Is the Underhand Serve Underhanded?

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On an early fall day in the quiet residential community in Tarzana, California, I was warming up on court 7, while a foursome was playing doubles on an adjacent court.

They were solid clubbers playing social tennis–weekend warriors who come to play with knee braces, arm braces and then cool down with ice packs on various parts of their bodies.

What reactions do players get from an underhand serve?

Then something happened. One of the four, Little Mikey, as we call him, served an underhand serve to his opponent Butch for an ace. And Butch’s head exploded off his shoulders.

He let out a guttural scream, marched around the net and pointed a threatening finger at Little Mikey. Everyone became silent, waiting to hear what would come next. “If you do that one more time, I am walking off this court and I will never, ever play with you again. It reminded me of the Taylor Swift song. “We are never ever getting back together.”

I’m a pretty good player, rated a 4.5, and I personally don’t think the underhand serve is underhanded. But Butch obviously did.

Chang Did It

Michael Chang used an underhand serve famously at The French Open in 1989 when he played Ivan Lendl and went on to win the title. Martina Hingis did the same to Steffi Graf at Roland Garros in the 1999 final.

Michael Chang’s famous underhand serve against Ivan Lendl.

Tomas Berdych hit one in Montreal in 2013. Last year, Bernard Tomic used it at the Vienna Open. Bobby Riggs even used the underhand serve against me in a money match in Palm Springs in 1980. (He won.)

Dave Sivertson, a master pro and a winner of the 2017 World Team Championships in the 65 and over division says, “The underhand serve is an incredibly useful tool in the right situations. It is a disrupter, and can also be a game changer.”

Said Jimmy Parker, holder of 132 Gold Balls, “I have wondered if the reaction to the underhand serve is a cultural thing.”

While in Argentina playing a doubles tournament, Parker underhanded the serve to his Argentine opponent who apparently felt his manhood had been disrespected. “The guy fell apart as he spent the rest of the match trying to take my head off. It was an easy win for us.” Parker went on to say.

“The underhand serve is just another shot to use, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t try to be deceptive when using it, and in fact, people now expect it from me,” he added.

Underhand Was the Original

In the 19th century when the net was 4 feet high the underarm serve was the norm.

What most people don’t know is that when tennis was being born, the underhand serve was the norm. The net was quite a bit higher, approximately four feet high and the server had to underhand the serve just to get the ball over the net. The serve at that point was just a way to start the point.

However, in 1882, the net was lowered to 36 inches at the center strap and 42 inches at the posts. With this change, it became more effective to serve the ball from an overhand position.

In the 20th century the overhand serve became a huge weapon with players like Bill Tilden and Ellsworth Vines blasting balls for easy points. But the underhand serve was never declared illegal or unethical. Technically it was just another possible shot.

Butch, the ballistic club player, might as well have said that the drop shot is illegal, or that the curveball in baseball or the reverse in football are also unethical and unfair.So, why the outrage? Lobbers, dinkers, pushers, and drop shotters all drive people crazy, but nothing drives people crazier than the underhand serve.

Joel Drucker, a writer for Tennisplayer, Tennis magazine and theTennis Channel told me this: “When competing, we often live on a thin knife’s edge between tranquility and tension. The rarity of seeing an underhand serve –and the challenge of having to deal with a ball that’s potentially quite short and spinning in previously unseen and difficult directions — can send someone right over the cliff.”

Just last week at the Monte Carlo Masters, Tennisplayer contributor Craig O’Shannessy suggested somebody should try an underarm serve against Rafael Nadal.

“Rafa is standing to receive the serve so far back that if you are behind the court you can’t see him if you are sitting in the stands,” Craig said.

“It would be a perfectly legitimate tactic and would disrupt the way he is playing at the moment.”

In the 20th century with Bill Tilden and others the overhand serve became a weapon.


Of course we see club players blasting balls everywhere, over hitting and doing multiple other things that are outside of their talent box. They do it for a reason. They like the concept of the winner, they like the ace, they like the big shot. Even if they lose badly they will tell you about the point at 15-40 when they crushed a ball down the line for a winner.

They won’t remember the next three shots they missed by three feet. And so, when a player lines up to serve and then wickedly spins an underhand serve that hits the court surface and wildly spins away from the receiver, that guy’s worldview has been destroyed.

Now one of two things will happen. The guy goes nuts and calls you names and threatens to attack. Or more rarely, a light bulb goes on and he considers doing it himself at the next opportunity.

Personally, I have had significant arm issues and I have developed an underhand serve that I use occasionally to give my arm a break. However, I also use it when I see my opponent standing so far back behind the baseline that he’s pretty much in another county.

To have an effective underhand serve takes practice, just like any other shot. There is a skill to it, a technique. How hard do you slice the ball, do you put a fast slice on it or a slow slice?

