Call it the Immersive Tennis Experience (ITE). Long a staple of the recreational tennis life, the ITE can take on many forms. There’s a USTA league team, off to the sectionals or nationals. There’s the exotic journey, millions of balls hit in a sun-drenched locale. There’s the trip to the pro event. Or some combination that includes the chance to be on the court with former touring pros.
Then there’s the Tennis Congress. What one attendee calls “a Star Trek convention for tennis,” the Tennis Congress is a half-week long confab of more than 250 male and female recreational players and 75 instructors, gathered for clinics, demonstrations, indoor seminars, dialogue and, perhaps most notably, a strong flavor of community and compassion. Tennis Congress is an ITE that heavily celebrates tennis, not merely as an activity, but as a potentially transcendent and even transformative endeavor.
It’s an October Sunday night in Tucson at the Hilton El Conquistador. The fifth rendition of Tennis Congress is about to draw to a close, attendees gathered for a final dinner. There’s a guest speaker, WTA pro Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Having been ranked number one in the world in doubles, you might think Mattek-Sands would be keen to discuss the nuances of team play. But doubles was already covered over the last three days, dissected by such experts as Hall of Famer Gigi Fernandez and a host of sharp instructors.
Mattek-Sands has another message. Earlier in the summer, at Wimbledon, she’d suffered an injury that had ended her year and, at least at first glance, threatened to terminate her career. But less than four months after that incident, Mattek-Sands was well on the path to recovery. “You get to pick your attitude,” she said. “The only reason we come back is because of energy.” Hundreds stood to applaud. They clapped not just for Mattek-Sands, but for their own efforts to understand and seek some degree of mastery – not just as spectators, but as participants. That in large part is the lure of the ITE: the idea that tennis zealots are scarcely observers, but first and last, players.
But how does an ITE endure? The final hours of an ITE can be so electrifying, attendees abuzz with pointers ingested, bodies tested, bonds formed with instructors and fellow players. Weeks later, though, what truly resonates? As the tales of several Tennis Congress attendees demonstrate, the answers can be quite different.
Mike Peters, an information technology consultant based in Austin, Texas, has attended all five editions of Tennis Congress. For Peters, Tennis Congress is all about practical, workable tactical instruction. “I don’t do much technique work at the Congress,” he said. “It’s not really useful to work on technique in two to three days.”
But weeks later, Peters continues to remember the tips he learned about how to conduct himself when his doubles partner is serving – the poach, the fake, how best to talk between points. “Local coaching is much more technique-based,” he said. “But at the Congress, I learned tons more about the strategy-tactics side of the equation.”
While Peters most recalls the ways Tennis Congress improved his doubles, the lessons from Tennis Congress are different for Lynn Pearson, a commercial real estate finance professional from Milwaukee. “It’s not so much about instruction and more about the people I meet,” she said. “The first year I went in really focused on what I could take and bring to my tennis game. The second year, I knew some people ahead of time and was focused more on the relationships. I come expecting to improve my game, but instead, I’m learning ways to improve myself as a person.”
Bob Litwin, a longstanding tennis instructor now based in Boulder, Colorado, has been a Tennis Congress faculty member since the event first started in 2013. Litwin in recent years has not just taught tennis, but also brought his wisdom to aiding people in other endeavors; most notably, professionals on Wall Street. His 2016 book, “Live the Best Story of Your Life,” taps into the power of the personal narrative. As Litwin told Tennis Congress attendees, “Redefine winning.”
That in large part is the event’s theme. What truly constitutes success for a tennis player? Certainly, it’s nice to win tennis matches, not just in practice, but in league play and tournaments. But the point of Tennis Congress – and many but not all ITEs – is to show that there are many ways to engage in the tennis and emerge triumphant. Even Jimmy Connors, as hungry to win a match as anyone who ever held a racquet, once remarked that, “the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.”
Which brings us to the case of another Tennis Congress athlete, Rafael Garcia. In September 2011, the 30-year-old Garcia, comptroller for a non-profit in El Paso, decided to resume tennis after not playing for more than a decade. He weighed 350 pounds, 150 more than he’d weighed ten years earlier. “Tennis has become the driving force for me to get in better shape and change my eating habits,” said Garcia. He began to practice, take lessons and compete on league teams.
In 2015, Garcia was awarded a scholarship to Tennis Congress and has now attended it three straight years. “There are very limited sources for training where I live,” said Garcia. “I take everything I can from the Congress and bring it back home – the training, the mindset, the ideas.” By early 2016, Garcia weighed 197 pounds. At that year’s Tennis Congress, Garcia gave a speech to the entire group, titled, “Because of Tennis,” citing the role the sport had played in his ability to transform himself. “I stand here before you to offer hope to those that need that extra push to stop doubting yourself,” said Garcia. “Tennis has the ability to change an individual both physically and mentally and continues to do so.”
Garcia’s fellow Tennis Congress attendees, Peters, Pearson and Litwin, would all agree. The fascinating aspect of this ITE is that each has made those changes in very different ways.
(Above: Rafael Garcia credits tennis with helping lose more than 150 pounds)
Joel Drucker has attended Tennis Congress the last two years.