Tennis Camps, from Nick Bollettieri's to Harry Hopman's, Turn Games Inside Out in a Couple of Long, Hard Days
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96
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This being the hi-tech '90s, video screenings are also used to impart the how-to of becoming a Bruce Lee "killing machine." Students are shown assorted tapes of Agassi, Sampras and Seles, mainly illustrating Bollettieri's "System 5." Elements of this teaching philosophy, which strategically divides a court into five zones and demands five types of backswings and follow-throughs, still escape me. But this stereophonic session wasn't a complete loss. I learned the different nuances of Seles' deep-throated grunting.
Once the lectures/pep talks end, it's on to a rather dreary cafeteria for lunch. Here, the fare is pure high-energy--the Bollettieri academy's take on running a marathon: plain pasta, grainy breads, assorted fruit salads and an occasional fish dish. There is limitless fresh lemonade, but in this relentlessly "fat free" environment, no desserts. At least not now. But a taste of la dolce vita is in the works.
To compete with resorts that offer tennis and sumptuous amenities for the entire family on vacation, Bollettieri is developing his "dream" sports complex. In sharp contrast to the Motel 6-styled rooms now offered, this 44-acre facility will feature luxury villas and condos, and a veritable ESPN network of sports academies. Along with on-site baseball, soccer and football instruction, another "king of swing" holds court nearby, at the David Leadbetter Golf Training Center.
Stringing all this together is vintage Balls-ettieri. The consummate visionary, Bollettieri had the foresight to build indoor courts--the only ones in Florida--when he launched the academy in 1978. Sunshine State critics laughed at him, mocking the project as "Bollettieri's Folly." But after lunch, instead of sitting on our derrieres during a torrential downpour, we practice various volleying skills in this all-weather bubble. Once again I'm bombarded with a nagging refrain of "Move, shuffle those feet, hustle, you lazy ____" as an instructor tries to shorten my backswing at the net. These fast-paced drills, with students charging the net, go on for over an hour, and by 3 o'clock I'm ready to drop.
After another round of serving 200-odd balls (which feels like 2,000) and one more video, I'm in my car swearing, "Screw it. I'm too tired to come back tomorrow." Yet as I relaxed in my hotel's sauna, reviewing this typical Bollettieri academy day, I began to fully appreciate the zen of Bollettieri "magic."
The drills are grueling, pushing students well beyond their preconceived physical limits. Yet as they withstand these rigors and reach the once-unimaginable "Right Stuff" territory, instead of their resolve weakening, it only hardens. Quitting isn't even an option. It becomes unthinkable.
So the next two days, I returned to the academy cafeteria at 7 a.m., foregoing the buffet feast at my hotel for soggy French toast and equally forgettable coffee. Both sessions were filled with 10- and 20-ball windshield wiper drills, and while I hit my shots with greater pace, this is of secondary importance. Just making it back for that final session is a bigger personal triumph. Barely able to walk, let alone run, I understood why the coaches call this third day "the make-or-break Doomsday."
But before heading for the nearest chiropractor, I'm still psyched to play "King of the Hill." In these mini-matches, where the winner keeps playing and losers retreat to the sidelines, I have a chance to show off my new skills. It's my U.S. Open, battling fellow group members, then vying against my worst tormentor, instructor Rene Muzquiz.
"Let's see what you're made of," he jibed, dancing me around the court like a yo-yo with his deftly placed ground strokes. I try to answer back, getting my weight into the ball as I've been instructed. Yet it's all to no avail.
After this spin doctor quickly dispatches two other campers, he and I go at it again. With a few Sampras-like forehands, I exile him to the sidelines. He mutters, swearing revenge. Then in our next go-round, paced by a furious exchange of missiles to the baseline, I chalk up another win. Now I'm ready for the Tour--that is, until he dethrones me with a 95 mph serve and a crosscourt winner. Laughing, he fires one final salvo. "Why don't you stay an extra day? You might learn something."
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