The Best Coach You’ve Never Heard Of

We’ve all had that coach or teacher who seemed like he was pushing too hard, but really just wanted what was best for us. For Alan Siegel, it was his tennis instructor.

On the first day, I puked. And not gently, either. This was a liquid comet that splashed onto the court and formed an oatmealy puddle. At least that’s how I remember it. I was 15 years old and trying to impress David Chapman, my new tennis coach. “He’s not going to pussyfoot you,” my father had said that morning. I had no idea what the hell that meant, but a few minutes into the lesson, when my shirt was soaked and I was gasping for air, I figured it out. Was I nervous? Sick? “What’d you think,” David said in his English accent as he fed me ball after ball, “I was going to pussyfoot you?” Somehow, I made it through the half-hour without collapsing.

Then, after a quick conversation—I forget what we talked about—David walked off. As I was getting ready to leave, my mouth started to water. I knew what was about to happen, yet I didn’t sprint to the bathroom. I just stood there helplessly, and out it came, in two perfect heaves. Not a drop made it into a nearby garbage can. Unsure of what else to do, I went to find David, who was in the club’s lobby. “I just threw up.”

I’m still convinced he didn’t believe me. But when I led him back to the court, there it was. We both stared. At that moment, I realized that two slices of Papa Gino’s pizza and a large Coke weren’t the best things to wolf down before running around. David, I think, could sense my shame. He said a maintenance man would mop up the mess.

Some time later, David asked me what I’d eaten for lunch on the day of my first lesson. When I told him pizza, he smiled. Apparently, he’d wagered 20 bucks on the contents of my vomit. David claimed it was pizza, the maintenance man said chicken. David won the bet, but I doubt he ever collected.

♦◊♦

This was in August 1998, a few weeks before I started my sophomore year in high school. I liked tennis, but at that point, I wasn’t very good. Nor was I self-assured, which I assumed was a requirement in a world populated by pedigreed, arrogant brats. (I once watched a University of South Carolina-bound player deftly warm up lefty before beating my friend, 6-1, 6-0, righty.) I’d made the school team the previous spring, but barely played. I guess I needed an outlet. I was a short, farsighted, slow-footed, non-confrontational Jewish kid from the suburbs who told dirty jokes to endear myself to the cool kids. The tennis court was the only place where I was comfortable being aggressive. “I can be volatile on the tennis court without hurting anybody,” Arthur Ashe once said. “If I didn’t play tennis, I probably would have to see a psychiatrist.”

The concept of volatility, however, wasn’t easy for me to grasp. That’s where David came in. “You needed a little bit of forced reaction,” he says now, 10 years after my last lesson. Basically, whatever speck of competitiveness I had buried in my subconscious needed to be yanked out. If that took puking, or push-ups, or having my feet tied together on the court, then so be it. David’s approach might’ve seemed extreme if it wasn’t perfectly tailored to my personality.

In reality, the trial lesson was less a talent evaluation than a personality assessment. Basically, I wasn’t a spoiled little shit, and to David, that mattered. “I’m not for everyone,” he says. But according to my father, David would be perfect for me. He had run a summer tennis clinic at his wife’s plant in suburban Boston. My dad, an engineer, also worked there. He liked how David explained the purpose of every drill (engineers are an exacting lot) and avoided bromides like “watch the ball.”

From the outset, I could tell David, a stocky guy who says he would’ve played football if he grew up in the United States, wasn’t an archetypal tennis pro. He wasn’t an overbearing father figure like Mike Agassi, he wasn’t a tanned guru like Nick Bollettieri, and he certainly wasn’t the most common cliché of all: the preening former player whose ego was inversely proportional to his actual ability. Weirdly, people seem to be hypnotized by that last one. Arrogance, I suppose, is alluring, and from my experience, also transferable from teacher to student. “A lot of what people buy,” David says, “is hype.”

That wasn’t David’s style. The son of a lab technician—a military boxing champion who served in the Royal Marines during World War II—and a wool-shop owner, David was born and raised in southwestern England. While many of his future peers spent the late 1970s cutting their teeth at country clubs, he was working construction and playing soccer in his spare time. Sadly, two nasty injuries ended his career. The first involved an opponent’s metal cleat slicing open his shin—all the way to the bone. The cut, David says, required 30 stitches. Then, in his first match back after a three-month absence, another crunching tackle broke his tibia and fibula.

With soccer out, he turned to tennis, a sport he’d excelled at when he was younger. He eventually passed the British Lawn Tennis Association’s licensing exam and began coaching. A job at a summer camp in the Berkshires led to a permanent move to Massachusetts. In 1986, he landed a gig at Woburn Racquet Club, an indoor facility tucked in a suburban Boston neighborhood. He’s been there ever since. Unsurprisingly, the clientele was fairly well-off. But this wasn’t the All-England Club. Snobbery was kept to a relative minimum. I asked David recently if he’s ever resented all the affluent kids he’s taught over the past 25 years. Coaching in the burbs, he says, has actually had the opposite effect on him. To David, being able to interact with American teenagers—who grew up in a different world than he did—was a job perk.

♦◊♦

Looking back on them now, the first few full lessons with David are a bit of blur. I vaguely recall being asked to change my forehand grip and tweak a few things in my service motion. What I do remember clearly is that we were on Court 10, the farthest one from the club’s lobby, and that Dalton, a Jamaican tennis pro who reminded me of Glen Rice, was nearby, simultaneously giving a lesson and laughing at me. “You were earning his respect,” David says. Because, he adds, “you were working your butt off.”

“Little steps,” he said. “Take little steps.” To make his point, he tied my feet together with a bungee cord. Somehow, I managed to avoid tripping over my own feet.

