October 20, 2014

Guy Stuff

The Ultimate Tennis Lesson 

A female voice in the stands heckled, "Fisher looks like Bobby Riggs, only worse." I have spindly legs, but tennis is not about physical size. It’s about movement, timing and training. It’s also about hitting the ball.

I was at center court to play tennis great Andrés Gómez. He is a big, friendly guy who likes to surf. He won the 1990 French Open Grand Slam singles, beating Andre Agassi. He also held World No. 1 doubles ranking in ’86, and won the ’88 French Open Grand Slam doubles. But he is retired, and I drank two body-fortress breakfast drinks instead of one.

Gómez visited Naples to coach students at the Academia Sánchez-Casal at the Naples Tennis Club. The academy, which originated in Barcelona, Spain, grooms players to turn pro and trained today’s stars Svetlana Kuznetsova, Andy Murray and many other top 50 pro-tour players.

Craig Bouchard, president of the Naples Tennis Club, says the academy booked 350 student weeks this year, up from 250 last year. Students come from around the globe––Mexico, Spain, Italy, California and New York. I watched a training session taught by Mariano Albert, a charismatic coach who drills his charges rigorously to improve endurance and concentration.

Albert says "Vamos!" and bounces a ball near a cone at the baseline. Marina Nikolic, 14, smashes a dynamic forehand, takes three steps around the cone and whacks a strong backhand. The entire drill takes 10 seconds and is repeated for 20 minutes. She says players grunt "to let out energy and add power." It’s grueling, and I only observe.

An elfish Ishanka Mohottige, 16, takes her practice at the baseline. She blasts shots across the net––every one off the sweet spot. With a shy smile she says, "My dream is to be No. 1."

The weather is warm when Gómez and I walk onto the clay court. Gómez serves a rocket to my backhand. A voice announces, "Ace. … 15––Love." I do my best McEnroe, "What? Are you blind? That was out!" The apparently biased line judge reaffirms the call, "Ace."

My retina catches a flash of fluorescent yellow before Gómez delivers a bullet. I’m positive it’s long. "Ace. … 30––Love." I tighten my fingers, shake my racquet and kick at the clay. This time I will grunt and swing. Gómez throws the ball high, makes contact and electrifies the air with a lightning bolt. No grunt. No swing. "Ace. … 40––Love."

Time to psyche out my opponent. As Gómez makes contact I yell, "Andrés, your shoe is untied." I’m not sure what happened next, except the taste of a tennis ball is unpleasant––like flat tonic water. "Ace. … Game."

I demand a new opponent. Perhaps Marina or Ishanka will go easy on this Riggs wannabe.

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