I was on the gray clay courts of the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for all of 30 seconds before Desmond Osugwie, the teaching pro hitting me balls, announced, "Oh, yeah. We're definitely going to work on that backhand." Osugwie's enthusiasm set the tone for the rest of the six-hour session. Coaching guru Nick Bollettieri's academy is best known for nurturing Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, and Jim Courier when they were teenagers. But it also offers top-rate instruction for flabby adults who want to whip their weekend games into shape in a minimum of time.
Bollettieri's sprawling complex, with its 79 courts, is one of more than two dozen major tennis clinics in the U.S. that cater to adults in sessions ranging from 2 1/2 hours to a week. Most facilities offer on-site lodging but allow you to stay elsewhere. The idea is the sports equivalent of a total-immersion foreign-language course. For tennis lovers, it can be a great vacation, getaway weekend, or brief practice stint squeezed in after a business trip or conference.
Tennis camps accept players from the advanced beginner struggling to use the correct grips to the former college star fine-tuning a topspin forehand. If you're just starting the sport, it's best to learn the fundamentals from your local teaching pro before heading off to a camp. "Most of our customers are hard-core players," says Chip Brooks, Bollettieri's director of adult tennis. "We're not set up for people who have never held a racket, but we can help anyone who knows the basics."
The challenge of any clinic is to match players according to ability. In tennis, age and gender can be irrelevant. The players in my group at Bollettieri's included a few people in their twenties and an extremely fit 66-year-old Tom Courtney, who won two track gold medals in the 1956 Olympics. In fact, adults often play practice sets or 12-point tiebreaks against teenagers living full-time at the academy. This is considered a privilege for the adults, like being promoted to the major leagues.
I was deemed worthy of playing a series of 12-point tiebreaks with Anne Marie Merdick, a 13-year-old, 6-foot-tall Swede. On talent, this was a mismatch. Anne Marie has a laserlike forehand and a serve that finds the corners. I've got 36-year-old legs and a backhand that cries: "Help me!" But on that day the tennis gods were smiling on me.
EVEN MATCH. Anne Marie was suffering from a stomach bug that almost kept her from playing. Despite her ailment, she felt pressure to perform decently, since her parents, her coach, and a few Bollettieri pros were watching. On the other side of the net, I was swinging freely, happy just to be there. I didn't feel a twinge of shame in hitting low slices, which made Anne bend her lanky frame enough to remind her of that queasy stomach. The result was an even match, with each of us winning four tiebreaks.
The highlight for me was when Anne's coach announced to everyone present that playing me was good practice for his pupil. I took that as a moral victory.
For New York lawyers Robert and Cara Londin, tennis camp is an annual stress reliever. With their demanding jobs, a daily commute from Long Island to Manhattan, and the responsibility of raising a six-month-old son, the Londins have trouble finding time to play. So every year for the past five they have escaped to Bollettieri's to cram in a high-intensity dose of tennis. "For type-A personalities who can't immediately go from work to lying on a beach, this is perfect," says Cara. This year, with little Joshua in tow, the schedule was somewhat less intense than usual. Robert played in the morning, while Cara had baby duty. In the afternoon, it was Cara's turn to hit the courts, and Robert pushed the stroller.
The Londins had tried several tennis camps around the country but settled on Bollettieri's as an annual ritual. The difference, says Robert, is the quality of instruction: "They make you push yourself. I definitely see a permanent improvement in my game every time."
Most camps vary their routine each day. For example, the teachers at Bollettieri's focus on forehands on Monday mornings and volleys on Wednesday. But the program is flexible. I was there on volley day, but the pros quickly spotted my backhand's weakness. So they worked on getting me to step forward aggressively with my right foot instead of clumsily crossing it over my left.
Camps are located throughout the country, but the highest concentration is in Florida. A few minutes from Bollettieri's is the Billy Stearns Tennis Center in Sarasota. The Stearns center isn't as large or well-known as Bollettieri's, but it offers superb teaching. Pro Susan Incardone helped me with the follow-through on my backhand, and Travis Eckert taught me how to hit a high-kicking second serve.
About an hour north, outside Tampa, is the Hopman Tennis Program, founded by the late legendary Australian coach, Harry Hopman. Known for its emphasis on conditioning, the clinic is part of the Saddlebrook Resort, which allows guests to unwind by playing golf or cycling.
On the east coast of Florida, outside Boca Raton, the Evert Tennis Academy holds adult training every day from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. The academy, founded by tennis legend Chris Evert, is terrific for executives who can find some free time or stay over a weekend during a visit to the Palm Beach-Fort Lauder-dale-Miami area.
WEATHER RISK. The price of a total tennis program depends on whether you stay on site or off and whether the camp is part of a larger tennis resort. Bollettieri's--which adult-tennis director Brooks calls "the Home Depot of tennis," with eight indoor courts, a mental-conditioning department, and a sports-medicine center--charges $142 for one day or $607 per week for only instruction during the low season that runs from May 1 to Oct. 31. On-site lodging costs an additional $105 to $285 per night. The Evert academy charges $85 for one three-hour session and $350 for five, year-round. Even less expensive is the Stearns center. Its year-round fee is $60 for a 2 1/2-hour session and $285 for five, not including lodging.
One potential problem is inclement weather. In fact, many camps in the Northeast don't even operate until the summer. Bollettieri's is one of the few in a warm-weather spot that has indoor courts. Most camps won't refund your money if the tennis is washed out by poor weather. Instead, they will offer you a rain check for another day. It's best to ask about the camp's policy before signing up.
Before you race off to camp, take the time to do some conditioning at home. To build up endurance and calluses, you should try to play as much as possible in the weeks before you go to camp. I usually play two to three times a week, but six hours at Bollettieri's left me limping, with full-body soreness and blisters on my feet. Most people find the going gets easier after the first day.
Although the likes of Chris Evert, John Newcombe, and Nick Bollettieri may appear at the tennis camps bearing their names, don't expect to see them hanging around. If you go with the simple goal of raising your game a level, you will walk away happy--even if a bit gingerly.