- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

Stephan Schlagenhauff wants to teach the District how to master the art of spin. Top-spin and back-spin. Forehand and backhand. Mr. Schlagenhauff, 32, is a tennis instructor.

With partner Gregg Deinhart, 36, he runs FirstServe Tennis Academy, an Alexandria-based program that contracts with companies, residential communities, and park and recreation centers to provide tennis lessons to small groups of children and adults.

“Basically we are traveling instructors,” Mr. Schlagenhauff says.

At work in Vienna, Va., this week, the two instructors gather a group of young students — ages 8 to 11 — at the Lakevale Estates recreation center.

The two instructors come equipped with shorts, T-shirts and a large supply of tennis balls. For this group, the lessons are basic, like how to grip the racket and hit the ball.

“Pretend there are two eyes on the racket, and wherever the racket is looking is where the ball is going to go,” Mr. Schlagenhauff tells the children.

More balls are hit over the net than into it, a measure of success.

“I think it’s fun. It’s exciting at times. I’m just learning and I have great progress,” says James Devens, 11, working on basic forehand and backhand strokes at his second lesson.

“I think we’re a really good group,” says Allison Moody, 8, who favors backhand strokes.

The idea is to keep lessons fun and interesting for people who want to learn the game but don’t plan to go beyond the amateur ranks.

Almost 100 students have passed through the program so far, Mr. Deinhart says.

The company was born from a long-standing friendship, a lifelong interest in tennis and an economy that wasn’t offering a lot in the way of other jobs.

The two men worked together as tennis instructors in suburban Buffalo, N.Y. Mr. Schlagenhauff started teaching for the town of Amherst’s summer program when he was 17 and Mr. Deinhart at age 16.

They went on to college and jobs and eventually the District.

Mr. Schlagenhauff came to the District to work on a master’s degree in business administration at Georgetown University. Mr. Deinhart moved to the area for a job at a nonprofit trade association.

They stayed in touch but only seriously started talking about a business a few years ago.

“We met at a Halloween party in late 2000 and we just started reminiscing about our old tennis-teaching days,” Mr. Schlagenhauff recalls.

And, the idea of being their own bosses was appealing, especially when other work was scarce.

“Tennis started as a summer job for both of us. In the pursuit of trying to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up … sometimes it takes other things to bring you back to what you enjoy,” Mr. Deinhart says.

Mr. Schlagenhauff came to the same conclusion.

“Basically after business school I worked for a friend and helped write a business plan. It was inspiring to work with this guy because he was a business owner.

“And in process of sending out resumes, I saw the market was tough,” Mr. Schlagenhauff says.

After the decision to start the venture, the two put in a year of leg-work desigining the program and gathering clients, targeting companies, residential communities and parks with tennis facilities but no instructors.

The men signed on USA Today and Sprint as FirstServe’s big corporate clients, formally incorporated in April 2002, and lessons started soon after.

“We felt there was a real need for this,” Mr. Schlagenhauff says.

The business is run largely out of Mr. Deinhart’s home, via cell phone, e-mail and a Web site, www.tenniseveryone.net.

The firm’s niche is small groups — something between private lessons for an individual and the large groups popular at some public programs.

A standard package is five lessons, and the typical rate for a group of three to five people is around $140 per lesson.

The company wants to recruit more customers — people who haven’t played tennis in a while but want to get back into the game, people who go to the gym but don’t get outside.

So far, Mr. Schlagenhauff and Mr. Deinhart have lined up about five days’ worth of lessons per week.

“About a third of the stuff we do is on the court. We were surprised by how much of the stuff is planning for the next session, and planning and improving our products,” Mr. Schlagenhauff says.

Both men do free-lance work on the side to help make ends meet; last summer, for example, they worked at a summer camp coordinating different recreation activities.

The eventual goal is to have FirstServe pay all the bills year-round.

“That’s our goal. We’re in the growing phase now,” Mr. Schlagenhauff says.

The two men are considering different avenues to make FirstServe a year-round company, possibly branching out into different sports and into different cities.

“We are just getting to the point where we would take the next step,” Mr. Deinhart says.

Until the next chapter in their business plan comes together, the two are enjoying their summer work.

“In some ways I wish we had started this 10 years ago,” Mr. Deinhart says.

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