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By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Driving through the Sea Colony Resort at Bethany Beach, Del., I began to feel like I was in some kind of tennis-themed episode of "The Twilight Zone."

Granted, I had come to the beach hoping to play a lot of tennis. But I had no idea the game would take over the whole wintry weekend. There I was, looking for indoor courts on a Saturday and I noticed that the clusters of condos had names like Center Court, Love Court and Round Robin Way.

I found the tennis center and hit with my 15-year-old son, Holt, for an hour and a half. For dinner we ate at Bethany Blues, which offered blackened tuna served with a lob ster cream sauce, and as we drove back to our room, the moon rose over the Atlantic Ocean like--a fuzzy white ball.

Everything pointed to tennis.

Sea Colony bills itself as a beach and tennis community. The tennis center, just a few blocks from the beach, is open year-round. There are four indoor courts and 30 outdoor--12 are clay. In the high season, more than two dozen teaching pros--led by 15-year veteran Dave Marshall--roam the land. During the summer there are weekly clinics, junior clinics, round-robin tournaments, a junior academy and other tennis-oriented goings-on. In the winter, Marshall runs weekend mini-camps. Private lessons are available anytime.

Folks staying at Sea Colony can pretty much play as much tennis as they can stomach. You can call ahead for a game and Marshall or one of his assistants will arrange for you to play with someone about your speed. My singles match was set for 9 o'clock on a bright and brrr-ishly cold Sunday morning.

I showed up an hour early and caught the end of a weekend mini-camp for women. The mini-campers were mostly United States Tennis Association league players from the Washington area. Twenty or so students were spread out on three courts practicing drop shots. Six more women arrived late. "Just getting in?" Marshall teased. They laughed, told Marshall a little about their tame nightlife adventures and took the court.

Six pros and Marshall shuttled from player to player. "You've got to learn to drop the drop," Marshall said. In other words, when someone hits a drop shot that falls just across the net, you should respond in kind. He and other teachers placed balls on the net cords and let them fall. The women lunged forward, tapped the balls with rackets and tried over and over to drop the drop.

Then Marshall cranked up a CD player--Frank Sinatra crooned "The Way You Look Tonight" and the Temptations sang "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"--and the women played a practice game called "drop shot mambo" in which they hit little dinkers to each other in rotation.

When the clinic was over, Marshall gave out T-shirts and other prizes.

While waiting to play, I read some of the magazine stories about Sea Colony that had been framed on the walls. Tennis Resorts Online listed it 14th among the top 75 tennis resorts in the country. In Tennis Magazine's list of 50 Greatest U.S. Tennis Resorts--published in November--Sea Colony ranked No. 4 for Best Bargains, Families and Game-Matching (i.e., hooking players up with other players). The matching service is free for those staying at Sea Colony; so is court time.

My sparring partner for the morning was George Obertubbesing, an amiable guy from Chantilly who works at Computer Sciences Corp. and has owned a condominium at Sea Colony for a couple of years. We were a good match--about the same age and temperament. We both played college tennis way back when. We played evenly enough and it was a satisfying hour of long points and close games. At one tense moment, Obertubessing eased a forehand just over the net and I went charging in. With Marshall's words swirling in my brain, I dropped the drop. And Obertubessing lobbed it over my head.

In tennis, as in life, things don't always work out.

Obertubessing was upfront about his reasons for choosing Bethany over other beaches. "Tennis," Obertubessing said after the match, "is number one for me."

He said the great thing about the tennis center--besides the "very friendly staff"--is the matching service. "I know I can always come over here and get a good session," he said. Like me, he had called ahead looking for a Sunday morning game.

Though Sea Colony concentrates on its image as a tennis resort, it offers other amenities. There are swimming pools--12 outside and a couple indoors. We were staying in the Edgewater House high-rise, where the indoor pool is small but well-kept. A large, steamy hot tub sat nearby. And, beyond the tennis courts, there was a fitness center. The complex also has a concierge service that helps with dinner reservations at local restaurants.

During the summer, there is lots to do at Bethany Beach, including swimming, fishing, sailing, golf and sea kayaking. But until it begins to get warmer, usually around Memorial Day, there's not a whole lot shaking there. When I wasn't playing tennis, I put on warm clothes and walked along the beach. Ships on the horizon glimmered in the sun. Cadres of cormorants, bobbing in the gentle waves just offshore, appeared oblivious to the icy weather. Occasionally one of the birds would stick a tail in the air and dive for food.

I read some in our oceanfront condo. And I spent long periods staring out at the ocean. When it began looking like a netless court, I returned to the tennis center. Holt and I hit another hour before we had to head home. Marshall said some high school players were coming for a clinic and invited Holt to stick around.

But Holt said he couldn't stay. He had a tennis match on Sunday night. Like father, like son.

On the way home we talked about the weekend and about various tennis strategies. It being late winter, traffic over the Bay Bridge was not bad at all.

Holt fell asleep and I thought about the ways tennis has changed. Gone are wooden rackets. White balls gave way to yellow. A certain courtliness has been lost.

Once a game of ground strokes--graceful swooping forehands and backhands--tennis had a power surge in the 1970s and '80s. The dominant players served and volleyed with swift, hard-hitting ferocity. Today the speed and power remain--especially in the serves--but the game has become a fascinating combination of backcourt and net play.

I have changed, too. I am older. While tennis has sped up, I have slowed down. A game I once took for granted I now appreciate more than ever. In the car, I began plotting a return to Bethany. And in the west, the sun dropped the drop in the sky like a fuzzy yellow, well . . .

You know what I was thinking.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company