On Being Taught by Stow
Written by Eugene Cantin, Inside Tennis March 1984
I first became aware of Tom Stow at the age of fourteen. I was the last single junior to be accepted in the Berkeley Tennis Club for a long period of time and Stow was the gruff-voiced head pro and club manager. He had little patience for noisy junior members running around the club getting underfoot. It seemed like a good idea to avoid gaining his attention as much as possible.
A few years later, however, club member and nationally ranked player Jim McManus , needed someone on court to hit the ball back during his lessons with Tom. I was elected.
A lesson with Tom Stow was an experience no one ever soon forgot. Tom had an image of how tennis should be played – for him strokes were logical, simple, precise, and explosive – and by God if you were on the court with Tom Stow for instruction you were going to learn how to play tennis the right way. Period!
I remember time after time hitting what I thought was a perfect groundstroke or volley, only to be to be buried by that gruff, rasping voice. ”No, NO, do it right, do it RIGHT.” And he would grab the racquet and try to show you what he wanted, explaining all the while with many references to other sports, then, eyes fixed on yours from about a foot away, he would demand, “Now that’s right, isn’t it, ISN’T IT?’ There definitely was pressure and anxiety. It hurt being forced into the mold for the proper tennis game that Tom saw so clearly in his own mind.
But there were some days when you finally got what he was after. It was like gaining vision after being blind. Suddenly you were doing nothing strenuous, yet the ball would rifle off your strings like a bullet. On service returns you would move forward to meet the ball, perfectly balanced, elbows tucked into yoru sides as you turned slightly to take the racket back, then crack and the ball would hit a corner of the court and the far fence before your opponent had finished the service motion. On the volley you would hardly move your racket, yet you would frame the ball perfectly and explode it past or through anyone foolish enough to get in the way. Truly, if you could produce what Stow was after, you found yourself elevated to tennis nirvana.
Tom’s attention was devoted almost exclusively to stroke production during a lesson. Tactics and strategy were irrelevant when you were armed with the the sort of strokes Stow intended that you ahve. Playing properly, you were always moving forward to meet the ball early, stealing time from your oopponent, and you simply delivered more firepower across the net until the ball no longer returned. To a degree the opponent was irrelevant. A Stow pupil played to a certain standard, stroke after stroke, game after game, and the winning of matches seemed the inevitable by-product.
There was a certain look to a Stow student, a way of going about playing. I was startled a number of times to have some stranger come up and state, “You are a Stow student, aren’t you?”
Tom had very high standards regarding the court conduct, it had to be perfect. He made each of his students believe that he dealt only with ladies and gentleman, and I think none would have dared prove him wrong.
Tom also managed to imply that he only dealt with champions, preferrably Wimbledon champions in the style of Budge, so by definition if he was willing to work with you, you were also a champion, if not now then soon, and you might as well hurry up about it. After a time, Stow students expected to win, and generally did.
Tom Stow’s influence on tennis in the United States was vastly greater than people realize. Of course, many people have never even heard of Stow. Yet he was one of the first, if not the first, to have a clear image of how the game should be played: cleanly, coherently, efficiently, effectively. And he was also one of the first, if not the first, to figure out how to teach such a game. His prowess at teaching is borne out by the long list of chamions he coached. It is sad that he is no longer with us, pushing and proddig us to play the game the way he so clearly saw it should be played.