I’ve always been a sporty person. I was on the swim, softball and soccer team in middle school. In high school, I played on the varsity soccer team. I love watching and playing all kinds of sports. While attending so many athletic events in and around Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, I encountered a recurring question from event organizers, players and coaches: "will you be joining us today?"
My answer was always a regretful "no." How could I run the race, do the exercise class or shoot the bow and arrow while weighed down by my trusty Nikon D800, notepad and recorder? Not to mention the fact that my involvement surely meant I would miss some of the highlights and important happenings. Luckily, with this fitness column, I have a solution. I can try out new activities and write about the experience here, so everyone can see through the eyes of a beginner.
For my first Beginner’s Luck experience, I reached out to the Lejeune High School tennis coach, Charles Teegarden. I love watching tennis, and I understand the scoring, but I’m a newbie to actually playing the sport. After discussing practice schedules, it was official. The Lejeune tennis players were going to teach this old dog some new tricks.
I showed up to the Paradise Point tennis courts Oct. 19, and Teegarden greeted me. First, I partnered with Natalia Gonzalez and Faith Chapman. These girls had their work cut out for them. I explained I knew how the scores worked, but not much else, so my first lesson was how to hold the racket.
It seems simple enough, just grab the thing and hit the ball, right? As it turns out, no. Gonzalez showed me the correct way to hold the racket, like "a handshake." Chapman warned me not to grip the racket too tightly – apparently, my death-grip wasn’t as affective as I’d hoped. The last important aspect of tennis is hitting the ball at the right angle on the racket. You know how people say you never use math in life? Well, you do in tennis. If you’re hitting the ball and your racket is at a perfect 90-degree angle from the ground, the ball will pretty much go where you want it to go. If your racket tilts upward slightly by a mere two or three degrees, the outcome is dramatically different. Those two degrees may not seem like much, but when the ball travels 45 feet from the middle of one court to the middle of another, the tiny difference in positioning makes your ball two feet out-of-bounds.
The backhand stroke was very awkward for me. With two hands on the racket, where is your elbow supposed to go when you’re winding up? Gonzalez gave me a couple tips on keeping the backhand stroke in check: pivot your back foot while swinging your hips. When I remembered to do this, the swing was on-point. Chapman does the backhand more unconventionally – with one hand. With her method, you don’t actually swing the racquet in the horizontal direction; instead, you swing it diagonally, like a backslash on a keyboard. It seemed natural to me, and I’d definitely work on that method, if I had more time. Today, however, I was limited to about 30 minutes with Gonzalez and Chapman before grouping up with two other players.
With Gonzalez and Chapman, I learned the basics. Here’s what they had to say about my performance:
"Work on the placement of your body and position of your racket," said Gonzalez. "If you can master those two, you can win. You’re supposed to hit it hard, it’s the placement of the racket that makes it work."
She also said I play on my heels. With flat-feet, you can’t get to the ball as fast, so you’re supposed to stay on the balls of your feet. Chapman said I needed to stay more toward the back of the court because, "it’s easier to move forward than backward."
For the last 30 minutes, I learned from Destiney Acosta and Caroline Morgan. They taught me how to serve the ball, giving me clarity to know one thing: I’m terrible at serving. I’d rather return a backhand every time than serve. The ball can’t bounce when you’re serving, like I’d hoped, and it must land in the square diagonal to you, closest to the net. I’m 5 feet, 4 inches tall, on a good day. When I look across the court at the box I have to hit, the net blocks the whole thing. In any other sport, I was always taught to look where you want the ball to go. When I toss the tennis ball above my head, I can’t look at the square, I have to look straight up, in the clouds at this ball and hope I remember the direction to hit it. If I played in an actual game against someone, they would crush me because I can’t serve. As a bit of a reprieve, Acosta taught me to flick my wrist downward while serving the ball, which game me a better angle. I did actually get the ball in the square a couple times, using that technique.
For the last 10 minutes or so, I played in a doubles match with Acosta as my partner against Morgan and Teegarden. Morgan’s serves were a nightmare to return. I did manage to make it to a couple of them, but her placement was excellent. Doubles was a nice break from running all over the court, but with the added pressure of doing a good job for your teammate, it was still a challenge.
I have a newfound respect for tennis players everywhere; they make it look so easy. I got a couple great hits, and the players were very encouraging throughout the practice. All-in-all, I believe I showed up and delivered for the over-30 crowd, with a couple players and a spectating parent asking me if I was sure I’d never done this before. It might have been my first time, but it won’t be my last. I’m putting a tennis racket on my Christmas list this year.