This article (pdf) originally appeared in the October, 2013 issue of Williamsburg's Next Door Neighbor.
“One of my most fond memories, we used to do these Monday night cocktail parties,” Tom Hawkins, the director of the College of William and Mary’s McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center, describes, “when I worked at Palmetto Dunes Racquet Club. Rod Laver’s company managed the Racquet Club for the resort. Rod is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Well, Rod used to come down in the fall to the resort. The three pros and Rod would play an exhibition. We’d hit Rod a short ball to his forehand. He’d hit the ball toward our stomach for us to block the ball with our racquets… The next thing I knew, I was flat on my butt because he could hit the ball so hard.”
Tom learned to be careful playing against a tennis legend. He found that tennis isn’t quite as much fun when the sides aren’t evenly matched. “People stay with a sport when they have fun. They have fun when they are successful at the skills. You have to do that a step at a time.”
Raised in Southport, Connecticut, Tom started playing tennis because his sister didn’t want to. “My parents bought my sister some private lessons, but she didn’t like the coach. So my father decided we weren’t wasting the lessons, so I took them.”
During the summers, Tom had private lessons every week until he turned 17. “Then, I started teaching tennis at the Belle Haven Yacht Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. I worked there for four summers.” He says that’s when he learned the “nuts and bolts of tennis.” Teaching other people a sport focuses attention on the fundamentals, he explains. “I went to Hilton Head and worked at Palmetto Dunes Racquet Club for seven years.” He worked as the director for the facility and sometimes allowed Rod Laver to knock him over with a forehand return. “Now,” he adds to defend his skills, “I aced Rod once in a singles exhibition, but that was a long time ago.”
Tom continued his career in northern Virginia where he worked for the Sport & Health Company for 26 years. “I was the head pro and moved to director at their flagship club – at that time a Regency Racquet Club.” He was also the coach of the George Washington University men’s tennis team for eight years.
“In 2006, I came here to the McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center. This is a great community, and my commute is much better than it was in northern Virginia.”
At the tennis center, William and Mary’s teams play there in January, February and March. When the center isn’t used by the college teams, locals enjoy its facilities. “We have a membership that is open to the community. We have leagues and a wide range of instructional programs from beginner to advanced in both juniors and adults.”
Part of the instructional side is to ensure that the students have fun and are successful in learning the skills. “With the juniors’ program we use a ‘quick start,’ which means they can start as early as age two or three. We use low-compression balls that allow the kids to be more successful. The balls don’t pick up speed. Some are larger and easier to hit with the racquet.”
He explains that when people start playing tennis, the process can be frustrating because of the speed of the ball. “These low-compression balls allow everyone to be successful. Even with beginning adults, we use these. When people are successful at hitting the ball across the court, it creates enthusiasm.”
For a young child to be introduced to tennis, Tom suggests starting slow to develop eye-to-hand coordination. “Then you can move the child into learning actual strokes. When? That really varies by the child. We have some five and six year olds who can rally over the net. It depends on the athletic prowess of the individual. People have different levels of development.”
He recommends parents can start developing the child’s eye-to-hand coordination as early as possible. “One of the things I used with my daughter was throwing a feather up and having her try to catch it,” he describes. “Another technique is let the child hit a balloon with a racquet. Balloons move very slowly, and that lets the child learn to use a racquet.”
Watch how the child responds to athletic skills because the child may not seem like a natural athlete, doesn't mean he or she can’t excel. “For example,” Tom says, “Chris Evert was never very athletic, so she learned through repetition to be one of the best. Martina Navratilova was a real athlete, and it came more easily to her."
Even if the last time a racquet was in a person's hand was back when Chris and Martina played, Tom says tennis is easily picked back up. "You never lose your strokes," he says. "What you lose is your timing. Beginner lessons will bring that back while using the slower low-compression balls."
Tom has developed his skills in management and teaching as his career progressed. "I'm not a great player," he says modestly. "I started teaching in 1968 when I was 17. I enjoyed the instructional side. I taught over 30 hours a week until about 1986 and became a director in Hilton Head. I’ve always been very math-oriented, so administration and management have appealed to me. I would manage and teach at the same time. The management skills came over a period of time."
He enjoys the analysis of the center management. "For example, if a program isn't working, we look at why that might be and use those ideas to design another one. We're always watching and updating our programs."
The center started a "Give Me 5" program. "A person can take an hour clinic for five dollars,” Tom explains. “That gives people who haven’t played in a while a chance to come try it again. We’ll gradually work them into some of the regular programs and leagues.”
As retirement looms on the horizon, Tom still looks forward to going to work every day. “I enjoy the interaction with the people. I en- joy the sport. I’m fortunate that I really love my job. My wife keeps asking me when I’ll get a real job – she’s asked me that for the 36 years we’ve been married.” As long as the players have fun, Tom knows they will become successful in developing their skills and enjoy the sport of tennis as much as he does.