Net Gains

Vacations that will help yon become a better tennis player

by James Fallows

THE big problem with tennis is that it’s hard to learn. The bratty personality of today’s typical tennis star is also a problem, but the larger reason for the game’s waning popularity is that many ordinary people have given up trying to play. Tennis takes more time and practice than other forms of exercise—swimming, biking, running, aerobics, even skiing—before a person is good enough to enjoy it. Although there are obvious exceptions, by their twenties most people are as good at tennis as they are going to be. This means that people who don’t start early are at a disadvantage, and those who do start early often hit a plateau.

On the other hand, what a great game! You can play it all your life, once you learn to play at all, and you can get more exercise from it in an hour than you will in a week of golf. In a selfless investigative effort to determine whether I could break the tennis learnability barrier, I recently visited two prominent tennisteaching centers: the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and the Vic Braden Tennis College in Coto de Caza, California (there are other branches of both schools). I enrolled at these campuses as a paying guest, not a reporter, and I judged them from the perspective of a typical “good bad player”— good enough to have played on a high school team, not good enough to have played in college. Further research will no doubt be necessary, but my preliminary findings give me hope.

The Bollettieri and Braden schools are perhaps the best known of several brandname tennis camps across the country. Others in the same category are run by John Gardiner in California and Arizona, by John Newcombe in Texas, and by Harry Hopman in Florida. Hundreds of other camps, advertised in listings in each issue of Tennis magazine, arc run in Sunbelt states and the Caribbean yearround and throughout the country in the summer. They have varying emphases: beginners’ tennis, intensive training for serious juniors, a resortlike experience for more casual players. Some, like the Vic Braden camp, take a scientific and bio-mechanical approach to generating particular strokes, while others, including Bollettieri’s, emphasize conditioning and extensive on-court drills.

Each of the camps I visited reflects the personality of its namesake. Braden and Bollettieri are both in their early sixties and came to prominence during the tennis boom of the 1970s. Vic Braden was often seen as a TV commentator in those years. He is chubby and nonathfetic-looking, although he played in the fledgling pro-tennis tournaments of the 1950s. He has a relentlessly jokey manner, and before going to his “college” I had considered him a professional clown, like the TV weatherman Willard Scott. His school’s slogan is “Laugh and Win.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a convincing picture of Nick Bollettieri smiling. During the big events of the tennis season, when one of Bollettieri’s numerous protégés is on center court, the TV cameras often pick him out in the grandstands, watching the action impassively from behind his wraparound shades. Seeing Bollettieri’s deeply tanned, leatherized skin and motionless head, I am reminded of a crafty and powerful reptile —a Komodo dragon, perhaps, poised until it strikes. No offense, Nick!

The Bollettieri establishment has the atmosphere of a big, hyperserious tennis factory; Braden’s setup is more relaxed and resortlike. There are seventy-five courts at Bollettieri’s academy, and about a dozen at Braden’s. The lodgings at Bollettieri’s are spartan and motel-like, whereas Braden’s are nicely furnished vacation condos. The heart of Bollettieri’s operation is its junior academy, where adolescents from around the world come to live for months or years and do tennis drills five to eight hours a day. Andre Agassi is one of many now-prominent players to have lived there as a youngster. A racket purporting to be the one with which Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992 hangs behind the registration desk.

The good and the bad of modem competition tennis are clearly evident at Bollettieri’s youth academy. The players become amazingly precocious as athletes —Jim Courier and Monica Seles trained here before hitting the circuit in their early teens—but are pushed young into viewing every other student as an obstacle on the road to the Top Ten. Youngsters yell and pout as they miss balls, and the coaches yell at them like Marine Corps drill instructors. Some of this atmosphere spills over to the adult camp. Students at Braden’s school are assigned to four-or-fivestudent coaching groups according to forms they fill out themselves, assessing their own skill. (The groups are rearranged if someone has been unrealistic in his selfappraisal.) At Bollettieri’s all the students are mustered out early on the morning of the first day of camp and run through a classification drill. They take turns returning balls while coaches pace back and forth behind them, muttering and marking down judgments on their clipboards.

I am trying to convey the do-or-die atmosphere of the Bollettieri camp, not to criticize or make fun of it. It is high-powered, serious, and physically demanding. (And hot! Be sure to bring a hat and lots of high-test sun block.) I am usually not “leg-tired" after playing tennis; I was very tired, with sore legs, at the end of each of my three days at Bollettieri’s. About fifty adults were registered for the session I joined. Most were there for three-day or week-long sessions, and many were there for the second or third time. (”Uh, you think three days will be enough?” one coach helpfully asked me during the classification drill.) About a quarter of the students came from outside the United States, mainly Europe and Latin America. Only two or three seemed to be beginners, and they were not enjoying themselves.

After beady-eyed observation I concluded that I’d be able to beat about half the men, and would get beaten by the other half.

The Braden enrollment was smaller, more regional, and less skilled. About fifteen students were there for the weekend session I attended. All were from the United States, most were from the West Coast, several were beginners, and I’d have happily risked money on my chances against any of them in a match.

