Vince Spadea, who in an 18-year up-and-down pro tennis career had wins over Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, stood at net at East Hampton’s Buckskill Tennis Club feeding balls side-to-side to a winded amateur.
“Tennis is doing two or three things extremely well, extremely often,” Spadea, 38, said while trying to upgrade my running forehand and backhand into high-speed topspin weapons.
In Southampton the next day, on a quick-drying court made of plastic modules, Venus Williams rallied with journalists and admirers to publicize a line of tennis outfits she designed. Four years after her original retailing partner, Steve & Barry’s LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, she’s re-introducing her EleVen brand.
Likewise, I’m trying to reboot my tennis game, a lifelong obsession that has suffered amid fulltime employment and addictive theatergoing. Spadea, who peaked at No. 18 in the world and retired from the tour in 2010, and Williams, the 32-year-old winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles, seemed like ideal advisers.
Spadea has been teaching in the Hamptons since June, for $250 an hour. He said he’s involved with a few ventures, including instructional videos and a Los Angeles-based talent-management firm.
“There are different forks in the road for me and I haven’t merged onto one,” he said.
His career prize money exceeded $5 million. While he declined to discuss his finances today, he said after hotels, airfare and other expenses, a pro typically saves about a quarter of his prize money. His exhibition and endorsement income was about $2 million, he said.
In my lesson, he began hitting from the backcourt and immediately compared my slice backhand with Steffi Graf’s, a compliment I recognized as outlandish and treasured.
Then he went to work. My old-fashioned groundstrokes were fine, he said, but I’d get more spin, power and control by manipulating the wrist, combining “old school and new school.”
He said that in today’s fast game, racket position trumps body position, and I could hit a decent shot even when my body wasn’t lined up by paying close attention to backswing and the angle of the racket face. He encouraged me to accelerate the swing, and demonstrated by hitting a graceful one-handed backhand that seemed to fly down the line at 150 miles an hour.
Hit topspin at least two feet over the net, he said, for more consistency. And I was to slice the backhand lower than I had previously, for more force. Two exhausting drills helped instill the adjustments: one hitting while running side to side that he said is favored by Federer, and another while running forward and back that’s popular among Spanish stars.
The touring pro who churned through coaches and rapped in press conferences was a cerebral and effective teacher.
“I’m always hearing people haven’t seen that side of me,” Spadea said. “It’s a little bit of a split personality.”
Demand outstripped supply at the Williams event, with dozens seeking to hit and one Venus, who looked fresh six days after winning the Olympic gold medal in doubles with her sister, Serena. A brief rain shower gave her time to evaluate, at my invitation, my protective all-white outfit -- full-length Fila tennis pants and long-sleeve Coolibar collared shirt.
“I like the top and bottom,” she said, adding that the Prince hat with 3 1/2-inch brim didn’t mesh with what she called a 1920s vibe. “The hat is good for sun protection.”
When my turn came to hit the single ball I was allotted, I bounced on my feet and hit my strokes by wide margins over the net. I didn’t miss and neither did she, although she was striking at 20 percent pace and I was hitting normally. We got in about 20 strokes before she netted a volley.
“You have variety, you’re at ease, you just need match play,” Williams said at the net, a spot-on assessment as I tend to tense up under tournament pressure.
I asked her about her tennis longevity. She’s in her 19th year playing pro tournaments despite being diagnosed last year with an autoimmune disease. Preventing injuries is key, she said.
“Get strong in the gym and stay strong,” she said.
Perhaps her best advice was what she told a local television reporter who struggled to keep the ball in play.
“I think you need a little more practice,” Williams said. “Less time in the newsroom.”
Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Andrew Dunn on books.