It's day one for me at the world- renowned Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida. In the past three hours, I've hit about 500 balls - more than I usually see in a month.
"Let's pair up and play some points," hollers Chip Brooks, who directs the adult program. "Todd, you and Jimbo strike it up on court three."
It's not an even pairing: I'm fit and I hit the ball okay; Jim Schreiber is a beefy New York businessman, 20 years my senior. Twenty minutes later, however, I'm a throttled 6-2 loser. During the last four games, I win two, maybe three points. A savvy competitor, Schreiber reads the book on my technique immediately: no forehand. For 20 minutes, I see nothing but forehands. Game, set, match.
"Hey, good playing with you," says Schreiber as we head to the cafeteria for lunch. "Can I make an observation?" I nod. "Your problem is mental. Definitely."
During drills, I'm an ace. In a competition, I consistently tank against people I should beat or at least challenge. It hasn't always been this way. At age 12, I was a regionally ranked junior. But at 13, I lost a club match to a 10-year-old ubergirl named Joy Cummings. I still haven't recovered. That's why I've come to what is reputed to be the toughest tennis camp in the land: I want to reclaim my once-scrappy court style.
My expectations are high, but that's true of just about everyone who journeys to Bollettieri's world-beating academy. Most people sign up, says Brooks, so they can get good enough to beat somebody back home. In my case, that somebody is my older brother Tom.
"One of two things will happen to you at Bollettieri's," predicts Tom, himself a former instructor. "Either you'll come back as your 12-year-old self, ready to take on me and the rest of the world, or you'll never want to pick up a racquet again."
Good competitors make mistakes. Bad competitors repeat them.
Bollettieri's sprawling, state-of-the-art complex is home to 79 championship courts, a 30,000-square-foot, artificial-turf "training dome," and a workout palace called the International Performance Institute. Gadgetry and high science abound. There are high-tech ball-serving machines, courtside video-playback stations, even an on-call sports shrink.
The hardware dazzles, but it's the aura of Nick Bollettieri that draws the world's top professionals and, in increasing numbers, weekend warriors like me. Though he never played competitive tennis, the 66-year-old camp patriarch has produced more champions than any coach in tennis history. The list starts with Andre Agassi and runs to Monica Seles. And it grows annually.
"Someone once said this place is all about survival of the fittest," says Bollettieri as he welcomes all of us to his six-hour-a-day ground-stroking sweatshop. "I don't disagree with that."
Bollettieri has just returned triumphant from the French Open, where star pupil Iva Majoli pulled off the upset of the year by beating Martina Hingis, the world's number-one woman player. Wearing black, razor-style Oakleys and a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off, he looks more like a member of the Crips gang than a tennis elder. The image isn't an act. For Bollettieri, the game is more blood sport than country-club social.
"Know something?" he says, drawing the proverbial line in the red clay. "I'm 66, but that doesn't matter. I want to do everything better than you. I want to be better than you on the court, on the golf course, in the weight room, on the dance floor. I have to win everything, understand?"
Of course we understand: Bollettieri is a maniac. Still, each of the 12 adults at this week's camp - a mostly male, fortysomething group that includes a couple of New York City attorneys, a Hugo Boss marketing exec, and a commercial real-estate developer from Denver - hungers for just a little of what he's got.
Surprisingly, we won't spend the week engaged in smash-mouth competition. The single biggest failing among recreational players, says Bollettieri, is that they compete before they're ready. "Points without preparation," he calls it. His remedy: drills, drills, drills. Done the Bollettieri way, drills have a blistering intensity. And the feedback, shall we say, is spirited.
Mohamed Chaouqui, a flashy junior instructor from Morocco, is an able stand-in for the master: "Balf, ask me if I care if you're tired," he taunts as I wobble through the infamous sprint-and-fetch-it drill, in which the instructor stands at the net and whacks the ball into alternating corners, sending the hapless player racing back and forth to hit returns.
After watching me bury one forehand after another in the bottom of the net, Chip Brooks explodes: "Hey, if I'm a basketball player and I throw up an air ball twice in a row, what do you think I'll do the third time? I'll break the damn backboard, that's what! If you want to win at this game, Balf, don't repeat your mistakes!"