How will you anticipate where the return goes and what is the connecting shot after that? It’s not, or shouldn’t be, just a spur of the moment impulse. It takes the same consideration as any other shot you learn to master.

I use the underhand serve to give my arm a break—and as a tactic.

Stacy Margolin Potter, former NCAA singles champion and a top twenty player on the WTA Tour said that she learned the underhand serve from famed coach Jerry Teegarden. Stacy, “If it’s good enough for Peaches Barkowicz it’s good enough for you.” For those of you unfamiliar with the legendary Peaches Bartkowicz, she was one of the original nine women who formed the WTA with Billie Jean King. She was unafraid to use the underhand serve.

So, there is more to the underhand serve than most people think. There is technique, strategy, and execution. And you also have to prepare for the guy who goes Rambo on you. In my opinion if that guy comes charging at you, it’s okay to protect yourself with an overhand serve or any other perfectly legal tennis shot.

The History of Tennis Balls

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The History of Tennis Balls

Real Tennis, the sport of kings–circa 700 years ago.

Can you imagine tennis without the balls? Tennis balls have undergone an incredible journey. That journey goes back over 700 years or more.

Before there was tennis as we know it, there was a game called Real Tennis, the original racket sport from which the modern game of tennis is derived. Real Tennis, coined the Sport of Kings, started in England in the 1400’s.

The game was played inside on an oval court with balls that didn’t bounce, weird rackets and a scoring system and rules that would confound any serious student of the game. But they did use some sort of ball.

The balls in those times were often made of cork, with fabric tightly wound around the cork, and covered with a hand-sewn layer of heavy woven woolen cloth. But since there were no uniform balls in Europe, they could be made of pretty much anything that could fit inside the covering including animal intestines.

Real Tennis actually evolved from a 12th century game in France that is thought to have been called tenez, which means “take hold.” I think this was a metaphor for their get out of my face attitude, given the wars between France and England at the time and might explain Shakespeare’s scene in the Henry V:

When we have marched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a
wrangler hat all the courts of France will be disturbed
with chases.
Henry V


The original balls: stuffed with wool or cork, wound with fabric or animal intestines, covered in woolen cloth or leather.

In England in 1463, Parliament passed an act banning the importation of tennis balls, as well as playing cards, and dice, which hurt the game significantly. Across the channel in 1480, Louis XI of France, a tennis buff himself, forbade the filling of tennis balls with chalk, sand, sawdust or earth and sand.

He said the balls needed to be made of good leather and well stuffed with wool. He didn’t want them stuffing them with animal intestines either.

Centuries later, some balls recovered on the roof of Westminster Hall in London, during a period of restoration in the 1920’s , found old balls made of putty and human hair, possibly cultivated from the French they guillotined in the town square.

The first proto-modern balls: vulcanized, air-filled, with and without cloth coverings.

Origins of The Modern Ball

The first significant change in the tennis ball came in the 1870s in England when lawn tennis began to replace real tennis as the game. Walter Clopton Wingfield, a Welsh inventor, who was one of the pioneers of lawn tennis along with Augurio Perera and Harry Gem, began to import rubber balls from Germany where the Germans had been successful in creating vulcanized air-filled balls.

These were light and grey or red in color and had no covering. Then John Moyer Heathcote, an English barrister and real tennis player, suggested covering the rubber ball with flannel. By 1882 Wingfield began advertising his balls as clad in stout cloth. This was the beginning of the balls we know today.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the entire tennis market was affected. Because 90% of the rubber being cultivated was going to war priorities, this put an end to the manufacturing of tennis balls. Tennis players would go into tennis stores and buy them out in fear there would be no balls on the market.

The Wilson Victory ball made of reclaimed rubber, used during WW II.

There was a good back-stock of balls, but all the ball brands went into R&D looking for ways of creating balls that didn’t need crude rubber. Out of this came the “Victory” ball made of reclaimed rubber with black seams, although its bounce height was about 6 inches lower than traditional balls.

The Pennsylvania ball company also made balls from recycled rubber and, in a big step in the history of the game, was the first company to sell balls in pressured cans.

The modern ball has gone through its own evolution especially when it comes to the packaging and the cans, and of course, changing the traditional white balls to optic yellow in 1972 so the TV audience could better see the ball.

Penn balls: the first sold in pressurized cans.

Interestingly, because of International Tennis Federation regulations, the making of the tennis ball hasn’t changed much in years and most of the factories are the Far East. Outside of Bangkok, Wilson’s 118,403 square foot factory turns out a 100 million of the yellow-green furry things every year, using a process that involves 24 intricate steps.

Chris Clark, the Global Product Manager for Wilson Racquet Sports said that the difference with the balls both for Wilson and the other companies is the manipulation of the felt on the ball.

