John Carpenter called me up from Atlanta around the time of the U.S. Open back in 2019 B.C. (Before Covid), seemingly out of the blue.
He explained that he had read many of the articles I had written for local, well-regarded publications: Long Island and New York Tennis Magazines. He had written a book on the history of tennis instruction and thought I might be open to peer-reviewing some new teaching concepts. I didn't know him, so I was skeptical, but John was so persistent and enthusiastic I couldn't say "NO!" We arranged to meet at my club, Bethpage Park Tennis Center here on Long Island.
He brought with him Chuck Tomlin, who he introduced as "my equal in tennis knowledge," and they talked for an hour about a new paradigm for tennis instruction. Now I was even more skeptical and wondered what these guys were trying to sell me? I listened politely to what they had to say and then was passively dismissive.
And for several years, I gave this meeting little thought.
When I reflect back on this encounter, I wonder to myself, why was I so resistant to their novel ideas? After all, I had always thought of myself as the ultimate anti-tennis establishment coach. Why didn't I even want to give them a chance? This brings me to the present, in what pretentious intellectuals call "a moment of ego clarity.”
Like many tennis coaches, I might have as my epitaph, "Often Wrong But Never In Doubt." I preach humility to my students every day, but coaching is empowering, and such power corrupts at times. My epiphany, however, gives me a greater understanding of why John and Chuck have found the need to write this book and why the tennis industry really needs this book.
For many years, the foundation of tennis information that most fans read and hear has been built and credited to the work of former top players. We read them in tennis publications and watch them on tennis broadcasts. The industry gives these former stars credibility in a kind of "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball" inference logic which is a funny line in a movie but less so when it is the foundation for choosing the voices of an industry. Therein lies the problem. Great players know what they know, and they know how to play great, but not always why they played great. Great players see the big picture of how to win, and I believe that they see tennis as a grand scheme process.
They are the classic example of what The Greek poet Archilochus talked about in his fable about the Fox and the Hedgehog. The Fox is clever, quick, and always on the move, gathering information and slickly using it to extricate itself from crisis. The Hedgehog, on the other hand, has a coat of spikes, so he simply hunkers down and moves ahead. While the Fox knows many subtle things, the Hedgehog only needs to see one big thing.
We learn like a Fox, but at the highest level, we play like a Hedgehog because we have already learned. Armed with this knowledge, we just put our heads down and bully ahead, focused only on the prize. The tennis teaching industry has been built on the broad shoulders of Hedgehogs, but it desperately needs the wisdom of The Fox.
Enter John Carpenter and Chuck Tomlin.
John seeks answers in history, which is a nearly forgotten ideal, but as Robert Heinlein said, "A generation which ignores history has no past-and no future.” Tennis instruction is steeped in history, but why should I, as a coach, care about what someone with tweed knickers and a wood racket, strung with someone’s house pet named "Whiskers" said about how to hit a running forehand 100 years ago? (Sorry John, I know it's cow intestine, not "catgut.")
The answer, as John knows so well, is that "Past is prologue," as Antonio in Shakespeare's, The Tempest first noticed. Everything that has taken place in the history of tennis instruction is a preparation for the opportunities to come, and don't we as coaches want to be cutting age in our understanding of our craft?
This is where Chuck's model for tennis congruence comes in because it is the future of tennis instruction and will stand the test of time because it is based on immutable laws of the physical world. Many coaches already know what Chuck will present but knowing is not the same as understanding and is a far cry from mastery.
Chuck understands that tennis is a 3-D sport that has been previously explained in 2-D words using one- dimensional techniques. His gift is in his ability to organize a system and a vocabulary that removes barriers that take tennis instruction from the darkness of analog explanations into the light of high-resolution understanding.
John and Chuck were born to undertake this challenge and have dedicated their professional lives to satisfying their curiosity which is the defining feature of leadership.
They have no ego issues because they not only mentor as coaches, but they reverse mentor and seek out the mentorship of others wherever they can find it, as you will read in this book.
John and Chuck answer more questions in this book than most tennis "experts" ever thought to ask and raise more questions than they answer in the process. And that's the point of this work because if you are a coach, you are a student first, always asking why and always searching for answers and truth.
I do not doubt that the curiosity of these professionals will inspire them to continue to seek more truth and will inspire the curiosity and interest of all coaches, as they have inspired me.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.