Something you should know about me: gyms, workout classes, exercise equipment and the like—not my thing. When it comes to exercise, if there’s not a trail, mountain, ball, goal or racket involved, I’m honestly not interested. So if I’m looking to burn some calories and get my heart rate up, tennis fits the bill.
But here’s the rub. Try as I might, I can never beat my tennis partner, my husband, Ryan, who possesses freakish athleticism plus some sweet skills earned in a college tennis class. When I was asked to try out a private lesson at Springfield’s Cooper Tennis Complex, I jumped at the chance, hoping to pick up some pointers for the next time Ryan and I face off.
As a relatively new 417-lander, I’d never visited Cooper Tennis Complex, which earned the United States Tennis Association’s 2016 Outstanding Facility Award. Home to Mediacom Stadium Court—where the Springfield Lasers professional tennis team competes—and multiple indoor and outdoor courts, it’s an impressive place.
Larry Haugness, Springfield-Greene County Park Board’s community tennis coordinator and manager of Cooper Tennis Complex, greeted us. Full disclosure: I’m a perfectionist and have been known to crumble under focused critiquing, so I was nervous about a one-on-one lesson with Haugness, an instructor with decades of experience. But his welcoming, friendly attitude put those fears to rest, and we headed over to one of the indoor courts to get started.
Stephanie’s lesson started with larger rackets and heavier balls so she could work on her rallying form.
Haugness explained that he and his instructors usually have students play with modified equipment, including balls with varying materials and pressures—meaning some bounce less or move more slowly than others—plus rackets in a range of sizes. For example, we started by simply bouncing a light foam ball in the air with a smaller racket. The “yellow” ball—what you imagine when you think of a typical tennis ball—would bounce higher and be more difficult to control, so using the “red” ball, the foam orb, allowed me to warm up and practice without spending tons of time retrieving wildly hit balls.
Next, we rallied the foam ball back and forth in one part of the court, eventually using larger and larger portions of the court and progressing to larger rackets and balls with pressures more closely resembling the typical tennis ball. He corrected my form as needed, but did so organically as we rallied. I definitely worked up a sweat as I sprinted from one side of the court to the other retrieving hits. It was amazing how much the modified equipment affected my game. For example, when we used the “green” ball, which has a slightly lower compression than a traditional yellow ball so it doesn’t bounce quite as much, our rallies lasted far longer—about two dozen hits—than the eight or so hits we tallied when we tried playing with a yellow ball. Haugness says that’s the key. Those prolonged rallies and live-ball drills mean that students are refining their skills while playing, not to mention having more fun.
We ended the lesson with serving, my favorite, but admittedly least adept, skill. Haugness said that the mechanics of serving closely resemble those of throwing a ball. After he showed me the right grip, I did my best to mimic that movement. My first attempts were a little off, but things started to click after some repetition. I’m happy to report that Haugness determined my serve to be, in his words, “decent.” Haugness teased that he rarely offers praise more ebullient than that, so I was pretty pumped to hear that, especially as someone with no formal tennis training.
I picked up some tips that I’ll certainly put in practice, but what stuck with me most of all was something Haugness repeated a few times. He said to take from tennis what you want, and for most people that’s having fun and getting exercise rather than racking up wins or having perfect form. As much as I want to finally triumph over Ryan on the court, that sentiment was a good reminder to cool my competitive jets and focus on what matters: staying fit and having a good time. But if I’m honest, part of me still can’t wait to see how my newfound skills play out in our next matchup. I guess we’ll see how the ball bounces.