Bend your knees and meet the ball. Keep your arm straight and don't forget your follow-through. Now, let's do another basket of balls, all to your backhand, before you can go up to dinner. Don't worry. It's a piece of cake.
That's easy for Dennis Van der Meer to say. What's another basket of balls in the many millions he's hit in his 30 years as America's premier tennis pro. He's not about to lose his left thumb to erosion the way I am, the same thumb I've had ever since I was a little girl. One more ball and that thumb is history.
Well, that's what I get for holding my racket wrong all these years; for not being born into a family with tennis courts in the back yard and starting off on the right foot, or right thumb, tennis-wise. Perhaps they can save my thumb. Perhaps I'll play again, some day.
If I do, I'll play a lot better as a result of the long weekend -- and I mean long -- at Dennis Van der Meer's tennis camp at Sweet Briar College, about 12 miles north of Lynchburg in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia.
I didn't go to be introduced to tennis. I've been playing mediocre tennis, with all the wild serves and missed lobs that suggests, for 20 years. Some of my more unusual tactics -- holding the racket like a baseball bat and swatting at backhands as if at a fly and squeezing my eyes shut at the net -- kept me from playing with anyone but close friends of the family. This year, before the bones went brittle, I wanted to take one more stab at developing a game that would remove forever the specter of a doubles partners turning to me and repeating Bobby Riggs' famous mixed doubles dictum: "Stand in the alley and don't hit anything that doesn't hit you first."
In truth, I wanted a miracle. Why else would an adult leave the comforts of home to sleep in a dormitory, eat cafeteria food and chase tennis balls eight hours a day under the demanding racket of Dennis Van der Meer?
Van der Meer is famed for his megacourt operation in Hilton Head, S.C., where serious players from around the world repair for a week of intense instruction with him and his seasoned pros. In 30 years, he has taught more than 100,000 players, coached Billie Jean King and Margaret Court, and schooled 10,000 pros now teaching at their own clubs or camps. Van der Meer established a system of teaching tennis that is now used around the world. It is a standardized method that builds one stroke at a time with a mixture of drills and playing, and it allows a player to go from pro to pro and get exactly the same instruction.
Van der Meer only gets as far north as Virginia once a year when the heat and mosquitoes at Hilton Head make it sensible to leave for the Blue Ridge Mountains of Sweet Briar, an idyllic, wooded 3,300-acre campus, which empties of students in mid-May. Every summer -- this year from June 4 to Aug. 7 -- players can take advantage of one of the world's great bargains: $239 for three days of nonstop tennis, all the food you can consume and the hardest bed this side of a rock.
You can check out Van der Meer's style on his weekly program on PBS. He is to tennis what Alistair Cooke is to British drama on Sunday nights. If you don't like what you see there, you should look around for another camp, because a teaching pro's manner is all-important. It's hard to stay out in the heat and have some guy bugging you about a net shot that has gotten you by until now, unless you like the way he goes about it. Like a tough drill sergeant, your tennis instructor should be the guy you hate to love; you won't learn anything if he turns out to be the guy you love to hate.
About a quarter of my group of 60 are repeat offenders. They are back either because the first round didn't take, or they didn't practice enough to instill what they learned, or because they had enough fun to want to do it again. There are a few hopeless students, but even they will know better how not to make fools of themselves if they are roped into a game of social doubles. As in every gathering of more than a dozen souls, there are a few jerks, like the guy in grade school who had his hand up all the time asking stupid questions.
There is a strong Washington contingent, but people come from as far north as Albany and as far south as North Carolina. "Did you hear that question Donaldson asked Rostenkowski on Brinkley last Sunday?" is not a good conversation opener. Even "How about those Orioles?" is a bit off. Safe gambits are the merits of a Rossignol over a pro Kennex and, among the aging baby boomers, the best knee brace.
Although, as in all things, it's nice to have a friend along, this is a weekend trip you can safely take alone. The court itself is a great icebreaker, and tennis provides the common language for the bar and dining room. It occasionally seeps out, but no one flagrantly asks anyone else what they do when they're not playing tennis.
From the moment we register on Friday morning until Sunday afternoon, when a trophy is awarded to the player with the most original coping mechanisms, we get nothing but tennis.
The program starts in the common room, which serves as the dining room, bar, lecture hall and video center. Unlike a lot of tennis camps where the pro is in the Tennis magazine ads but not on the court, Van der Meer is on hand every moment from the time he introduces himself on Friday until the Emmy awards on Sunday. He is joined on the court by his wife Pat, also a pro, and 12 other pros.
When the on-court instruction starts, people place themselves by skill level in groups of six -- a grouping that will change by the end of the day as Van der Meer has a chance to see who can return service and who can't. We start with name tags, which all disappear by the next day. By then Van der Meer knows most of the 60 names by heart; those few he gets wrong, he gets consistently wrong, so that by the end of the camp, if Dennis is calling you Sam, although your name is Stan, everyone is calling you Sam.
