2015 US TENNIS CONGRESS – DAY FOUR

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The courts are dark. Outside by the pool, a few well-boozed attendees flop out onto deck chairs to await the morning’s sunrise. After a final day at the El Conquistador Hotel, people pack their sweat-soaked skivvies into plastic bags and prepare for the morning taxi ride to the airport. Today, PJ Simmons and his remarkable staff hosted the Tennis Congress’ final moments. With each player going through two more coaching sessions followed by a private session with their dedicated-for-the-weekend coach, players took to the courts for another 4.5 hours of activity. This followed another four hours of conference room lectures and the type of immersive experience one finds in foreign language schools.

After a few photos with their mentors, attendees limped back to their rooms for a quick shower before limping out to the pool for a buffet dinner, some joyful yet tearful words from Simmons, and more applause for his efforts than in many of the recent Presidential Campaign stops. Before dinner though, the coaches and a few athletes met for a cocktail briefing. With the faculty encircling him, Simmons broke down with gratitude and humility. His weeping turned on a fountain of faculty tears as they recounted stories of their experience in the Congress, their passion for the event, and the honor it was to work for such a cause. Irishman Joseph O’Dwyer laid himself upon the floor during an impassioned speech about what it means to be a coach, and specifically, one who attends the Congress. After extended applause for O’Dwyer’s effort, event planner Klinton Kraft also broke down, commenting that after producing hundreds of corporate events around the nation, this was the finest and most rewarding conference he has ever experienced.

The thing about Tennis Congress is its innocence. There are no egos here, with coaches and fitness personnel giving their very best effort to the Congress and sharing information with each other in an effort to improve the attendees’ experience. No one inside the tennis world could have created this event. It took a passionate man’s dream to launch the idea and to bring it to fruition one phone call at a time. Simmons has personally spoken to every single faculty member – over 75 at this point – and offered a personal invitation to each individual. His vision has led to an individualized curriculum for every student, a mobile app that updates every participant minute by minute about where to be, what events are taking place, and ratings for seminars and coaches so he knows who is keeping up to the US Tennis Congress’ standard.  In the first year, he stood upon a small stage with two plants. Today, with five massive theater screens, tennis court in a ballroom with video cameras, outdoor drone cameras, AV equipment for 5 ballrooms, and a cadre of followers who just keep shouting “MORE!” the Congress has hit a new strata.

I have no idea what is going to happen with this event. Perhaps it reaches toward the Vegas hotels or makes its way around the globe in foreign venues. Perhaps it stays intimate and sells out in eight minutes like it did this year. Maybe there will be offshoots taking place at local clubs around the United States. For now though, there’s still a group of participants in the lobby shooting sentimental photos with new friends. I think I’m going to photo bomb one. I kind of want proof that I was here. It may give me bragging rights some time in the future.

Good night, PJ Simmons. Thank you for all of your efforts. Sleep well. You’ve earned it.

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By ccxander

2015 US TENNIS CONGRESS-DAY THREE

They arrived early this morning, the sore stagger of tired souls walking into the breakfast hall with an uncomfortable enthusiasm. Yes, uncomfortable. These people scare me. They are Balboa at the end of round fourteen. They are mid-sentence Mandela and cockroaches after nuclear war. They are of a resilient ilk never-before-seen in this tennis world. And they are still out there, at 8pm, playing sets and taking lessons and doing cardio clinics and running on god-only-knows what fuel source since they’ve skipped every meal since breakfast just so they could keep playing.

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It is day three of the US Tennis Congress and the number of knee braces and K-tape has increased significantly. The athletes display the black bags of dehydration beneath their eyes and, from the soreness, their split steps are narrow enough to make them all look like they need a restroom. Yesterday, they played for seven hours and welcomed the moon into the sky. Today, as if challenging the previous days record, some of these people are doing their eleventh on-court hour. They are over forty, or fifty, or in some cases, seventy years-old. They are addicts in the best sense, drinking from the firehose of world-class information they’ve had shoved in their mouths since they moment they arrived. They don’t want to wait until they get home to improve. They want it now, today, tonite, and maybe even in the wee morning hours when the clock hands point due East. I’m beginning to believe they will never stop. Imagine that, sleep foregone for the love of thegame. I’ll say it again – these people scare me.

As the dinner buffet hosted a mere trickle of a line, diners ate rapidly before heading back out to the courts to watch an exhibition between former top 100 player Jeff Salzenstein and 45’s National Champion Jeff Greenwald. Adding to the drama, both players wore headsets and the crowd got a chance to be inside the heads of elite competitors. What played out was a dialogue of fears and anxieties, strategic insights, the physiological changes in the body, and an enormous dose of ball-busting. It was educational and entertaining and something the USTA should bring to the US OPEN. But then, that’s really it isn’t it? The things happening here at the Congress are the types of originations we don’t see on the US tennis landscape. This place is becoming the trailblazer for tennis innovation and only the locals know about it.

