I picked up my first tennis racket when I was nine-years-old and fell in love with the game. I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, and for years, I only played on hard courts, with a wooden racket, regular yellow tennis balls at an elevation of at least 4,000 feet.
I played in tournaments and competed on tennis ladders, taking tennis lessons until graduating high school in 1983. As a junior from Utah, I'd compete in tournaments throughout the state and occasionally in tournaments in the Intermountain Region, which consists of players from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. I'll never forget playing in a tournament on a court right next to Andre Agassi.
Throughout my teenage years, I also loved acting. I took drama classes and performed in school plays. I continued to learn about myself and the world around me by playing characters–some from different times and places I’d never been.
One day as an 18-year-old, I was out hitting balls with a friend and stepped on a tennis ball and tore a ligament in my ankle. I continued to compete, but was never as good as I had been, and hung up my racket competitively for a long time. I continued to play, recreationally, but was off to college and graduate school and wouldn’t pick up a racket for quite some time.
I received my Master of Fine Arts in Acting in Denver in the spring of 1991, and moved to Los Angeles, Calif. I was living in a city with a beautiful climate, and that hunger to pick up my racket and hit balls again was very present. So I did, and got a job teaching teenage kids tennis and started playing almost every day again.
A few years later, I moved to New York City to further my career as an actor. I played tennis recreationally, thinking the need for tennis pros in the Big Apple were few and far between and the competition for those jobs was fierce.
But in May of 2015, I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle. I was in a coma for a week and hospitalized for a month. When I got back on the tennis court, playing was much more difficult. My hand-eye-ball coordination was way off and, at first, I wondered if I'd be able to play well again. But because of my love for the sport, I continued to play and I improved and realized how keeping myself active, both physically and mentally, was improving my health in amazing ways.
When the U.S. Open rolled around, I’d post messages on social media looking for tickets, knowing that many of them go unused by corporations and businesses at the beginning of a tournament. After posting, friends I knew from the theater world responded. Carman Lacivita, who I knew through a theatre company we both worked with, reached out to me and asked if I had ever taught tennis. I said I had, but it had been years since I had, but I’d love to do it again. I was then introduced to a style of teaching I was unfamiliar with.
Growing up, there was only one size tennis racket, regular yellow tennis balls, the same size net and the same court dimensions. For the first time, I had to learn the different types of balls, the different sizes of rackets, court dimensions, etc. It's a way of teaching I strongly recommend to anybody teaching younger kids.
I got certified with the Professional Tennis Registry (PTR) in an area of New York where an old theater graduate school classmate of mine, Duane Boutte, lives. It turns out he was good friends with Sloane Stephens’ mother and grandfather. I was given an amazing opportunity to speak with her, Dr. Noel Smith, and her kind uncle, Ronald Smith. I asked the two of them if there were any pearls of wisdom they would impart to young tennis players, and they said: “Life is a game and you should play to win. Learn the game and understand the game and never give up. Keep trying, keep learning and persevere.”
Sloane’s mother, Sybil, was also an amazing athlete in her own right as a swimmer for Boston University. During an important match as a tennis player, nerves can really get in your way. Dr. Smith told me that when a huge point comes up, “Sloane puts on Sybil’s poker face.”
Tennis and acting are similar in that way, and I’ve learned valuable lessons from both. On opening night of a play and I’m in in front of a live audience for the first time, nerves can get in the way. I’ll take Ronald and Dr. Smith’s words to heart: “Keep trying. Keep learning. Persevere. Don’t give up.”
Tennis and acting … 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical.
Today, I’m approaching 54-years-old with no kids of my own, but I teach tennis to kids five days a week at Midtown Tennis Club in Manhattan. Teaching kids this amazing sport is something that lifts me in amazing ways. Helping shape the minds and bodies of children teaches me how lucky I am to be a survivor, and how grateful I am to do something I truly love! Tennis, after all, does begin with love.
Spencer Aste is a teaching professional with The Manhattan Tennis Academy and at Midtown Tennis Club in Manhattan. A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, he is a PTR-certified coach, and can be reached by e-mail at SpencerAste@gmail.com.