“It’s what gives the ball its own personality,” he said. “A ball that is woven tighter will play faster and will turn bald faster, while other balls that tend to fluff up are termed in the industry as ‘hairy halos’, and these balls will play slower.”


The Wilson factory in Bangkok turns out 100 million balls a year.

Strangely, modern tennis balls have made an appearance on the political scene. In one of the oddest edicts came from the city of Cleveland during the 2016 Republican convention when they banned at least 72 kinds of weapons and gadgets from the 1.7 square mile “event zone”.

Guns were allowed, as it’s an open carry state but not tennis balls. Tennis balls were deemed more dangerous than carrying a gun.

On a more serious note, Wimbledon was called out this year as it was revealed that the beloved Slazenger tennis ball used at The Championships were made in a sweltering factory in the Philippines. The workers were making pennies on the hour, far less than the allowance the ball boys and girls get for handling them on the Wimbledon grass.

Further down the supply line, the rubber workers supplying the rubber for the shells of the balls earn less and are forced to cultivate the rubber from Basilan, a dangerous Island that is terrorized by the Islamic State.

The Wimbledon ball: from sweltering factory to cool grass lawns.

Tennis balls continue to be the great equalizer as they are used at every level of the game and with the advent of youth tennis; they now come in different sizes.

The bigger foam balls and the various depressurized balls used by young aspiring players are intended to grow the game of by helping players become more skilled at earlier levels.

At the club and USTA level, the balls often become a point of conflict. Who brings the balls, who opens the balls and when, and what kind of balls does a particular player want to play with? Dunlops are harder, Penn’s fluff up more and what about the many kinds of balls offered by any one company? And then there is that Federer ball that is more expensive than any of the others.

The Future

Rich Francey, Director of Sales for Tennis Warehouse says “I don’t see any significant changes in ball technology in the future and I don’t see manufacturers doing anything to increase the life of the ball.” Francey went on to say that tennis ball prices have not increased in the last twenty years in the U.S. but in Europe they sell for as much as $12.00 a can.

A big change in junior tennis – depressurized, lower bouncing balls.

The relationship with the player and the tennis ball can be a complicated one. Players like Novak Djokovic are so mesmerized by the ball that they will bounce it dozens of times before actually striking it. His bounce record is 39 times in a 2007 Davis Cup match against Australia.

Former U.S. #1 and 1959 Wimbledon semi-finalist Sally Moore, who always had a positive outlook on the game, stated that she loved tennis balls and believed because of that love the balls would be good to her in her matches.

Djokovic once bounced a ball 39 times before a serve.

Dominika Cibulkova appears to kiss newly opened tennis balls. She denies that and said instead, “I smell them, I love their smell, the smell of new balls.” The Slovakian claimed that she could smell a ball and know which tournament it came from. At the 2017 Wimbledon Championships, Dominik was blindfolded and then correctly matched each ball by smelling it to the tournament it was originally used in.

Other tennis players seem to hate tennis balls so much that they will hit them out of the stadium. Players often curse at the ball and call it names. Canadian player Denis Shapovalov hit a ball that nearly took off the head off chair umpire Arnaud Gabas and fractured his eye socket.

American Jack Sock has developed his own ritual and wants each ball handler to only have three balls at any time. He recounted a story: “At one point one ball boy had four balls and the other had two, and I got broke in that game. I had to have a little talk with the ball handlers and told them they needed to keep it three and three.”

Ever Present

Tennis balls have become ever-present in our world today. They are used on the bottoms of walkers, as throw toys for dogs, doorstoppers and even reconstituted carpets made from repurposed rubber.

Denis Shapovalov fractured the eye socket of chair umpire Arnaud Gabas.

In the United States alone 125 million tennis balls are sold each year and 325 million worldwide. Sadly over 100 million balls are dumped into landfills each year and will take over 450 years to decompose. So the next time you decide to hit a ball over the fence remember, it will likely be there long after you’re gone.

Finally, the great Billie Jean King finds spiritual meaning in the tennis ball. She said, “I love the smell of the ball and the sound of the ball hitting the strings. The seam on the ball reminds me of the separation between the land and the ocean on earth.” That is deep thinking.

Why Senior Tennis Matters to the Rest of Us

“You Schmuck” my father’s voice bellowed as I hit a backhand that hit the back fence. My dad was referring to me using my head, but I thought image was everything. Hey, that’s what Agassi said, right? And besides, I liked hitting winners, when they went in. It was fun. I had played tennis since I was ten-years old and found very limited success as a junior but was the captain of the Beverly Hills High School tennis team, so at least I had that going for me. However, I was not destined for greatness, at least not on the court.

