- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

if you can catch and throw a ball, you can play tennis. So says Jeff Klein, tennis director at the Aspen Hill Club in Silver Spring.

Mr. Klein’s spare approach is but one way for those who never picked up a racket to learn the game.

A wannabe Sampras or Davenport has plenty of options to pick up the game or sweeten their serves. Local recreational departments such as those operating in Chinquapin Park in Alexandria provide inexpensive tutoring. Higher echelon clubs up the sticker price but provide indoor courts and one-on-one training to turn a player’s game around.

Mr. Klein says he turned his own teaching style around after meeting Benjamin An, a veteran instructor who professes an almost Zen-like approach to the game.

“The actions involved in playing tennis are normal and natural movements relative to catching, hitting and throwing skills,” he says. “We’re all born to be able to do them.”

By concentrating primarily on getting to the ball in time and hitting it on the sweet spot on the racket neophyte players can make swift, steady progress.

“I feel that from all that I’ve learned over the years, we have taken something that’s relatively simple and made it more complicated than we need it to be,” he says. In an Aspen Hill class, “you’re not working from day one on the concentration skills … you’re going to discover very quickly what your most comfortable swing is and how to apply that in a live situation.”

The game also takes practice, no matter what teaching philosophy is tried.

“You’ve gotta get out and hit as many balls as possible,” he says. “There is no magic formula.”

Lessons aren’t inexpensive should the player want personalized attention. An hour’s worth of one-on-one training at Aspen Hill will cost $55, but a clinic with five other players costs $15.

People are never too young to take up the game, says Sylvia Singleton, director of Greenway Tennis in McLean.

Mrs. Singleton teaches children as young as 3 years old.

“They learn fast. They get the game. Everything is fun to them. They don’t forget anything, ever,” Mrs. Singleton says. “They don’t have a fear of failure.”

Instructors need to keep the children engaged by constantly tinkering with the classes to prevent boredom, but otherwise they make fine students of the game.

“It’s all based on interest,” says Mrs. Singleton, who has been teaching tennis for nearly 30 years. “It has nothing to do with skill or ability.”

Jill Keown-Delasobera, director of young tournament players with the Four Star Tennis Academy in Merrifield, Va., says she starts her students with basic hand-eye coordination skills.

From there, Mrs. Keown-Delasobera says, it’s on to ground stroke lessons.

She says her academy, which primarily trains youngsters ages 7 and older, deals with students who may have been taught incorrectly by their well-intentioned parents.

Part of the earlier classes involve righting the wrong techniques, but they also deal with teaching proper footwork.

“The footwork doesn’t come very naturally at all for a lot of these kids,” she says, nor is it enough for a tennis player to be fleet of foot. “Just because you can run fast down a soccer field doesn’t mean you have the footwork in tennis.”

Students often find inspiration in the heroics of a Venus Williams or Andy Roddick. She encourages them to watch — and learn — from today’s masters. Sometimes a player will thrive with a technique that might not work for every pupil.

“We tell the kids, this is your style. Andy Roddick has his own style and you have your own style,” she says.

Mel Labat, tennis coordinator for instructional classes held at Chinquapin Park, agrees the best students to have often are those who never played the game before. Teachers find it easier to mold students from scratch, rather than undo prior lessons that may have been incorrect.

A common mistake players without the proper training make is to hit the ball out of position with floppy wrists, Mr. Labat says.

“You have to reinforce hitting through the ball and getting the racket in position,” he says, making sure the student doesn’t reach for the ball at the last minute.

The United States Tennis Association, which serves as an advocate for the sport, says new players need at least a four-week instructional program to begin playing tennis effectively.

Mr. Labat’s novice students practice stroke production, forehand and backhand skills and serves in his four-week courses.

“We want them to have fun,” says Mr. Labat, who adds that for every skill taught he sets up at least 10 drills to reinforce it. “You have to be careful with the drills. If there’s no fun and movement, you’re going to lose that student.”

He livens up his lessons by turning drills into contests where students compete against each other.

“At the end of the classes they’re playing games,” he says.

Students sign up for classes for a number of reasons.

“They want to learn the game, their friends are playing [tennis] or it’s for fitness,” he says.

Today’s student can play the game for the rest of their lives with the right tutoring.

“When you’re 65 or 70 years old, you’ll still be enjoying the game,” he says.

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