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.
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.