To play up to your ability, stop playing - and start thinking.
Day two, 8 a.m. The stretching specialist, Scott Pucek, organizes us into pairs and doles out those rubber crazy balls - the kind that pet owners pitch to their bewildered, tongue-dragging mutts. He tells us to bounce the ball back and forth to each other. The goal is to see if we can pounce fast enough to catch it. We throw easily at first, then harder. And then harder. It's only the second day, and already we want to win at warm-ups.
The staff knows that sometimes it's necessary to throw water on our competitive fires. Peter Carpenter is a case in point. A muscle-bound anesthesiologist from the Philadelphia area, he's making his second visit to the camp. His raw passion for the game and his unlimited capacity for pain are noteworthy even by Bollettieri's standards. Last year, however, he drove himself so hard that his body fell apart. First he underwent full-body spasms. Then he suffered a temporary case of Bell's palsy.
This year, he's brought his family. The instructors are relieved. But Carpenter, restricted to a mere eight hours of tennis a day, is miserable.
Carpenter is a living, breathing billboard for that outer edge where unchecked competitive fury becomes raw, scary, and maybe dangerous. He reminds the rest of us that too much is too much. But how much is enough? What makes for balance?
Jim Schreiber, who beat me so easily on day one, is trying to find his own competitive peace. Just two weeks ago, he sold his company, Tuscan Dairy Farm, the largest consumer dairy in metropolitan New York. He's hoping that his monetary windfall will afford him the chance to develop his softer side. But evidently that's down the road a ways. Right now, he wants nothing more than to kick Peter Carpenter's ass.
"I can get inside his head," Schreiber tells me. "Carpenter wants to smash the ball, but I won't let him."
Schreiber, who in the mid-'60s was a highly ranked player on Brown University's varsity tennis team, is well past his prime. But no one thinks this contest will be a mismatch, because Schreiber is convinced that he won't beat himself. Too bad the rest of us can't make that claim.
Get mad. And get even.
Near the end of my third day here, I pause to take stock. At sundown on day one, I was among the walking wounded: A trainer had to drill through several of my toenails to pop dime-sized blood blisters. This morning, my feet were holding up, but my game was bottoming out. No tips, no scrap of advice could penetrate my cerebrum:
"Get the racket back early."
"Swing low to high."
This afternoon, however, I sense that I might be over the hump, and some of the others seem to agree. When Brooks tells us to play a game of "keep the ball in play," Schreiber not only claims me as his partner; he also challenges Peter Carpenter and another ace ground-stroker, Chicara Yamada, to a wager. The rules: After a player hits a shot, he clears the court so his partner can play the next ball. The rotation continues until someone flubs a shot. The first team to 11 points wins. Losers buy the first round.
I don't fall apart immediately, but when Carpenter and Yamada smoke us two games in a row (putting us four beers in the hole), Schreiber unilaterally declares defeat. He sends me packing to join Carpenter, and he takes Yamada.
Betrayed, humiliated, and fast losing pocket money, I arrive at an emotion heretofore unplumbed: I'm deeply pissed off! Raging hormones might not be the antidote for my poor play, but a funny thing happens: The anger kills my self-consciousness. I go all out, yet I'm relaxed. Suddenly Carpenter and I come storming back. When I drive a stinging forehand cross-court past Yamada, my partner screams in astonishment, "All right, all right! 10-9!"
Alas, the next point goes their way, when Schreiber wallops an outright winner. But the other three have won their beers, and I've won something that's almost as refreshing: a taste of redemption.
End of the week: Do you have a weapon?
The last day. There's no final tournament, no contrived wrap-up. We end with drills - and a not-so-fuzzy message. "Are you ever going to hit the ball like that?" asks Calvin Cole, a staff instructor, as we watch a video of Agassi clobbering forehands. "No, of course not. So what are we telling you? Simply this: Develop a weapon." Put another way: Find a part of the game that you can love, and work it.
I realize that I won't be leaving Florida with an explosive game that will rock my big brother. But I have discovered my weapon. It isn't glamorous, but it's potentially formidable. I find it during a single point near day's end.