Once the groups are formed, we all troop to the 12 courts to begin basic training. The weather is perfect -- the first crystal-clear weekend of the spring. The setting couldn't be more beautiful: The courts are surrounded by the rolling hills and stately trees of the Virginia countryside, and although it gets to the high 80s, the breeze and lack of humidity make the exertion endurable, if not exactly pleasant.
All players begin by running to the net holding their rackets right in front of their faces and tapping the ball back, the one shot I'm already familiar with. I learn that's not a tennis stroke at all but a way to instill the notion that in a volley at the net, you don't swing at the ball at the net; you just meet it. I learn that after doing it at least 100 times. We move from volley to the right, volley to the left to practice on the ground strokes, and then a drill that mixes returning a ball from the baseline, running up to the net, doing a split step and returning a volley.
All this leads up to a 21-point round robin within our groups, everyone quietly grousing that they would have done better if they were involved with a better class of player. (The next day when the groups are changed, people have different reasons for not making a grand slam.) Never mind, by midafternoon we all feel like we are actually playing tennis.
That illusion is shattered when we go to the tapes to watch our morning's play. No one really knows how idiosyncratic the everyday serve is until you witness 60 of them executed by your fellow man, no two alike. The rest of the day is spent removing some of the more bizarre movements people have built into what turns out to be a fairly simple three-step process. I myself had to give up a totally gratuitous wind-up, something akin to a slow softball pitch in reverse, for a movement that almost bends my arm all the way back where it belongs and then around.
At this juncture, a few students are kept behind by Van der Meer, who seems to be everywhere at once. You don't think he is there and then you hear his booming Dutch voice and spy his 20-year-old fishing hat. "C'mon, get those feet moving. Make that arm go all the way around, touch your back. Here, let me throw the ball up. Now you won't always have me around to toss the ball up for you, so you do it this time. Do it again. Again. Ah, there. Piece of cake."
Van der Meer is full of American colloquialisms, "piece of cake" being his favorite fallback. His early-morning breakfast lectures before going to the court are Lettermanesque, but he is saved from cynicism by his love of the game. While everyone is having lunch, he stays on the court and plays with a couple of his pros. If you need special help he will give it to you, then turn you over to one of the pros with precise instructions. He looks at every tape of every player and has a running patter to describe each style of play.
On Saturday morning, we start at 9 with a serve and volley, this time with a ball machine and a target trainer. It's no longer enough to get the ball over the net, it has to go through a standing target; the pro hits it back, by which time you are at the net, ready to hit a volley through the target. We learn tennis is a game of inches. Most players in my group have a hard time getting shots through. Some of us are late for lunch.
In the afternoon, the pros tape our ground strokes, not as discouraging a display as the tape of the serves. We drill on those for a while; my group gazes enviously at the hot dogs on the upper courts practicing topspin.
Even my slow group gets to learn how to do an overhead smash, one of those great showy Wimbledon shots everyone would like to walk away with, especially since a lot of the students came here in search of a good doubles game. We go for several buckets of balls on this drill, which turns out to be a lot of fun: Two students serve the ball at the same time; the pro returns one of them as a lob. By this time both players are at the net; the one on the right hollers "yours" and the other runs behind to return the lob with an overhead smash. The one who hollers "yours" is meantime running to the hot seat, that spot at the center of the court from which you can presumably return anything. A volley is smashed across the net to end the point. Well, sort of. No one left without learning how to yell "yours."
At the Saturday round robin, people are loosened up, playing better, not so worried about their egos. Then the fun ends for more drills. The whole idea is to hit more balls than you have ever hit before. A good player probably hits 10,000 balls in a weekend. I probably hit 5,000.
I wrapped Second Skin, a New Age bandage, around my thumb and showed up for drills after lunch when it was 86 degrees -- and I have no talent for self-sacrifice. It's because that sweet spot they talk about really is sweet. Hit it one out of 100 times the first day, 100 out of 1,000 the second, and more times than not the third, and you're hooked -- through pain, through heat, through wanting to take a shower and have a gin and tonic.
Fun's fun, but I also wanted to walk away from this weekend with a better game. After a few days close to my own bed, I went out to give my $239 serve, overhead smash, lob and volley a spin. I roped a player slightly better than myself into playing with me, promising it would be worth her while.
The pressure was high. I reverted to my unreconstructed serve. I missed easy forehands, the one stroke I had always had. My feet were getting tangled up. I was playing good inner tennis, reciting the homilies of Dennis Van der Meer, but it wasn't showing up at the baseline. My friend suspected I had spent the weekend on the porch reading bad novels and eating bonbons.
Then I calmed down. With nothing left to prove, I decided to spend the eternity the serve with the arm going round to touch my back takes; I put my right arm up to guide an overhead smash; I turned the racket in my hand for a backhand grip and stepped into it; I even went to the net with my eyes open. I won 4-3.
Piece of cake.
For more information on the Van der Meer clinics, call (800) 845-6138. Margaret Carlson is a Washington writer.