BEVERLY HILLS, CA – 1977
“You look great out there, but your mind is made of goulash,” my Dad yelled at me as I missed a blistering down the line backhand. Sure I looked good, I had long strokes and nice clothes and I looked every bit the tennis player that I thought I was. Didn’t Andre Agassi say image was everything? I was captain of the championship Beverly Hills High School tennis team, but I was far from the best player. I’ve played or hit with some icons of the game: Bobby Riggs, Martina Navratilova, Guillermo Villas, Frank Parker, Frank Sedgman, Pancho Segura and the Amritraj brothers, to name a few. I loved tennis because my dad loved tennis, but whatever fantasies I had about my tennis prospects were quickly dashed when I entered UCLA, the top program in the country. The only opportunity I had was…well, there was no opportunity. Real life took hold and after I was married and had children, I left the game when my first wife said competition was stupid. In retrospect, it was me that was stupid for listening to her. In his satirical novel, Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut penned, “And, so it goes.”
Some thirty years after I had last played a competitive match, I met Dave Sivertson, one of these rare beings who seldom misses a ball and who always makes the right shot. He also happens to be ranked number one in the 65’s. Sivertson taught me to think, to play the percentages and to mostly realize that winning at the club level required patience. He taught me that we are not kids anymore and need to accommodate the loss of skills, strength and agility for percentage tennis.
So, long after my father died, I no longer look so great on the court, but I learned to use my head and began to win in U.S.T.A. tournaments and at the club level. Tennis had returned to my life and through it, I also met the love of my life, a 5.0 former UCLA Bruin and tennis champion who is really cute and has a killer two-handed backhand to die for. I guess that is why there is a Love in tennis. “And so it goes.”
As my love for the academic side of tennis grew I became a sponge; talking, reading and ultimately executing a strategy to win at the club level and it was that thirst for knowledge that led me to try to seek a certification from the United States Professional Tennis Association; (U.S.P.T.A.) as a certified professional. I approached it without any intention of becoming a professional teacher, but to learn the tactics and strategy needed to be a good coach that would translate into improving my own tennis game, which, by the way, needed improvement. I thought that if the U.S.P.T.A. was teaching good coaches, that could only make me a better player.
HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA – 2016
Just a stones throw from where The Beach Boys wrote about a magical time when the surf was up, cars were cool, and bronzed women strolled the esplanades of the boardwalk, is the Sea Cliff Country Club, a picturesque tennis and golf paradise kissed by warm breezes blowing hot from the north.
Tooling down the 134, to the 5, to the 710, to the 405 and every damn twisted turn the WAZE app directed me to, I finally arrived an hour and ten minutes before I was to meet with Mike Van Zutphen, who was to be the tester for the certification. I was looking forward to meeting Mike, as I knew he was a veteran of the game and had played and coached at the top levels. He had risen in the ranks of the U.S.P.T.A. and was a “master pro”, the highest designation that anyone can attain as a tennis coach. Mike is one of the few people who knows the game inside and out and has dedicated his life to being the best possible coach. I was eager to pick his brain and to learn from him. As the time ticked away the other applicants began to file in. It was quickly obvious that I was old enough to be most of their fathers and some of their grandfathers. The closest person to my age was 31 years my junior. This was going to be interesting. These kids didn’t know who Ken Rosewall was or that Victor Imperial was a tennis string. One thought it was possibly his grandfather’s car. They had never heard of Forest Hills, thought that Stan Smith was a shoe designer and that Roscoe Tanner was a tanning device. These were kids who hit with full western grips and would make my elbow hurt just by looking at it. “And, so it goes.”
The U.S.P.T.A., like many organizations, is set up to make money and of course to set a standard for a particular grouping of people. The cost for the certification is over $400.00 plus various other small charges that they don’t tell you about. Testing includes an eighty question multiple-choice exam with all the answers contained in a 200 plus page downloadable booklet, which sent me to Staples when I ran out of ink. In addition, there is a grip exam, a feeding exam, a six-hour online youth tennis exam, a group lesson and private lesson exam, and the best of all… what I call, “heart attack time.”
