I’ve always wanted to get into tennis. It has the perfect balance of refinement and oh-so-polite aggression, the outfits are glam and, if Wimbledon is anything to go by, you get to eat a hell of a lot of strawberries. It’s only the playing itself that has, until now, put me off.
I have the hand-eye coordination of a blind gorilla on a unicycle, albeit one with negligible upper body strength. You can imagine my apprehension, then, at my editor’s suggestion that I try out a private coaching session to see whether there was anything that could be done – or whether, as I suspected, I was doomed to a fate of sitting in a darkened room, watching old Wimbledon re-runs while repeatedly smacking my broken, rusty old racket against the floor wailing, ‘That should have been me!’
When I meet Jon Guntley, a coach from Clark Francis Tennis, he hands me a racket and immediately gets me on court, lobbing balls left, right and centre to see if I can actually hit them. Put it this way – it will take far more than one lesson to sort me out. I’m not so much brushing up on my skills as giving them their first outing.
My entire hour’s lesson is spent on forehand, backhand and volleys; I don’t serve at all. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to tennis than whacking the ball and hoping it makes it over the net: as well as hammering out my tendency to extend my forefinger when clutching the racket, Jon is at pains to teach me to swing my arm right over my shoulder, elbow out in front, after hitting the ball each time. It feels ridiculously unnatural.
When it comes to backhand, Jon says, ‘I’m going to get you to try this two ways – once with one hand, once with both – but I already know which one you’ll prefer.’ I prefer one hand. He is surprised, and explains that two-handed is easier. The reason?
If you just use your tennis-playing arm, you have to pull it back across your body to hit the ball, whereas if you couple it with your other arm too, you can push it from behind, resulting in a far stronger return. Given my less than iron-fisted grip, I make an abrupt about-turn on my method of choice and sheepishly place my left hand on the racket.
Finally, we’re onto volleys. If I’m being honest, I had no idea what a volley was until now – but I don’t confess this to Jon. He’s a great coach, striking the right balance between encouragement and teasing banter
– the fact that he doesn’t make me feel like a complete buffoon when I miss the ball four times in a row is testament to that – but there are limits to how stupid I’m willing to make myself look. However, once Jon’s talked me through the technique, this is probably my favourite part of the session: I’m just a metre from the net and so returning the balls finally becomes easy.
Despite the considerable unpleasantness of playing at 6.45am in August – an early rise coupled with severe overheating doth not a happy journalist make – the hour is over far more quickly than I’d anticipated. It’s worth mentioning that the lesson was at the Aviation Club in Garhoud but the academy is not affiliated with the venue. I was therefore unable to use the changing room or have a shower after the lesson – much to my dismay when I’d finished, ‘glowing’ profusely, with half an hour until work.
So what of my fears of darkened rooms and anguished cries? Well, my outfit may not have been glam (I just about managed to rustle up a baggy old T-shirt and some ancient shorts), I was neither refined nor aggressive, and to my dismay, Jon didn’t come to the lesson armed with strawberries – but you can bet your bottom dirham I’ll be going back for more.
Clark Francis Tennis 04 282 4540; firstname.lastname@example.org. Course of 10 private classes Dhs1,400, group lessons Dhs50. Call for schedules.