A Teacher Never Knows …

How I got here

At 11 years old I would bicycle to Acalanes High School, sit in the shade amidst the trees, and watch Blackie Jones give lessons.  He was firm, he was gruff, but equally he loved the game and his students.  His lessons were interspersed with questions to see if the student was following.  And after a while he would toss these questions to me, and that was how it started.  His passion was for the science of the game, the physics, and about his students could know the game well enough to show it to others.  I still remember an afternoon when he and Jeff played a long point with multiple drop shots and lobs and both laughing as it ended.  He encouraged my curiosity and that stays with me today.

Tossing into the swing, the circle of play, kick serve, drop hit full eastern backhand grip backhands (so as he said this would become my strength and inadvertently opponents might actually try to attack it).  I watched him string racquets and saw a life totally absorbed into the game.

ETI 012 | Tossing into the Swing

ETI 013 | Circle of Play

 

After college I traveled to Florida with Jim Irwin, who was at that time Tom Stow’s assistant pro at Silverado in Napa.  Jim spoke at length about Tom, his methods, his successes and more.  When I returned to Northern California I met Tom, and asked for lessons.  My first lesson was sitting on a stool, attempting to hold still while  volleying.  His expectation, if not demand, was that I hit the ball precisely, with true backspin (no sidespin at all) and directly precisely to the target.  A version of this is now called “toss hit catch”  He demanded perfect posture and balance, turning to wait for the ball on balance, finishing on balance with a subtle hip turn and again full balance, teaching on the theory of golf and likening the ground stroke to a 3/4 nine iron.  His “All Court Forcing Game” was about playing on or inside the baseline, meeting every ball squarely, always moving forward to apply pressure and finish.

Learn to Turn Properly

Tom Stow Introduction

 

 

Some years later, living in New Orleans I met Don Kerr.  I was in a tournament, he came up and offered, “You play pretty well for someone who doesn’t know how to move.”  Don was an amputee, coach at that moment for the Tulane tennis team, an internationally known badminton coach and so much more.  We worked very closely, first on the gravity turn which he published originally in the 1930’s.  Then came work on the serve, based on his experience with badminton and how the badminton clear was a  model for the serve.  Tinkering with my serve (as usual) on a hot afternoon in Destin Florida, there was one swing that felt special – he noticed it, I felt it, and we both saw sweat fly up from my fingertips.  A few days later he made a prototype that would measure angular momentum, and whistle when the force of the swing exceeded a preset threshold.  We patented the device and and it game me the centerpiece for a Masters degree project to test the effects of electromechanical feedback on the tennis serve.  Phew.

ETI 046 | Gravity Motion

Unscrew the Light Bulb (on the serve)

Blackie Jones, Wayne Dawson (Chico State), Chet Murphy (Cal), Tom Stow, Don Kerr and for good measure Fred Earle.  Returning to NorCal and the Bay Area I had the good fortune to study with Fred Earle.  We worked together only briefly, but we shared the same perspective about the Pancho Gonzalez serve and how elements of that motion can be taught.  Once when I asked him what he saw in the Pete Sampras serve, he clearly said, “This is the most relaxed delivery I have ever seen.” And for sure to this day I still use his “The 5 Keys to Building Self Confidence.”

ETI 031 | Building Self Confidence

“A teacher never knows when their influence ends.”

15 Comments

  • robert beckvall

    Reply Reply March 29, 2020

    Jim,

    I am in Honolulu. I can see the sunshine and my doubles partner texts me about chomping at the bit. We just won a tourney in Feb.(45 years winning tourneys in USTA), and it seems like a world away. These great memories remind me of USPTA Pro Jim Munsil out of Phoenix, AZ. Jim took juniors to great places like all-american, gold balls, armed forces champions,HS & college championships, etc. He is a master stringer, and headed up the USTA Phoenix as president. I am still in contact and will send this to him today. We just had lunch in Phoenix at Christmas, and he gave me the classic “suncube” hat so that I can pass tennis down to juniors. I do this with another tennis guy that came from Punahou, USPTA pro & pastor Jerry Hubbard. We are all U. of Arizona alums, and we thank you for your tennis memories and professionalism. THANK YOU JIM(S) & JERRY.