Heart attack time is when you have to show stroke proficiency by hitting to a cordoned off zone on the court. As I was waiting for my turn to show them my classic continental old school backhand, I heard gurgling sounds from the side of me. One kid next in line was having a panic attack. He was hyperventilating, holding his chest and was white as a cheesecake under a bright spotlight. “Dude, it’s okay…it’s just hittin’ a fuzzy yellow ball over a net. You’ve done it a thousand times,” I told him. The kid calmed down. For me, there was no pressure as passing was not the primary reason I was there, but these kids were planning a life of tennis for themselves and I felt bad for them. My new role was to be the old man, the mentor among them, to be encouraging and supportive. The problem was, many of these kids couldn’t play tennis to save their lives.
The stroke proficiency part of the testing is designed for applicants to show the ability to hit to specific areas of the court. What if a player has no form, horrible technique, and major issues with his or her physical game, but somehow can place the ball in the designated spots? That player will pass. But is that the kind of coach I want teaching my kids or anyone for that matter? Not a chance in hell. One kid in particular told me he had never had a lesson, started hitting tennis balls two years prior and his job was babysitting kids at a tennis facility. His boss told him he had to take the test to keep his job. This kid figured out someway, God only knows, to somehow push the ball into the right spots. It was quite spectacular I thought as my chin hit the concrete.
Now, there were some solid players with a good amount of experience out there, but one kid stood on one leg and served, his back nearly to the net and pushed the ball up into the air and into the designated zone. All I could think was wow! That damn ball went right into the zone. I don’t know if he passed. (There are three levels of coaches – recreational, professional and elite), but the rule was: get it in the spot, you pass. I knew I had a classic service motion as did a few of the other applicants, but hell, this kid put “like” twenty-four balls in a row into the box looking like a pink flamingo.
It was time for lunch.
As the young wannabe tennis coaches piled into a car and headed off to one of Huntington Beach’s finest restaurants, Subway, Atomic Burger or Carl’s Jr., I headed over to the Sea Cliff’s clubby Grillroom. One of the kids told me, “I hear that place sucks, you sure you don’t want to go Sonic Burger or somethin’?”
I smiled, thinking about my last cholesterol panel and said, “That place is as bad as a foot-fault on match point. No thanks.” The kid laughed at me and said, “See ya old man.”
As I was standing at the window waiting to order my food, I looked out over the golf course and felt the sun warm my aching joints. Sea Cliff was indeed a beautiful club. Standing behind me was a guy who introduced himself as Howard, Howard Green, from Redondo Beach. Howard Green wore a weather-beaten green cap. Too many hours in the sun made his face look like a California raisin. He had a tooth missing, probably from an errant Titleist launched from a Par 3. I nodded at him and he spoke. “Nice day for golf.”
I smiled and said, “I don’t play golf…tennis is my game.” He looked at me like someone had just died, then looked at his shoes.
“Nice day for the golfers”, I said. His lips tightened and he looked at me, eyes narrowing. “You mean, nice day for the gophers. I saw one out on the back nine.”
My eyes widened and I thought, this is the real Carl Spackler, the crazy Bill Murray greens keeper character from Caddyshack. As I blankly stared at Howard Green, not caring about his gophers or his disdain for tennis players, a bright-eyed young woman broke my moment of realization and dumbstruck awe and asked, “Sir, can I take your order?” I turned to the window. “I’ll have The Chevy Chase turkey club with extra mayo.” “And so it goes.”
Rituals are part of good tennis. We see it at the top level when Rafa picks his butt or flips his hair or rearranges his water bottles ad nauseam. Serena bounces her ball five times on the first serve and twice on the second and Sharapova turns her back to the court before receiving.
Rituals also take place before a match. As we get older, the rituals take on a new meaning. They become the rituals of survival. On a normal day, I get into a hot shower one hour before I play and hope to loosen my muscles that are often as stiff as a corpse in the city morgue. It’s then on to stretching, two Advils, and a rubdown with Icy Hot. I then warm up for a good twenty minutes before starting to play. If I don’t follow this ritual, I spend a good deal of time with my friend Dr. Patterson or on my back for days nursing some injury. It’s my pre-game ritual and that doesn’t even begin to account for the weird stuff I do in a match. By the way, having rituals is part of being a good tennis player and if you don’t believe me it’s on page 76 bottom right of the 200 page test book.
