Saintly Pros: Al Johnson
When I'm loving tennis, like I am right now, all flushed and sweaty after an hour on the court, I often have a professional tennis instructor to thank.
So, thank you, Saintly Pro Al Johnson, for providing me with a couple dozen thrilling moments of absolute focus on the ball and trust in my body.
Al has over 25 years of experience teaching and playing tennis, according to the Prospect Park Tennis Center website. He's been at PPTC since 2008. He is also a professional opera singer, amping up the wattage of his halo a bit. Haters, he has to deal with sopranos. I understand that's quite a feat.
We started at the net and worked our way back to the baseline, starting with volleys. God, I hate volleys. I feel like a stagehand thrust out on stage before a hostile audience, with the instruction to "do something, kid, we've got 10 minutes to fill." I get up there, I do a little shuffle-ball-change, but I'm also acutely aware that I don't have anything more.
Al's keys to the volley: stay with the ball. Intercept its flight path. "Get your racquet out in front of you, like you're reaching your palm over the net." Put your racquet out first, then step forward, on a diagonal, into the shot. Don't swing or chop, especially on the backhand.
"You're going like this," he said, waving his racquet back and forth in the air like a windshield wiper. "Stop doing that."
I like this about Al. He keeps it simple. Don't do that.
I have a tendency to tuck my elbow into my ribs on my forehand volleys, resulting in contact points that are in line with my ear instead of out in front of my body. To reach out, to extend my arm, the way Coach Al is telling me to, fires a new network of neurons. I do what he tells me, and I feel the ball hit my strings with a pop and a force that makes my brain crackle.
Wow. That felt good. Let's do that again!
He backs me up behind the service line. Now the drill is to hit an approach shot down the middle of the court and move forward for a volley.
Al's keys to this sequence: turn and prepare before the ball bounces. Move forward toward the ball, don't wait for it to come to you. And stay with the ball. Always this, first and foremost. It means watch the ball all the way onto the strings of your racquet.
"Recreational players, they want to check to see how they did, if their shot is going in," he tells me. "Don't do that. The ball won't bounce until you're finished moving your racquet. Do you know what that means?"
I don't know, but I want to please him, so I start stammering out an answer. "Um, it, um, means that you, uhhhhh....want me to extend my follow-through more?"
"I want you to do that, but that is not the answer to what I asked you," he says.
Again, I appreciate his simplicity.
"It means this: STOP LOOKING UP TO SEE WHERE THE BALL IS GOING. You'll have plenty of time to see your shot and what your opponent's doing once you're finished with your stroke."
I will myself to keep my head down, eyes on the ball, all the way through my swing. Swing, don't push. Let the racquet head fly.
Coach Al feeds me a ball to my forehand. It looks like a big yellow melon. I turn and swing, like buttah. THWACK. The ball flies low and hard right back at Al, who blocks it back to me for a forehand volley. All I can hear is my breath, all I see is the ball. The Tennis Committee in my head must be taking a bathroom break. BANG. I hit a firm, solid volley.
"Thankyouverymuch!" says Al.
I'm tingling like I just downed a double espresso.
On the next sequence, though, the Committee is back in session. Do that again...if you can. CAN you? Wait, you didn't turn! Quick, you're letting the ball play you. Swing that racquet, fast, fast, FAST. I sky the ball 5 feet beyond the baseline.
Al calls me up to the net for a talking-to.
"This is what happens when you start to get successful. You want to duplicate that feeling, yah? You want that immediate reward!" I'm thinking of the double espresso zing. Yah.
"Don't do that. Control your emotions. Your eyes are the player. Stay with the ball!"
Oh, THAT again. How boring. The Committee has nothing to do. They're making motions, shuffling their notes, consulting worn copies of Robert's Rules of Order. There's got to be more to this tennis thing than just staying with the ball.
But I am experiencing more success, more automatic, easy power, more intuition, by just watching the ball all the way into my strings, and keeping my eyes on that contact point until my swing is finished.
One more sequence. We're back at the baseline now. Coach Al feeds me a forehand. I hit it down the middle of the court. He volleys it deep to my backhand. I turn, move toward it, take it early, hit it cross-court. Coach volleys it short, to my forehand. I sound like Sara Errani as I run for it. "Ah, ah, ah!" All I see is the ball. Ball, ball, BALL. I swing. A short, cross-court zinger, blasted right past Al.
No, Al Johnson, thank you.