People travel for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it’s work or family time, honeymoon or bachelor(ette) weekends, discovery or relaxation — or maybe it’s just about getting away to take a breath and recharge. Some like to lull by the pool or swim in the ocean; eat an amazing meal or maybe an insect; see some nature; hike, bike, dance, kayak, camp, laugh, cry, sleep.
For me, it’s tennis.
I admit that’s an overstatement. I travel all the time and for most, if not all, of the reasons listed above. To clarify: It’s not like I wouldn’t travel somewhere because there aren’t tennis courts or lessons. Let’s just say, I’m absolutely, 100%, wholly and completely in love with the sport.
T.S. Eliot once wrote, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Sorry, T.S. For me, it’s Grand Slams.
I’d never considered attending a fantasy camp before. But as a tennis nut, my eyes are always open for events of any kind. What I love most about tennis — aside from the outfits — is that it’s a very global sport, with millions of fans and with players from almost every part of the world.
Women and men play at the same slams (though it does annoy me that there isn’t prize money parity). Players vary in technique and mental toughness. I like the eager and tireless ball boys and girls and the sportsmanship — so much hugging and so many kind words about each other’s excellence post-match. Many players are multilingual, including my favorite, Roger Federer. It’s just so worldly!
My travel bucket list includes a year attending the four major Grand Slams: The Australian Open in Melbourne, the French Open in Paris, Wimbledon in London and finally New York City, for my home slam, the U.S. Open. (If you’re interested, I would finish that same bucket list year attending all Northwestern football games via chauffeured RV).
And then, out of nowhere, I found out about the “Tennis Insider Camp” at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on the Island of Hawaii. I might not make it to all the slams, but by gum, I was going to attend this camp.
I bought my plane ticket before I confirmed my assignment. I sent a note to Four Seasons asking for the opportunity to participate in the camp for at least part of a day. I’ll save you the suspense. They said yes.
Playing with the pros
As if the breathtaking natural beauty of Hawaii, the magic of a five-star resort and the aloha everything weren’t enough reasons to make the trip, the lineup of instructors and experts for the inaugural program was. They included:
— Michael Chang, French Open Champion and International Tennis Hall of Fame member.
— Todd Martin, ranked No. 4 on the ATP World Tour in the 1990s and CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
— José “Pepe” Higueras, former pro and renowned tennis coach to Federer, Pete Sampras, Jennifer Capriati and Mary Joe Fernandez, among others. Higueras had been coach to 17-year-old Chang when he defeated Ivan Lendl to win the French Open in 1989. Chang remains the youngest male player to ever win a grand slam.
Thomas Ross, who helped coordinate the camp lineup, chose the tennis talent “based not just on their extraordinary collection of resumes, but for the ease of which they would put the guests with their endearing personalities, humility and warmth.” Ross is co-director of the China Open tournament and a former senior leader at Octagon sports agency.
It is here that I should mention how bad I am at playing tennis, love it though I do. I have zero mental toughness, terrible technique, inconsistent success in getting the ball over the net with any accuracy, a litany of bad habits that I haven’t bothered to overcome.
I do receive instruction occasionally, but so intermittently, I always feel like I’m 10 years old when I get on the court.
Swallowing my ego was by far the easiest part of the experience. And I was assured that this camp was for anyone who wants to play. I tried to not let taking instruction from professionals intimidate me. That strategy didn’t work.
The five-day camp, which ran from August 7 to 11, cost $5,000, outside of accommodation at the pricey resort. A hefty sum, so I had to plead to cover it for CNN, so I could get some time on the court, interview the coaches, players and experts who had the full week of heaven at Hualalai.
Outside the two hours of instruction each day, there was an hourlong warm-up session with Mark Kovacs, a tennis-focused performance physiologist who has worked with John Isner and Sloane Stephens. Kovacs runs through a series of moves and circuits with the camper players. Lunges, planks, footwork, balance work, lateral movement, ankle strengthening — the works.
Beyond the tennis, the campers were treated to a few special meals throughout the week, along with evening cocktails and conversations, and consultations with nutrition expert Keri Glassman.
Exacting and encouraging
I did what I could, but I have a bad back and knees, so I mostly marveled at the diversity of the campers.
There were young kids, teenagers, young to not-so-young adults, men and women. Every camper was laser-focused on Kovacs, asking questions about players on the tour, about their bodies and how they train. He jovially imparted so much good, geeky (in a good way) inside-tennis knowledge.
Warmed up, we took the court. I was paired with a woman of similar age who has a home at Hualalai. She was attending the camp for one reason and one reason only: To improve her game. As a participant/observer/reporter, I didn’t work nearly as hard as she, and coach Pepe (as Higueras is known) was jovial, fun and patient.
We worked on our ground strokes, and as we hit, Pepe would give us tips about our form, and I noticed my partner steadily improving within just 30 minutes of play. I envied her.
We moved to work on serves and volleys with Todd Martin. Now Martin is tall. He’s 6-foot-6. Even before noticing how pathetic my serving toss was, he told us that we want our toss to be taller than him. He said the toss needs to reach the height of John Isner, who is 6-foot-10.
This simple visualization — and tossing and serving into the netting around the court about 100 times — immediately improved my serve. In terms of coaching style, Martin was the opposite of Pepe, who was more love than tough love. I found Martin’s exacting method just as effective as Pepe’s peppy encouragement.
After the drills were done (OK, I was done, I just couldn’t keep going), I went over to the court where Chang was playing one of the younger campers.
Now this was the way tennis is supposed to be played. Chang kept the tough shots coming, and this kid was a powerhouse. I was enthralled — and jealous of the apparent ease with which this boy played.
Inside the game
Later that night, there was a cocktail hour on a grassy knoll overlooking the pool and the ocean beyond. As drinks were poured and appetizers were passed (I know, tough assignment), Chang, Martin, Higueras and Jon Wertheim, tennis expert and Sports Illustrated executive editor, sat down together to talk tennis to the campers.
Much of what was discussed was off the record, but it began with the following observation from Wertheim, who moderated one of the cocktail hour talks: Not all athletes make good coaches — with the exception of the three gentlemen sitting beside him.
Martin coached Novak Djokovic, Pepe coached Federer and Michael Chang is coaching Kei Nishikori (currently ranked No.10). They went on to discuss the younger players on the tour, top players’ strengths and weaknesses, the relentlessness of being on the tour, the constant traveling, the effect of intelligence on play and more.
After the talk was over, the real campers and the rest of the crew took their leave, leaving me alone and depressed. I never thought I would love a fantasy camp as much as I loved this, and I hope to one day do it again.
“Judging by the feedback, including the enjoyment and inspiration from the participants (and the talent!), and the friendships that were made amongst all, I think we’ll be back to do it again next year!,” Ross said via email.
Though the team at the Four Seasons Hualalai expects to repeat the camp in 2018, no details are available. But there are camps and pro experiences all over the world throughout the year.
Before he walked off to get ready for dinner, I grabbed Wertheim and asked him the most dramatic venue for any of the tournaments on the tour, “You know, I think Hualalai needs a Grand Slam event. Tennis fans would love this place.”