around this time, during the US Open tennis tournament, I celebrate and mourn all over again.