Courting Success

Courting Success

Two days of tennis instruction in one beautiful Valley equals redemption on the court.

My husband, Mark, used to be afraid of my backhand. For the first five years or so of our marriage, we’d play tennis on weekends or on trips, and I could often end a point by hitting a strong, angled cross-court backhand that he couldn’t get to, even though he always tried. Those shots could not have felt more satisfying, with that deep thwack off your racquet that only happens when you hit the ball in the right place, at the right time, and with pace.

Then we had kids and stopped playing as much, and I lost my best shot. For eleven years now, despite lessons here and there, it’s been unreliable, either popping up too high or going into the net. Worse, it never feels right when I hit it: the resonant thwack has been replaced by a tinny punch.

So when I went to camp for two days at Sugarbush in June through New England Tennis Holidays (NETH), it was with the hope that I could finally reclaim my long-lost shot, while working on the rest of my game and enjoying late spring in the Valley.

After starting off the day with coffee, berries, and a sausage, egg, and cheddar sandwich at Timbers (lodging at Clay Brook and meals are included in the program), I headed over to Sugarbush Health & Recreation Center (SHaRC) for the 9 a.m. start. Each day would be five hours of playing: three before lunch, two after. There were nine participants—all varying shades of intermediate—and three coaches: Kurt Grabher, the founder of New England Tennis Holidays; Curt Johnson, a Montpelier native who has been head pro for NETH for thirteen years; and Dave Hullett, a California transplant who has been coaching with Grabher for fifteen years.

We started off with some groundstrokes, three quick hits as we each shuffled across the court. Most were hitting forehands, but as a lefty, I was hitting backhands; as usual, some of my shots were going into the net; others were sailing long. Kurt stopped us and brought us in. “You are spending your time running around, not preparing for your shot. What I want is for you to be calm, quiet, and square.” Instead of taking the racquet back (often too far back), he explained, the first movement should be a small turn of the shoulders, which brings the racquet back to its proper place. Then put the racquet out with a firm wrist, and with the strings square—pointed where you want the ball to go. “The ball is only on your strings for a millisecond: it’s all about the contact point,” he said. “It’s the holy grail of tennis.” At different points during camp, Curt and Dave each expressed their own take on how to improve. Curt told me, “As a group, the big thing we try to get people to do is actually less. We want people to calm down, take shorter swings, and hit a cleaner ball, with balance and steadiness.” But it’s Dave’s advice that I think will turn out to be my go-to quick fix when I start thinking too much about my shots: “Do you know what the four most important words in tennis are? Hit the damn ball!”

After some volley drills working on this idea of finding the right contact point, we got to what, for me, was the part of camp I was most worried about: being videotaped and then having my strokes dissected. Kurt stood behind each of us as we hit a series of volleys, shadowing our strokes. At first I couldn’t figure out what he was doing, but when I saw the video, it was crystal clear: each time I hit a ball, he, behind me, had prepared for the same ball perhaps a half second earlier. While I looked like I was dancing and bobbing (flailing?) around the court, his movements were small but efficient. When watching the video together, Kurt told me, “You’re making the balls look like they’re out of your range because you’re moving so much. You are stepping and committing too early.” Seeing it on the screen in front of me, I was able to understand much more clearly how the NETH mantra of calm, quiet, and square could help me with my game.

Back out on the court, we worked on our volleys and approaches. Two people started on the baseline, and tried to close in with each successive shot. Another person played net on the other side, and tried to hit the ball back deep and to the middle of the court (the highest percentage shot). One of the participants, a woman from the Boston area who was there with three friends, hit a stinging passing shot, low over the net. Curt called her in. “Come over here and look at this. You’re giving me goose bumps! You stopped, you set, you hit, and you drove it home.”