Tomorrow represents the final day here. It is possible some of today’s warriors won’t make the stagger to breakfast. It is possible the courts will have a few less competitors clamoring for the wisdom of Allistair McCaw or Joseph O’Dwyer.   It is possible some will succumb to the heat, the fatigue, the pain. But then, anything is possible, and from what I’ve seen, there is no way I’m betting against these folks. Did I mention these people scare me?

By ccxander

2015 US TENNIS CONGRESS-DAY TWO

What if you had a dream… to come back from injury and become an athlete again, to beat the club champion, to win a national title? What type of event would propel you toward your goals? Vic Braden said, “If you are 65 years old, you have thirty years to work on your game.”

As the sun rose into pink skies this morning, hundreds of aging athletes rolled bleary-eyed from the bedroom into the breakfast hall. There, amongst the walls and chairs, someone set up a massive tennis court, complete with cameras, microphones, and the sort of seductiveness one might expect from Mae West peering through bedroom doors (reference is demographically appropriate). On court, Mark Kovacs and a world-class fitness team coached the athletes through a professional warm-up before sending the group to the courts for their 4.5 hours of tennis.

I was fortunate enough to be stationed on court twelve today, adjacent to elite Spanish coach, Emilio Sanchez and caddy corner to former Top Tenner, Tim Mayotte, both of whom had players soaked to the bones. Today was diagnostic, where coaches spent several hours assessing technique, tactics, movement, psychology, etc., followed by an afternoon fitness evaluation with long-term solutions. In between, Grand Slam winner GiGi Fernandez gave an on-court seminar on doubles tactics, via Powerpoint, demonstration, and some seriously insightful comments.

And then the evening entertainment. Thirty-five grand slams upon the stage answering questions about the thoughts of champions, the practice habits of champions, the idiosyncrasies of champions and how they all pursued their life’s dreams via tennis. Laughter, camaraderie, honesty, and in John Austin’s case, a moment of courage as he opened up about a life-changing illness.

Descriptions here include, “Blown away by the amount of information,” “Best weekend of my life and it’s only been one day,” and “How in the hell did PJ put this together?” And that’s really the question. How does a guy with no tennis background other than a passion for the game, gather many of the world’s top coaches, 250 enthusiastic athletes, and an unbelievably talented fitness team, and keep them all smiling for the weekend and begging for more. The answer requires us to return to the beginning, “What if you had a dream….”

By ccxander

2015 US TENNIS CONGRESS–DAY ONE

A halo hovers over the desert, its golden glow raining down upon 250 amateur athletes whose definition of passion is evident in worn-out shoes, dirty racquet handles, and sweat-stained shirts. Along with 70 of the world’s top coaches, I am here in Tucson, Arizona for the United States Tennis Congress. Born from the mind of an adult player wanting to improve – let’s call him PJ Simmons because that is the name you need to remember when this thing blows up internationally – the Congress stands at the intersection of elite coaches and aspirational adults.

Today’s opening hours consist of Cardio Tennis and a Foam Ball tournament, events the staff calls mixers to get people acquainted before they thrust themselves into a deluge of tennis education. Right now, my court resembles a crime scene, balls, bottles, and bodies.  Paramedics perch on my fence, scanning the scene like Malaysian Air Traffic control and this level of sweat in October would make Al Gore smile.

Over the course of three days, players will have 4.5 daily on-court hours, followed by three hour-long lectures, all specifically tailored to their individual needs – Simmons requires each athlete to provide a detailed profile of their tennis desires. Some of the class titles illuminate the effort toward specificity: Adding Depth and Control to Slice, Mastering the Midcourt, Match Adjustments for the 4.0 Doubles Team. Along with their courses, players undergo a full-scale fitness assessment and receive a year-long developmental plan from their coaches and fitness experts.

IMG_5985  Before tomorrow’s activities commence though, tonight’s dinner includes remarks by 17 gold-ball winner Bob Litwin, who counselsthe crowd on how to drink safely from the fire-hose of wisdom they are about to receive. The keynote for the evening is Ethan Zohn, professional soccer player, winner of the reality tv show Survivor, and cancer survivor. In a fifteen-minute delivery that took participants over a hilly emotional terrain, Zohn captured what Simmons has infused into every moment of the event – PASSION.

It is something the USTA needs to understand if they are going to grow the game.

Tennis is not about products. It is about stories – narratives that capture the passion of the people playing. In the massive market of adults who truly desire to get better, Simmons is serving a need that somehow evades the Federation’s scrutiny.   Kudos to this innovative organizer and his team for recognizing that no numberof years can derail the ambition of youth.

 

By ccxander