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Tennis for Two

For the Aging Tennis Enthusiast, Doubles Offers Additional Years of Exciting Competition
Roger M. Williams
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

"[Popescue taught us] lots of stuff," Robinson says. "What angles are the best to hit. Why you should serve down the middle on both sides [to avoid the hard-to-handle sharply angled return]. A couple of hand signals that tell your partner whether you're going to poach [dart along the net to intercept a service return] on his serve. And Mike's 'no-brainer': volleying 'short to short' and 'long to long.' " (Translation: if you have a high ball at net, smack it at the opponent nearest you; if it's a tougher, low shot, hit the ball more cautiously toward the man farther away.)

Looking toward a second tournament, Feldman and Robinson have returned to Popescue for another lesson. Robinson is optimistic about the results.

Anticipating similar benefits are two dozen mostly doubles-minded members of the Bellevue Club, who have accompanied their head pro, Brian Nash, to Gardiner's. Nash and the resident pros wound up disagreeing on some aspects of movement and positioning, including which player should "close" (crowd) the net in anticipation of the opponents' shot. But the rest of the pros' advice Nash embraced wholeheartedly, now and then saying to his club members, "Hey, I've been telling you that same thing for 10 years, but you haven't done it!" He's confident the camp will make a big difference in their play. "What the Gardiner's guys did was terrific--all the stuff about moving with the ball, which is so basic to good doubles, and the need to work with your partner and keep reading from the same blueprint," Nash says. The boys from Bellevue have already booked a return stay in 1998.

Even in the tennis world, John Gardiner is far from a clubhouse name. On the competitive side of the sport, his single claim to fame is a close association with former 1940s Wimbledon and U.S. champion Jack Kramer when Kramer ran barnstorming tours in the dark ages of professional tennis. But Gardiner recognized decades ago that the sport could be sold to a wide swath of America's affluent citizens if two things were put in place: a sensible method of instruction and a venue where they would be properly pampered.

Although the "Gardiner method" of instruction remains as useful now as when it was originally crafted, the man and his name have become far more celebrated for the resorts he has created. The original Gardiner ranch, established in Carmel, California, in the 1950s, is understandably revered by its devotees. Carmel is the granddaddy of upscale tennis resorts, and among the cognoscenti, it remains the benchmark: expensive and toney yet tasteful and low-key.

Building on his success in Carmel, in 1969 Gardiner opened a second tennis ranch in Scottsdale, a town which he accurately predicted would one day become a wealthy suburb in one of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan areas. (The property is actually in Paradise Valley but uses the address of better-known Scottsdale.) He took up residence there, glad-handing the customers in his garrulous, Irish-American fashion and making sure the hired help, including teaching pros, treated the customers warmly and respectfully at all times. Gardiner, who is now in his eighties, sold the Scottsdale facility in 1993 and moved to the one in Carmel.

Repeat customers say the new management has made a number of improvements. The first is in the dining room. The food, although copious and well prepared, used to lean heavily in the direction of unimaginative American fare. Now, hungry diners can request such dishes as butternut squash ravioli, charbroiled salmon steak and safron fennel broth. In addition, the service has become more refined. Lunch, however, remains what it should be after a hard, hot morning on the court: straightforward salads, pastas and sandwiches, served under a big umbrella on a terrace with sweeping views. (One of the views is of aptly named Camelback Mountain, which rises 1,200 feet and draws a steady procession of determined climbers.)

The resort features casita housing, a series of well-appointed, condo-style units tucked amid an abundance of beautifully landscaped desert foliage. Their names--Casa Hi Lob, Tie Breaker Lane--can be cloying, but the multitude of amenities compensate for them. (Guests can quench their thirst on an all-you-can-drink "fountain" of fresh orange juice, which is poured during rest breaks in the clinics.)

Luxury aside, tennis at Gardiner's has long carried important distinctions from the run-of-the-court tennis camp. First, the ratio of pros to pupils is 1 to 4, compared with the usual 1 to 6, 1 to 8, or worse. This guarantees a lot of personal attention. Second, since the program focuses on middle-aged recreational players of average ability, two-a-day sessions are banished. After 15 minutes of stretching, instruction runs from 9 to noon, with the afternoon left open for less physical, or plain slothful, pursuits; those who cannot relax can arrange a match or a private lesson or, like a mad dog or an Englishman, climb Camelback in the heat of the day. Last, Gardiner's pros not only instruct their charges but also play with them. In the doubles drills, the pros don't just "feed" balls to their charges; they routinely step into the foursomes for a series of points, even games. And each clinic participant can wind up his morning's clinic with a half hour "beat the pro" session.

Part of every day's instruction incorporates ball machines--in this case, one of the oldest and probably still the best one can find. (These machines can do everything with a ball but put it in your pocket.) The practice permits the pro to observe your stroke up close, rather than from across the net.


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