The great strength of the Bollettieri program is its drills. The day is broken into two on-court segments, from 8:30 to I 1:30, and from 1:30 to 4:00. During those sessions each group of four or five students spends twenty to thirty minutes with one coach, working on a particular stroke or drill. Then the head coach blows a whistle, and the group moves to the next instructor and drill. Nearly all this time is spent actually hitting balls (or picking them up, the inescapable bane of tennis camps), in routines that are increasingly tiring and complicated. Just to keep up the Bollettieri spirit, morning and afternoon sessions often ended with a round of “king of the court,” in which students in each group battled among themselves for supremacy.

The coaches who ran the sessions, all male and mainly in their twenties, were affable, competent, and generally good at explaining their points. (I caught sight of Bollettieri himself for about ten seconds one day, when he was en route between his parking space and his office.) The head coach announced early in the program that he wasn’t going to suggest big changes in anyone’s game. No major grip shifts, no radical alterations in well-established strokes. The idea was to make the most of what each player already knew how to do. Thus the emphasis on fitness, drills, and learning where to be and where to aim on the court.

I felt tuned up and toughened by my time at Bollettieri’s camp, when I had gotten over feeling tired. But the most useful part of the session was not part of the normal curriculum. For an exorbitant-seeming extra fee of $60, one of the coaches videotaped me hitting various strokes for fifteen minutes—and then, for forty-five minutes, went through super-slow-motion replays of each stroke. Few of us in the cannon-fodder ranks have any idea of what we look like while hitting, and even if you’ve seen a normal video of yourself, slow-mo is extraordinarily revealing. Things I would never have believed—for instance, that both my feet left the ground by the time I hit each serve—became undeniable. Things I had heard for thirty years—about moving my feet this way and pointing my elbow that way—suddenly made sense. No wonder the pros are so good! They get to see themselves on slow-mo all the time.

THIS brings us back to Vic Braden, because what Bollettieri offers as an add-on is the essence of Braden’s approach. Braden’s specialty has long been a scientific, or at least engineering-oriented, analysis of sports performance. The slow-mo camera is his basic tool, along with computer models of how people’s arms, legs, and torsos should move if they are to run, throw, or hit as well as they can. The first half hour of a Braden course involves watching a video about these computerized techniques. Because I was still prideful about having endured the Bollettieri camp several weeks earlier, I initially thought that Braden’s program might be too laid-back and theoretical to be of any use. I changed my mind.

Braden’s approach to tennis has two main payoffs. One is that it illustrates why some techniques work better than others in tennis. For instance, every player has heard that it’s a bad idea to throw a service toss too high. Braden’s slow-mo cameras make this lesson unforgettably clear. If the toss goes only as high as it needs to for the serve, the ball remains in a hittable zone twenty to forty-five times as long as if it goes way up and then is accelerating on its way down as you try to hit it. The other great benefit of Braden’s approach is to open up holes in the learnability barrier. By offering a rationale for a certain style of swing, and by showing with his videos exactly how the swing is generated, Braden makes it possible for beginners to learn fast—and for experienced players to change parts of their game they had resigned themselves to. The serve is generally the hardest motion for beginners to learn. I watched Braden spend twenty minutes with a woman who was terrified of the serve. At the end of that period—a blink of the eye. in tennis-learning terms—he had taught her the basic motion. Braden and his sub-coaches suggested a significant change in the way I hit the forehand, for thirty years my favorite shot. I would normally have been afraid to tamper with my only reliable basic stroke, but by explaining the physics of various swings, and taking me through the new swing on slow-mo videotape, they had me willing at least to try it. I’ve begun incorporating it into my game.

The day at Braden’s camp is broken into morning and afternoon on-court sessions, and groups of four or five students practice together, as at Boliettieri’s. There are fewer rigorous drills (and no games of “king of the court”), but students are videotaped several times a day and shown slow-mo replays on the spot. The coaches are similar in background and affability to those at Bollettieri’s.

Braden is a highly visible presence at his camp—or at least he was during my visit. On the second of my two days there it rained for hours and we could not go onto the courts at all. Braden immediately offered to refund half the cost of the weekend, or let students come back for another weekend free, and then spent several hours sitting around with students talking in detail about their strokes. Braden has the air of a natural teacher and an evangelist. At Bollettieri’s camp, where cultivating young prodigies is the main goal, I thought I detected a whiff of contempt for adult plodders like me. Braden actually seemed to be excited to encounter beginners, since there was more room for him to help them improve. These few hours with him were worth the cost of the entire weekend. I didn’t tell the course registrar that-I said I’d use my rain check to come back tor another weekend.

Have I gotten better? Not really, not yet. But for the first lime in many years I have a sense of how I could get better, if I concentrated and took the time. If you’d like the same inkling of hope, here are the details:

The Nick Boliettieri Tennis Academy is five miles from the Sarasota-Bradenlon airport, ft offers adult courses year-round. The “week-long” program, which runs from Sunday evening until Saturday at noon, costs about $1,100 per person with room and board included, and about $800 for tennis instruction only. Prices are slightly lower in the summer. The telephone number is 800-USA-NICK.

The Vic Braden Tennis College offers two-, three-, and five-day courses during most of the year. The cost for instruction and lodging is about $150 a day double occupancy, and $190 single occupancy. Braden also sells his videotapes and his influential book, Tennis for the Future, by mail. The phone number is 800-42COURT outside California, and 800CALL-VIC inside the state. Coto de Caza is half an hour by car from the John Wayne Airport, in Orange County, and an hour and a half from the Los Angeles or San Diego airport. See you there.