After leaving the game for thirty years to become a writer, producer and director in Hollywood, I once again fell in love with tennis in my early 50’s. This was mostly because I was looking for an escape from a bad marriage and what I call, my lost decade. Tennis became my escape. As much as I thought I was still a kid, my body said I wasn’t. Unlike the Six Million Dollar Man, I was neither faster nor stronger and no one could rebuild me either. It was at that time that I met Dave Sivertson, a former college player, who played back in the 70’s, but made his name as a director of tennis at several high-end clubs including Braemar Country Club in Tarzana California and Mission Hills Country Club in Palm Desert California. He has been designated a Master Pro by The United States Professional Tennis Association. This means, he’s really super good. Dave remade my game and taught me how to win at the USTA league and club level. After struggling to play tennis well and after the three-decade layoff, Dave helped me get to a point where I reached my goal and became a 4.5 player and began to win almost all of my matches. And, just for fun, I got my USPTA professional certification. For me, that was really cool. I wished my dad were alive to see that. Finally, I was using my head and as for image, let’s just say we left that at the door.

Six months ago Dave called and told me that he would be playing for the U.S. Super Seniors men’s 65 and over team in the ITF (International Tennis Federation) World Championships. This was a significant honor as the United States Tennis Association selects the top 4 players in the country based on performance of wins at the national level. Last year the event was held in Croatia and this year it was held at The U.S. National Tennis Campus, in Lake Nona, Florida… “The Home of U.S. Tennis.” This was something I had to see, so I booked my flight and headed off to Orlando, home of Mickey Mouse, humidity and unmarked toll roads.

The National Tennis Campus is a phenomenal facility. Beautifully landscaped, and set on 64 acres, it is the home of U.S. player development and boasts a hundred courts, some pretty good food and beautiful views. It is also on the landing approach path to Orlando International Airport, which I think was planned to prepare future U.S. stars to play at the U.S. Open. That venue is also on the landing path for JFK. The planes are so low, I am quite sure John Isner could hit a ball inside the wheel well of one of those big birds descending out of the south.

One hundred and twenty-three teams from thirty-one countries competed this year in nine divisions of the Super Seniors World Championships, and it was remarkable tennis. Tennis fans today are fixated on the pro-tour, however, for anyone at the club and recreational level who is serious about playing tennis to win, it’s important to seek out high level senior tournaments because that is the game you need to see in order to make your game better. Federer, Williams and Nadal are great entertainment, but senior tennis is the type of game the club and recreational player needs to watch. The game is slowed down, but the quality isn’t.

We have all seen the club player try to whip a forehand up the line clearing the net by a nano-inch only to stumble across the doubles line and off the court. If they are incredibly lucky, the ball goes in the court but they are as out of position as Nick Kyrgios would be in a synchronized swimming competition. This is the twenty-year old self-talking to us. It’s the part of us that tells us no matter how old we are and how creaky our bodies are, we can still do it. Sorry Charlie, but we can’t. Why not just toss up a lob and reset the point? Why, because it’s boring. However, if you want to win, patience and tactics trump winners.

Several years back, Dave Sivertson adopted a philosophy on winning that involves a few very basic ideas. These are common sense concepts but yet most club players never do them. Winners are overrated, risk must be assessed on every point and patience and percentage tennis are paramount to winning. This philosophy translates down to from the 5.0 levels to the 2.0 levels. Even if you look at the data from the top tour players, you will find that over time the players with the least unforced errors win more matches than those with the most winners. This data explodes exponentially at the club level, which means, winners may be fun, but they are not the way to win.

While other players at the top levels of senior tennis may not articulate this philosophy, they seem to intuitively do it. Jimmy Parker, who played in the Men’s 70 and over division has a record 131 gold balls. Tina Karwasky, the number one woman player in the world in the 65’s and former top 100 tour player has 121 gold balls and also uses this philosophy to win. In many ways she is a mirror to Sivertson. Both players and their teams won gold medals this year. The women’s team beat Australia and the men’s team defeated Austria. In fact seven American teams were in the finals with six taking gold medals.

This is not a game of power, it’s a game of tactics and strategy…a game of who makes the fewest errors, and who has the most patience. You won’t see a lot of winners, but you will see remarkable tennis. The elegance of performance is evident in almost every match.

And so my journey to Lake Nona came to an end as I celebrated with Dave and his team of Larry Turville, Len Wofford, and Paul Wolf, all stupendous players, I came away with one thought. This was a lot of fun and despite their age, these guys define what a champion is both in the way they play and the way they comport themselves on the court. This trip was definitely a winner for me. And as they say, “Tennis is the sport of a lifetime.”

And So It Goes – My quest to get a U.S.P.T.A. Professional Tennis Certification.


“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.


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.”


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.   © 2016 Harbor Lights Productions, Inc. / Rocky Lang – All Rights Reserved