Staff Photo: Ben Beitzel. Tracy Townsend is the new tennis pro at Collins Hill Athletic Club. The North Alabama graduate came to Collins Hill from the WaterColor Resort in Florida.
Tracy Townsend, 49, is the new tennis pro at the Collins Hill Athletic Club, a semi-private club. Townsend comes to Suwanee with 25 years experience as a professional and instructor, most recently from the WaterColor Resort in Florida.
In this installment of "Getting to Know..." staff writer Ben Beitzel talks with Townsend about lucking into a tennis career, his choice to teach rather than compete, his favorite tennis surface and spurning his family's Alabama fandom to root for Auburn.
BB: How does someone from the middle of nowhere in Alabama, in Haleyville, start playing tennis?
TT: When I was in little league, I was a shortstop and one of the baseball coaches told me I needed to start playing tennis one summer so I could build my arm strength.
BB: So it wasn't a family sport?
TT: My family didn't play. I started when I was 10. What I found by my sophomore year in high school is that tennis was going to be where my money was. Basically, it was tennis from then on.
BB: Did it work? Did your arm get stronger?
TT: It did work. I grew up in a real small town, so when I got through with my tennis matches I would have to run to the baseball field because there were only so many athletes in this small town. And I still love baseball to this day.
BB: But you were just better at tennis?
TT: I think sometimes the sport chooses the child instead of the child choosing the sport. I tell every parent that. Sometimes you can get your kid out there and they just take to the game and I was one of those. It seemed real natural to me right off the bat. I enjoyed it. I still enjoy it. It came real natural. It really did. Even more than baseball. My dad was a huge baseball fan. Coached all my little league teams. It was the hardest conversation I ever had with him. I said, 'Dad, I am going to have to devote more time to tennis.' And he said, 'I know.' He could see it. I was going to be better at tennis than I was at baseball. I made the right decision.
BB: How did you get into teaching tennis?
TT: I played a couple of satellites (professional tours) right out of college. Found that there was so many of me out there that I didn't really want to play like that. There are so many good players in the world, so many levels. So after playing a couple of the satellites, I had gone to school to become a teacher and the University of Denver offered me a two-year program to get my master's. So I got my master's in sports sciences and I was going to do exercise testing, but everything kept steering me back toward tennis. Every job offer I got kept being tennis-based and I enjoyed the teaching part. I just said, 'OK, it looks like I am supposed to be a teaching pro.' And to this day, I love playing, but I think I would rather teach than play.
BB: What is the appeal of teaching?
TT: It's fun watching everybody get it, especially with the little kids, you see the light bulb go off like, 'Wow, I can do this now.' Giving them that gift of here is something you can do, tennis being a lifetime sport, I have had them from 3 to 83. That's been cool. It's really funny because I was in Florida recently and I had a pee-wee program when I was in Huntsville, and this 6-foot-2 kid walks up and he said, 'You used to be my pee-wee instructor.' And he is grown up, he is still playing tennis. He is in college now at Auburn and he is still playing tennis. He is not playing for Auburn, but he is still playing. It's neat to get those stories that I helped him a little bit.
BB: What's the hardest thing to teach?
TT: It's different with different people. That old dog trick is true. It is hard to teach some of the people who have played for years new things. Some of the technology has changed over that last few years. That has been interesting. In college I played with wooden rackets -- unfortunately I am that old. The game is becoming power now and I have had to adapt our teaching to that. You have to hit it in, but you have to hit it hard, too, because that is just the nature of the game these days. Conditioning. You have to get kids in shape to play because they have to keep up.
BB: Is the difference night and day from when you played?
TT: We worked real hard in college, but it's the technology. I am almost 50 and I hit it harder now than I did in college. It's the technology, it's not my strenuous workouts. It's so much faster and I watch it on television. I was watching television the other day, some of the old footage, I was watching Jimmy Connors and someone with his plastic racket. That game has just sped up. He was swinging hard back then, he was one of the best players ever, but the equipment now just hits it harder than it did.
Athletes are better. Like (the Collins Hill Athletic Club). They can come here and work out, they can go through a tennis program with us, they are exposed to more stuff that is going to help in the long run.
BB: You started playing at 10. That is late for tennis.
TT: That was old. That was old. I wish I had started three or four years earlier, or even five years earlier, it might have made a difference. But I like the teaching part so I am not going to look back.
BB: Was 10 old then?
TT: That was pretty normal then. I know there were some that started a little earlier. But now I have what we call a quick-start program or a pee-wee program. I have kids that are 3- or 4-years-old that can actually run and hit a ball. We have little Nerf-type balls and the rackets are not cut all the way. They are actually making junior rackets for kids. You are seeing that young generation now just take off with the new equipment. I think the senior tour for men is now 35-and-older. Really? You are 35 and you are a senior?
BB: Atlanta is a city that seems ingrained in tennis. Is it unique that way?
TT: If I am not mistaken, ALTA is the largest in the world. There are probably more tennis players in this city and suburbs than anywhere else. I look at the ALTA leagues and some of the double-A 1 players are ex-pros and most of them are ex-pros. It's a stout tennis town.
BB: I guess that makes sense with the weather and the money here.
TT: I think so, everything. I tell everybody, activity breeds activity. When you have that many players around and you do love tennis you want to move somewhere. That is why so many players are coming in. They are like, 'We can go to Atlanta and always find a game.' You can basically find any level here. We have from the beginner to as good as you want.
BB: You an Alabama football fan?
TT: I am an Auburn football fan. Alabama had a great year this year, but we almost had them. We had a chance to beat Alabama.
BB: Is that a family thing or do you choose at some age of decision?
TT: You have to make a choice. Nearly all of my family are Alabama fans. I don't know why I was an Auburn fan. It didn't go that well. My aunt works for the SEC and she gets tickets to the SEC championship every year and the only year I got those tickets was the year Auburn was in it. She usually takes those for Alabama and the other members of the family. Auburn has had some good years, but Alabama has it rolling.
BB: Who is the best player you played?
TT: We had an exhibition with Jim Courier one year when I was at Seaside. We got him to come down the week of Wimbledon. We had a croquet lawn there and we made a grass court. That is the most fun I had in tennis as far as playing somebody. He was a former No. 1, I couldn't keep up. There are only so many of those guys.
BB: What's your favorite surface to play on?
TT: I like the clay. I grew up on hard court and most tennis now is on hard courts. But as I've aged, the clay courts, we have four here, are a little easier on your body. I think it makes your footwork better.
BB: Is that hard to teach? Americans seem to struggle when they get to clay.
TT: It is hard to teach. We haven't had the opportunity to play on a lot of clay courts. Most junior tournaments are on hard courts so when we get on clay we are a little lost for a little bit. It's been a disadvantage and you are seeing it, especially on tour.