Evan Drutman, a New York lawyer, and I are playing "King of the Court": Play one point, and the winner stays to take on the next in line. If Drutman wins, I'm gone.
Drutman yo-yos me from one side of the court to the other, moving me around, looking to put me away. He's got me lunging, but I manage to keep the ball in play - and I do more: I throw up defensive lobs to buy time. I slice the ball to his vulnerable backhand.
In the final sequence, Drutman returns a volley that lands short. I sprint into the forecourt, catch a glimpse of him cheating on the cross-court side, and smash the ball down the line. It ticks the tape for a winner. At that glorious moment, I know I've found my weapon: I've learned to think several shots ahead and to work the point to my advantage.
I can hear the instructors howling from as far away as the cabana. Suddenly I'm 12 years old again, at the top of my game, filled with the confidence of youth. It occurs to me that I should quit while I'm ahead. Instead, I hear myself saying, "Next!"
Coordinates: Three days of instruction only at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, $431. 800-872-6425; http://bollettieri.sportsline.com
Todd Balf firstname.lastname@example.org, a contributing editor at Outside magazine, writes frequently for Fast Company.
Action Item: Have Racquet, Will Travel
It's midwinter - a good-enough reason to pack your tennis gear the next time business takes you to a sunny destination. Johan Kriek, who won the Australian Open men's singles title in 1981 and 1982, is journeying to 19 of the 21 Nuveen Tour senior events this season - so he's uniquely qualified to give out travel advice: "I always, always keep my racquets with me on the plane. If the airline loses my racquets, I'm out of a job."
All you need is a sleek, well-padded shoulder bag that you can easily stow in the 747's overhead compartment. Our favorite is Wilson's blue-and-black Triple Thermo, a rugged bag with room for three standard- or stretch-sized racquets. It's got padded shoulder straps, and it's built with 600 series Denier polyester and Black Diamond PVC (the same material that backpacks are made of), so it should hold up to all the abuse that even the most frequent of frequent flyers can impose on it.
Coordinates: $39.99. Wilson Sporting Goods, 800-946-6060; http://www.wilsonsports.com
To win at tennis, it's not enough to know your own game - you must know your opponent's game too. Here are master coach Nick Bollettieri's champion-tested tips for getting an early read on the enemy.
What shot does he want to hit? During the warm-up, hit the first ball down the center of the court. Almost always, says Bollettieri, your opponent will instinctively set up to hit his favorite stroke - and that knowledge gives you a tactical advantage.
What shot does she avoid? If your opponent is tentative about a down-the-line backhand, concede the corresponding side of your court - and dare her to hit a winner past you. If she doesn't take the bait, the real estate that you must cover has shrunk by about one-third.
Can he run and hit? Don't feed your enemy an endless diet of shots to his weak side. Hit regularly to his strong side, and then prey on his weakness. "You don't have to hit outright winners," says Bollettieri. "You just have to hit shots that are hard to reach."
Coordinates: $25. My Aces, My Faults, Nick Bollettieri (Avon Books, 1996)
Schools of Aces
Looking to jump a few rungs on the club ladder this summer? You can get a head start by taking a three- to five-day crash course at one of these top-rated tennis camps - all of which are located in a warm clime.
Evert Tennis Academy
Boca Raton, Florida
Yep, that Evert. You won't find a better place to learn how to slug a two-fisted backhand. Nearby: a half-mile stretch of Atlantic beach, several PGA-quality golf courses, and the posh West Palm Beach shopping district.
Coordinates: Five-day, instruction-only package, $300. 800-417-3783.
John Newcombe Tennis Ranch
New Braunfels, Texas
Once ranked number one in the world and now the captain of the Australian Davis Cup team, John Newcombe also knows how to have a good time, and at his camp in the Texas hill country, 30 miles north of San Antonio, the staff lets the good times roll.
Coordinates: All-inclusive weeklong packages from $618. 800-444-6204.
Vic Braden Tennis College
Coto de Caza, California
The highlight here is Braden himself: His lectures are funny, well-researched, and wonderfully counterintuitive.
Coordinates: Instruction only, $150 per day. 800-422-6878.