Soon we headed to lunch, at Hogan’s Pub, with views over the Sugarbush golf course and the mountains beyond. After three hours on the court, all of us felt like we deserved our meal; some went for cheeseburgers made with local beef from Neill Farm, others for an Asian fish taco or a roast turkey club. During the high season, lunches alternate between Hogan’s and Castlerock Pub. (Dinners rotate among Timbers, the Hideaway, the Elusive Moose, Common Man, and Terra Rossa.) Over lunch, Kurt told us about the history of NETH, which has three locations in addition to Sugarbush: North Conway and Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, and, in the winter, Vero Beach, Florida. Kurt started his coaching career at Sugarbush back in the late 1970s, left to found NETH in North Conway, and brought NETH to Sugarbush six years ago, enticed by the combination of the mountain’s tennis facilities, its beautiful new lodging (Clay Brook opened in 2006), and the Valley’s array of recreational and restaurant choices. The Sugarbush camp (unlike the ones at North Conway and Waterville Valley) goes from late May continuously through mid-October, and participants can choose any combination of days, from two to seven. (NETH runs lessons and clinics at Sugarbush during the rest of the year too.) NETH at Sugarbush has been ranked among the top four tennis camps in the world each year, according to Tennis Resorts Online, and number one in New England. Kurt credits this in part to the experience of his staff. While many camps tend to hire college students just for the summer, Kurt’s focus is on finding teachers who are both good players in their own right and experienced in coaching the type of players who come to NETH. “We coach from an adult’s point of view; it’s different from coaching kids.” Kurt and his wife, Clare, a former professional tennis player, were very deliberate about NETH’s name and what it conveyed. “This is meant to be a holiday, not a boot camp. We’re not here to beat you up; we’re here to enjoy ourselves and learn tennis.” Dave put it another way: “We’re not prepping you for the U.S. Open. We are trying to make the game a little easier and more fun.”

When the end of the tennis day came, two hours later, I did still have energy to take a hike on a trail up Lincoln Peak, or play a match set up for me by one of the pros, or work out on one of the machines at SHaRC. But instead, I decided to take the “holiday” part of NETH to heart and spend time reading my book in the outside hot tub at Clay Brook before exploring the shops and cafés of Waitsfield.

If day one was volleys, day two was groundstrokes: my chance to try to address my backhand.

But first, we examined my forehand, which I’d thought was working pretty well. In the video, though, Curt showed me how instead of turning my shoulders (along with my core) and bringing both hands back together, I was letting my hands separate—a habit, he explained, that lessens both the power and the consistency of the shot. (I know that I will never forget his advice, since he told me that my hand was wrongly coming out in front, as if I were a member of Diana Ross and the Supremes singing “Stop! In the Name of Love.”)

As we watched the video of me hitting my backhand, he had a couple of specific pieces of advice. “Your racquet is too horizontal. You should be coming uphill to the ball, which gives a little more margin for error. Think of your racquet starting out as the sword down in its sheath.” He also talked to me about thinking of turning my shoulders with me as I completed my shot. This, again, would help me involve my core and strengthen my play. Later, Dave asked me to think about loosening the grip of my left hand a bit so that the shot could be more of a right-handed forehand than a backhand pulled by my dominant hand.

Whichever piece of advice it was, my backhand started to click. Throughout the rest of the day, through drills and groundstroke practice and games, I kept on thinking of the sword-in-the-sheath image as a way to get my racquet down where it needed to be. It was such a simple thing, but it worked. Later on, Curt told me that it’s exactly this sort of interaction on the court that keeps him coaching. “What I love about teaching tennis is how making a little change in someone’s game can make a big difference. Even after teaching for more than twenty years, it’s very gratifying seeing someone get better and the enjoyment they get out of that.”

Sure enough, when Mark and I were able to head out to play on a court in our neighborhood the weekend after camp, my backhand had returned from its eleven-year hiatus. After he watched a shot whiz by him, out of reach, he asked, “Do you think next time we could go to tennis camp together?”

The author with instructor Dave Hullett.
The author with instructor Dave Hullett.
The decisive backhand shot.
The decisive backhand shot.

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