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Bonus lesson - Relax and win - Grip pressure (4:58)

USPTA Professional Brett Hobden explains the kind of grip pressure a player should be using when hitting a shot. The more loose a player's grip, the more power he can generate. In this lesson, he analyzes the strokes of two junior players to show what a relaxed grip pressure can do for a ... (Presented by Brett Hobden) | 17602 Views

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Media Added: 10/14/10 Views: 17602
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My lesson with Tom

by Thomas Penner, USPTA


December 2009 -- My wife, Jenny, claimed I'd done most of the talking during my one-hour lesson with Tom Gorman, La Quinta Tennis Club head director and American tennis great. I didn't disagree. I'm a teaching pro and the gift of gab is a virtue.

For weeks I'd been telling my students I planned to take my first lesson in decades during my upcoming trip to the desert. I'd been forever on the north end of my teaching court, sacrificing my youth and forehand volley for the greater tennis good. Now it was my turn. It didn't have to be with Tom; that was just good fortune.

Prior to the lesson I had the occasion to meet one Jim Wolavka, a USPTA pro on Tom's staff. Jim said he'd once given a lecture on the benefits of pros taking lessons, and not just in tennis, but in any art, craft, or sport desired. Jim's own personal off-court life-builder was yoga.

He said it was an exceptionally bad golf lesson that got him thinking more deeply about the idea. The golf pro had watched Jim hit a few balls, simply adjusted his grip, then was ready to move on. "He was rushing me onto point two and I was still on point one," Jim lamented.

Jim began to ponder his own teaching methods: Did he rush students like that too? Was he sensitive to their needs, their individual learning curves? Did he still know how to stand in their shoes?

* * * * *

I tuck these thoughts away as Tom and I step onto La Quinta's peerless Har-Tru clay courts. We start to hit and I repeat a kind of calming mantra in my head ... "Soft hands, soft hands, soft hands ..."

That is, allow your hands and fingers to relax on the racquet's grip and throat. Let this delicate contact inform and keep you alert.

Wow, and I'm hearing the crisp bounce of the ball off the crunchy Har-Tru court, its greenish-gray surface baked pale in the desert sun. I'm feeling confident too, not at all nervous. I have an especially good feel for my "Ken Rosewall" slice backhand.

Tom starts moving me side to side, per my request, and my legs feel, well, just OK. Actually, they feel pretty darned tired - and a sliver of doubt spikes my brain! I spray a few balls, one solidly off the frame, and Tom offers a sincere compliment on a scrappy slice forehand I hit.

"Soft hands, soft hands, soft hands ..."

My confidence slowly returns. I find I'm capable of healing mental wounds much faster these days, not like my hell-bent college days, or the puzzling junior years. In fact, this apparent maturity flat out surprises me. My lesson informs as it demands.

Tom and I stop for some water. He says my strokes look good, that we were the "slice generation," including me in his orbit. Then we go back out for some drills - old Gorby favorites, I muse - the stuff of Agassi and Sampras, Davis Cup pedigree.

I dutifully scrape, dig, and dive for every ball, straight into the side fence at one point.

"Actually, you sort of just collapsed into it," says Jen as we return later to the courts and spot the slightly indented fence. "Yep, you definitely left your mark on the court."

Tom and I sip more water and I confess what I see as the lifelong bane of my game, my forehand volley. We go out for a look and this is my biggest test. Close up with any teacher I risk blanking a little; that is, behind a veneer of concentrated effort I might be wondering if I'm actually grasping what is being taught, and yet the lesson continues.

Is this what Jim was speaking of? We veteran pros, so many of us, have been teaching so long we don't always empathize with, say, the brain freeze of an overeager beginner. Or we take for granted the ease in linking mind and body on certain athletic tasks. We are safe in our comfort zones, too removed to know when we're working too fast.

Yet Tom is patient and affable. My brain freezes only slightly as he asks me to clasp my right wrist, to cut down on arm movement. I smile a bit, vaguely recalling this classic volley exercise from my youth.

It seems to relax me. My focus returns. The balls 'ping' off my strings, and I'm even moving forward! All those years on the north end of my court haven't killed my footwork altogether.

I'm having a blast now, my volleys superb, then we turn to my serve and Tom seeks to reconstruct my backswing. I am leery at first, then shockingly protective. Wasn't my serve the one truly unassailable part of my game? I'm suddenly like so many self-taught club players, guarding my precious invention, my tennis artistry, with the wrath of a mother grizzly bear.

"Soft hands, soft hands ..."

We collect the balls at lesson's end, make pyramids on our strings and dump them back into Tom's cart. I offer up something like, "Now I know what it feels like having someone mess with my game again."

And of course it doesn't always feel good. All players are a jumble of complexities, monuments to our own individuality, and yet the discerning pro must know when to tread lightly.

As with Jim's golf pro, we can't always move so fast onto point two; some students aren't ready, and we'd better care enough to know the difference.

* * * * *

We stroll in from the clay and Tom lingers, in no seeming hurry, though it's midday and must be his lunch hour. Jen and I thank him again and now two months later my lesson with Tom still resonates.

Yes, my forehand volley occasionally sinks back into the mire, and I'm deep into summer lessons and haven't quite worked out my service backswing, but the epiphanies live on. I can think of a half dozen students for whom my lesson with Tom has helped. I'm more firmly planted in their shoes, and better equipped to serve them.

Soon Jen and I are set to revisit La Quinta. I'm thinking I'll perhaps take a golf lesson this time, hurl myself further out of my comfort zone, embrace that dreaded brain freeze again - or maybe not.

I kind of love tennis and might just sign up for another lesson with Tom.

(The La Quinta Resort and Tennis Club in La Quinta, Calif., looks forward to hosting the 2010 USPTA World Conference next September.)

Thomas Penner is a screenwriter and USPTA teaching pro living in Long Beach with wife Jenny and their three tennis-loving kids.

Tom Gorman, also USPTA, is a former No. 8 player in the world and a former captain of two world-championship U.S. Davis Cup teams

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