So, now it’s time for me to serve. This is going to be great, I thought. My serve is very reliable, I rarely double fault and I’m reasonably secure with it. However, it was now the end of the day, the wind was kicking up, and it was cold and my shoulder felt like concrete drying. We were tasked with having to hit every type of serve to every part of the court. Usually, this is no problem. At this moment…big problem.
I have arthritis in my shoulder from a dangerous fall during a ski run down a triple-x black diamond run at Gstaad. (Actually, I fell standing dead still tripping over my then three-year-old and falling on a rock at a local California ski resort). As a result, it is difficult to extend my arm fully unless I have performed my rituals. So, Sara Morse, the executive director of the U.S.P.T.A. in southern California who came down to help run the testing says to me, “Go serve.” Thanks Sara Morse, I can barely lift my arm above my ear, but hey, this is the big time, I want to be a professional tennis coach with all the bragging rights I can bring back to my friends at the club.
I line up at the service line, my hand reaches into a basket of balls, I feel the felt, the seams crisscrossing the perfect tennis ball. The aspiring young coaches watch me. I toss the ball up into the fading light, I bend my knees, arch my aching back, and then…WHACK! I launch the ball high into the air nearly hitting an American Airlines 767 on approach to John Wayne airport. My ball lands two courts over never to be seen again. Behind me, I hear a collective groan. I think to myself, “That’s impressive.” I then went into some weird place, a zone, I suppose, maybe a Twilight Zone, where I don’t remember if I got a single serve in from then on. I certainly abandoned any ritual of bouncing the ball, scratching my butt, taking a breath or anything. It felt like I was possessed like a shiny metal ball in a pinball machine…just bang, bang, bang. I kept serving until Sara said, “Ok, that’s it.”
I turned and looked at the young wannabe tennis pros. Their eyes were wide and they stared at me. They stepped back as if I was possessed. As I stood there, I honestly couldn’t tell you if I missed every serve or got all of them in or something in between. I shrugged my shoulders and headed to the parking lot.
As the end of day one came, I was pooped. I jumped into my car, took two more Advils as my multi-surgery repaired arthritic shoulder burned like a piece of toast left in the oven too long and headed home. I bumpered to bumpered up the 405 to the 710 to the 5 and then to the 134 and home to my beautiful Andrea who demanded to know why I stopped to get something to eat. She had dinner ready. Like a double fault on set point, I just bowed my head. “And so it goes.”
HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA – 2016
As a movie and television producer, writer and director, I have spent countless hours working with actors and learning the technique of acting. Today would require all of my dramatic skills. I was about to enter the world of the “Improv.” Improvisation means reacting as opposed to acting. Actors need to take into account what is going on around them and react to it – no text, no preparation and no direction, otherwise known as try to cover your ass.
Yes, I had played tennis at a fairly high level. Yes, I had played tons of matches, hit hundreds of thousands of balls, had been coached by world class players, but; I had never ever, ever, ever, ever, taught a group tennis lesson. Yes, I had worked with friends and become astute at picking out issues of game play and become a sort of go to guy at the club for advice, but teaching a group lesson? No way. I was going to have to put on the act of a lifetime. I was going to have to improvise.
Look, I’m old school. I hit with a continental grip and I have a one-handed backhand. This is the type of game that solicits the whispers of “old timer, old man, and grandpa.” I was up for the challenge, this would be fun…I thought. I knew how to hit every shot except one. It is the one shot I have never hit. The reason that I have never hit it is I was never taught it and never used it and never wanted to use it. That shot is the two-handed backhand. Guess what? The group that I got were four players who all hit the two-handed backhand and guess what else? The shot they wanted to work on was…the two handed backhand. Just marvelous! Awesome baby, and all that jazz. “And so it goes.”
What would Dustin Hoffman do? I worked with him on Tootsie, and not only was he a great actor, but he was a great improviser. Geez Louise, this was really happening. I had worked out progressions for all the strokes: forehand, lob, overhead, serve, drop shot, and volley. Why the TWO-HANDED BACKHAND? WHY? WHY? WHY?