  • skip schwarzman

    Reply Reply March 29, 2020

    “This is the most relaxed delivery I have ever seen,” is one of the pithiest and most accurate descriptions of what is, at the least, of the best serves the game has ever seen. Seeing Sampras at an exo after he’d retired, a fellow teaching pro said, “He just walks up and boom!”

    Long time students of the game all have their keystone teachers, especially if you’re old enough to have come from a time when the teaching was more personal and less academy (no value judgement, just different). Mine was Frank X. Brennan, Sr., from whom I heard about Tom Stow and others. It’s great to hear your stories on all of you mentors.

    Thanks for the continuing emails through our staying at home. They’re greatly appreciated.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 29, 2020

      Skip – thanks for this – whenever it was possible at our USPTA conferences I would find a time to visit with Fred Earle and just ask questions. Lots of stories there as well. And as to the Brennans, some years ago Frankie (now the Stanford womens coach) worked with us at the club – a wonderful young man
      best
      Jim

  • Devan

    Reply Reply March 28, 2020

    Coach Jim,

    Very inspiring for me to read through your journey. I hope to see you on the courts soon once this pandemic subsides!

    Your student,
    Devan

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 29, 2020

      Devan – thanks, I am going to send you a math question about tennis percentages
      Jim

  • fsilber

    Reply Reply March 28, 2020

    I have read several times of Tom Stow’s emphasis on the importance of balance. But for 45 years I never understood what that meant — what does it mean to be on balance. Only recently did I learn from another internet teaching pro that it means keeping one’s spine straight and one’x center of gravity somewhere over a line between the two feet (or, sometimes, the place where you plan to put the other foot down during the follow-through). I’m still working out my confusion between “staying on my toes” to move well versus having my weight-bearing foot flat on the ground for maximal balance. (Perhaps it’s a matter of having a foot flat while beginning the swing, and being on one’s toes between swings.)

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 28, 2020

      Frank – this is somewhat a long story – and the more words sometimes the worse it gets – Tom felt this was the same balance as one would use to throw a ball or even throw a punch – and for him he wanted me (at least) to finish with nearly all my weight on the front foot and the entire shoe on the ground (not the toes) – take some time to explore many of the podcasts related to this – as to a straight spine that has to do with gyroscopic stability and whether an object wobbles or spins with a vertical axis like an ice skater – why not send me an email with a video of your forehand – I have a lot of time on my hands
      Jim

  • Mike Dikas

    Reply Reply March 28, 2020

    I met Chet Murphy in a PE class at Cal in 1971…I had never hit a tennis ball…after my first rally he said, “you’re a baseball player, I can help you”…he taught me to serve, later refined by Alan Margot…almost 50 years later I’m still playing…thanks for all your stories and insights…all the best

    M

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 28, 2020

      Mike- thanks for this, Chet gave me the chance to walk-on to the team in 1969 – a special two years at Cal
      Jim

  • Joe Dinoffer

    Reply Reply March 28, 2020

    Jim,

    Loved reading this. Well done. Thank you so much for taking the time to share.

    Joe

  • Bernie McGuire

    Reply Reply March 28, 2020

    Good stuff Jim…I recognized Jeff Smith in your picture…he and I played at Forest Park in Springfield, Mass a lifetime ago…thanks for the memories

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 28, 2020

      Bernie – I knew and know Ed Gaskell very well but never actually met Jeff but was told he was very close with Don
      best
      Jim

  • Carl Johnson

    Reply Reply March 27, 2020

    Loved this! I can only hope my players look back on me with such fondness one day.

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