It took a month or so to get used to somebody needling me on a weekly basis. “Nike Boy” became my nickname, after I showed up one day wearing too many swooshes. David made fun of my lilywhite hometown (he was justified) and liked to yell “SIEGEL” constantly. I’d get angry, shrug my shoulders, and lose focus. I’d still work my ass off, but not productively. Then, like clockwork, David would say, “Ten push-ups.” I actually got used to doing them. (My grandfather, who used to drive me to Woburn before I got my license, never liked watching me do calisthenics. I think it reminded him of his army days.) I wasn’t perceptive enough to understand that David never ordered push-ups after I hit a serve into the net or sliced a backhand long. David only ordered push-ups if I openly doubted myself. And at the beginning, that happened too often.

My eureka moment, I like to say, came during a drill designed to help my court positioning, which was, quite frankly, piss poor. So, in the middle of a lesson, David had me start in the center of the baseline. “After every ball,” he told me, “get back to the center of the court.” It sounded simple enough. Then, he began feeding balls to my forehand side. The problem was that each ball he hit was nearly impossible to reach. I’d sprint to my right, hit a meek forehand or miss completely, then stand there flat-footed, waiting for the next impossible-to-retrieve laser to arrive. In the meantime, I’d stopped attempting to get back to the middle of the court. That, of course, was the only thing I’d been told to do. Several dozen push-ups later, I caught my breath enough to ask David a question. “Is it all right if I don’t make contact with the ball at all?” His answer, in not so many words, was yes. After all, he’d said nothing about having to make contact with each ball. In fact, the lasers he hit in my direction were intended to trick me into not following his directions. Finally, I understood what David was doing. He was fucking with me. And it was working.

Once, when I was struggling with my volleys, David told me to stand a few feet from the net. Then, he asked me to return his serve—without letting it bounce first. This would force me to react quickly, he reasoned. Initially, I felt like I was trying to deflect a bullet. Eventually, I got the hang of it. Then a serve hit me in the side of the head. (My ears rang for a minute, but otherwise I was unscathed. David also apologized. Then we both laughed.) When my overhead failed me, David had me drop my racquet and put my hands behind my back. He proceeded to hit high lobs and instructed me to run under them and head the ball as if I were a soccer player. Then there was the time David decided my strides were too big for his liking. They were hindering my movement, he said. “Little steps,” he said. “Take little steps.” To make his point, he tied my feet together with a bungee cord. Somehow, I managed to avoid tripping over my own feet.

I can still hear David now.

“LITTLE STEPS, SIEGEL. LITTLE STEPS.”

♦◊♦

Eight months after puking my guts out on the court, I’d become a much better player. In the spring of 1999, I earned a varsity letter in tennis. Over the next two years, I hit with David every Wednesday from September through the end of March, when high school season started. I actually had a decent schoolboy career, and ended up being voted a captain as a senior.

By then, I’d gotten used to David. In fact, we’d become friends. David’s needling, which both enraged and helped me at the outset, eventually gave way to encouragement. During my junior and senior years, I heard “You did good, kid” as often as “Ten push-ups.” I leveled off as a player, but that was to be expected. After all, I had a limited amount of talent to work with. I often faltered in big points, because, well, I wasn’t quite equipped for that sort of thing. If that doesn’t make sense, maybe L. Jon Wertheim’s recent profile of Rafael Nadal in Sports Illustrated will help:

Late one afternoon in London in November, Nadal practiced with Marc López, his sometime doubles partner, flown in for the week to serve as his sparring partner. This was a playful session, two countrymen rifling shots and trash talk at each other. If you didn’t know the identity of the players, you might not have guessed that López is ranked 723 spots lower. He hung in during the rallies and served as hard as Nadal. So why the disparity in their careers? “The problem,” explains another Spanish player, “is that Marc s—- his pants when there’s pressure.”

I too tended to collapse when there was pressure. I had trouble closing matches. As much as I tried, I was never going to be cutthroat. It just wasn’t me. David used to say that he never advocates altering someone’s personality for tennis. “Why would I want to change a nice kid?” he says. I may have learned to be more competitive, but really, I was still the same kid. Eventually, I accepted that. Volatility may be a virtue in tennis, but it’s not a requirement.

“I am normally happy, and that helps,” Nadal told Wertheim. “You don’t have to be mad to have intensity.”

♦◊♦

David says he’s mellowed. He says he hasn’t given a push-up in a decade. I recently asked him if he’s changed. “Oh my god,” he says. “I hope so.” He’s 50 now and has two daughters. They were both flower girls at my wedding.

David and I have stayed in contact over the years. In fact, I spent two college summers working for him. I knew nothing about construction, or hell, even yard work, but I managed to help him build a deck on his house, put up a fence around his new pool, and lay a brick walkway. In a way, it was like starting tennis lessons all over again. “SIEGEL!” once again became David’s favorite word.

He yelled at me for asking how to thread the weed whacker, for getting lost while picking up lunch, and for repeatedly failing to find whatever tiny drill bit he needed. “You don’t know how to look for things,” David said, often. (Rachel, my wife, agrees.) And when there wasn’t anything left to do, I babysat David’s kids, who at one point made up a song about me.

Of all the work I did those two summers, nothing was more grueling—or rewarding—than re-sodding David’s lawn. Starting at 6:30 a.m. one cloudy morning, we tore up the old grass and put down 20-pound rolls of fresh stuff. By the afternoon, we’d finished off more than a dozen pallets. David was exhausted. My back hurt, but I felt pretty good about myself. I told David we should grab a sandwich to celebrate.

“Alan,” he said, “Go home.”

I probably deserved push-ups.

—Photo DaveMontPhotography/Flickr

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About Alan Siegel

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at [email protected]

Comments

  1. Good stuff. thanks for sharing

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