So I looked over at these blank-faced fairly bad 3.0 tennis players and figured, WTF, just go to the basics. Racket back, take the ball early and swing though. Since I had never hand fed a lesson, something we were expected to do, I lined up in front of my four hopeful students and said, “Show me what you’ve got.” Well, I felt like I had walked into an ambush someplace south of Kabul. BAM! BAM! BAM! The shots came buzzing at me as if I were Private Ryan. I didn’t realize that any crosscourt backhands from these not so seasoned players were heading straight for my eyes and even lower places. Thank God I’ve had all the children I want. I glanced over at Mike and Sara who are seasoned pros, very professional and care about the program, but I swear I saw them laughing. Maybe they were laughing at MEEEEE! Why not, I was laughing at myself. What had I gotten myself into? “And, so it goes.”
Well, I got through that…I think. My private lesson exam went better, although I had a woman who had the sense of humor of a pebble from the shore of the Dead Sea. Tester Mike had seen all he needed to, as it wasn’t long before his attention was elsewhere. I figured one way or the other, he had seen enough.
Now I would wait. Yes, wait for my results. Wait for the arbiters of my coaching prowess to decide if I had the right stuff. Could I feed a ball by tossing it underhand correctly? Did I know how much water to use on a clay court? Not sure, can’t find a clay court in southern California. Did I know what panel of the racket butt the western forehand fell on? Did I know the difference between Zyex and a co-poly string? I actually did, but I knew that already, so that doesn’t count. An applicant knows immediately if he or she passed all of the test sections except for the group and private lessons. Those results are shrouded in secrecy and sent to H.Q. in Houston, Texas where the results are then mailed to you. It can take up to two months. The reason for this is the testers don’t want to have to fail an applicant on court and deal with their reactions. To me, that’s a major shank, a bad line call with no challenges remaining.
And so, my great experiment was completed. I certainly did not get what I expected. I learned little about tactics and strategy and I am quite sure none of this made me a better tennis player. I came away with mixed feelings about how the testing is done and how they evaluated coaches, but hey, all in all I had a good time. I found much of the written test to be arbitrary because in many cases tennis is arbitrary with no hard and fast rules. That’s what makes it creative and intellectual and physical and mental all at the same time. Don’t tell me that at every ad point the correct shot is a kick serve to the backhand. What if your opponent has a backhand like Stan Warwinka? Get it? Capisce? I don’t care what the test says. I’m not serving to Stan Warwinka’s backhand.
So, now I had accomplished what I set out to do. Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? I am not so sure as my main objective was not met. On the other hand it was fun and life should be fun and I like to challenge myself to do things out of “my normal.” Most importantly, I made some good friends. As I drove home I struggled whether I cared if I passed or not. I had no plans to teach or coach professionally, but I had put in the effort and a lot of it. I kept telling myself I didn’t care… but down deep I really did.
The U.S.P.T.A. has worked hard and thought long about the best way to teach tennis in the modern era. It has a very good online resource area for its members, tremendous interaction with their coaches and applicants and is setting a good standard for coaches. I was most impressed with their effort to grow youth tennis in the U.S. It’s incredibly well thought out. It is also clear the mandate from the U.S.P.T.A. with the U.S.T.A. setting the tone is to find the next American champion while growing the game.
A few weeks later, I received a letter from the U.S.P.T.A and I stared at it the way I stared at my college acceptance letter back when dinosaur’s ruled the earth. I slowly opened it and read that I had passed. I was a “certified professional.” I thought of my dad and sat back in my chair. I went down to the kitchen and told my beautiful Andrea. “Hey, I passed.” She hugged me and smiled and said. “I’m proud of you. Now will you take out the trash?”
“And, so it goes.”
Rocky Lang with Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon, 1987
Rocky Lang is a motion picture and television producer, writer, director and published author of 8 books, including Growing Up Hollywood. After spending time with his family, the happiest place on earth for him is between the lines on the tennis court. www.rockylang.com © 2016 Harbor Lights Productions, Inc. / Rocky Lang – All Rights Reserved