Member of USTA High Performance Coaching Program
Coach of Paul Annacone and Marcel Freeman when they made it to the round of 16 and round of 32 respectively at the US Open in 1986. Annacone coached Roger Federer to the 2012 Wimbledon Championships and the recapture of the number one world ranking: he was Pete Sampras' coach from 1994 to 2002.
Recent Former Students include Angela Kulikov (finalist in 2012 14s Clay Nationals) and Danielle Lao (two-time All American and 2013 graduate of the University of Southern California)
Founder and President of Clark Graebner Tennis Academy in Grand Central Station in 1971
Practiced and played with Laver, Rosewall, Borg, Sampras, Emerson, McEnroe, Gerulaitis, Ashe, Graebner, Ralston, Savitt and many more
Two-Time NAIA College All American and 1995 inductee into the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Athletic Hall of Fame
#1 Sectional Doubles Ranking in Eastern(Men's Open-1975) and Southern California(Men's 35s-1983) Tennis Associations
Winner of 1984 USTA National 35s Grass Doubles Championships
Doctorate in Chiropractic and BS in Human Biology from Cleveland Chiropractic College(1989)
Post Graduate Training in Sports Injuries and Rehabilitation as a Certified Chiropractic Sports Practitioner with Specific Training in Graston Technique and the Egoscue Method
MBA from UCLA(1984): Finance, Accounting and MIS
BS in Engineering from Harvey Mudd College(1970)
Founding Tournament Director, Huggy Bears Invitational Tennis Tournament, 1985 to 2004
Contributor to Tennisplayer.net and Columnist for 10sBalls.com
I began my teaching career as a camp counselor for Dennis Van der Meer in the summer of 1968 at Incline Village on Lake Tahoe. Dennis was already recognized as one of the deans of tennis teachers in America at that point. Working that summer was a great internship to learn Dennis's structured, learning progression approach to teaching tennis and also some of his tricks for dealing with large groups. He was a master.
Van der Meer liked my effort well enough that he got me a job the following summer as the Head Pro at the Glenbrook Inn and Ranch just a few miles down the road from Incline Village. It was an exciting promotion for a 20-year old still in college.
The following summer after graduating from engineering school and earning All-America honors on the tennis court for the second year in a row, I ended up teaching tennis on my home courts. Those early years of my tennis career were a whirlwind. I had only started to play at all in my freshman year in high school. At the end of the school year in 1963, we moved literally across the
street from the tennis courts at Riverside and Los Feliz in Griffith Park. I was trying to make the baseball team and had become the batting practice catcher for the varsity baseball team as well as the bat boy and warmup catcher for the bullpen during games. That summer I began to try to learn to play tennis hitting the ball on the backboard. The local pro, Gordon Sears, offered me the chance to earn free lessons by working for him as a ball boy and I had the free time that summer to do it. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was still hoping to be a baseball player; my dad had trained me since I was old enough to hold a ball. But it was a great place to be a teenager. A half mile up Riverside Drive into the park, I could play golf on a short city par 3 course for a quarter…really!! The question was always if you could find more balls than you lost in the bushes. So for the next year and a half, I played a little tennis, a little golf and nurtured my hopes to become a baseball player at least at the high school level. I kind of gave that up when I got cut from the jayvees again in my sophomore year. So that summer it was more golf and tennis.
It wasn’t until the fall of my junior year, that I thought about going out for the Loyola High School tennis team. It was a private school with a pretty good team. But one of my tennis practice partners had earned a varsity letter playing for his private school and it seemed like it would be really “cool” to earn a varsity letter. I also played regularly with the members of the local Marshall High School team and they weren’t that much better than I was. Granted, neither of those teams were as good as Loyola’s team, but what did I know. So in the fall, I went to Mr. Sears and told him I wanted to take lessons and get ready to go out for the tennis team; he surprised me by offering me my old job back and I was soon spending my Saturdays picking up balls for him so I could get a lesson at the end of the day. Summer of ’63, I hadn’t been much over 5’ 3” tall, but funny thing had happened in the 18 months since then and I was now almost 6’ tall.
I started spending every available free moment playing tennis. It was a crash program to improve my game and make the tennis team, even the junior varsity team in two or three months. I was a straight A student and I did my homework religiously, but that was it; and the courts were across the street. I went straight there when I got home from school and all day on the weekends. There was no charge for court time either. I wasn’t very good and a lot of the time I couldn’t find anyone to play with, but my mom gave me a potato sack that I filled with old balls and I could usually find a free court next to the freeway where I could hit serves. I didn’t even know how to hit a spin serve, but I had a great snap from baseball and I could hit a pretty good serve from the first time I picked up a racket. I would hit that sack of balls over and over. Eventually, it paid off. When I tell a student they just need to hit 10,000 serves in the next 6 months, I know what I am talking about. It’s just 400 serves a week for 25 weeks.
But it was all for naught, or so it seemed. I got cut from the junior varsity a couple of weeks after practice started. I thought I got a raw deal, but there was nothing I could do about it. Except not miss a day of practice for the next couple of years! I don’t know but it may have been the best thing that could have happened to me because I was so motivated to prove Father Carroll (the coach) wrong. He probably figured I would never be good enough to help the varsity and he wanted to give the chance to an underclassman. I was very lucky that the Marshall High School coach, Lou Wheeler, a legendary coach in LA high school tennis, allowed me to practice with his players that spring.
I also kept picking up balls for Gordon Sears for another year and a half and he brought me along as best he could. And it must have been challenging. I couldn’t beat my way out of a paper bag. I played every event I could enter in both juniors and adult “c” and “d” tournements. It seemed like I would lose every match 6-0, 6-0. I looked much better than most of the people I was losing to so badly. It’s one reason I have a lot of sympathy for my students who struggle to play as well in matches as they do in lessons or in practice matches. Competing effectively requires a separate and distinct skill. You have to learn to win. First, just to get the ball in the court and then eventually to actually engage your opponent using your strengths against his weaknesses and doing your best to hide your own weaknesses and stay away from his strengths. One of the toughest things to learn is to finish a match.
Well, I could barely get competitive in any of my matches, much less actually finish it off as a winner. But I kept on through the summer between my junior and senior years playing every event I could enter. In the fall, I played on the Griffith Park adult club C league team. I had gotten a driver’s license and now I could travel with my mom’s car to weekend tournaments. And gradually, very gradually, I got better. I even finally began to learn to hit a spin second serve. And that was something I could practice on my own. When the high school season came around in February of 1966, I went out for the tennis team once more. Remember, I had failed to make the jv baseball team as a freshman and sophomore and the jv tennis team as a junior. Fr. Leonard had replaced Fr. Carroll and I secured the #2 position on the varsity. No one else was quite as committed as I was. I was actually able to win most of my matches. And I reached the finals of the Catholic schools high school championship where I lost to our number one. Admittedly, it was a very small field that didn’t fairly represent all the SoCal Catholic schools, but it was an accomplishment for me nonetheless.
That summer, I continued my quest to become a better tennis player. I had been accepted to engineering school at Harvey Mudd College, part of the Claremont Colleges and an athletic partner with Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). I knew I had a chance to participate in their intercollegiate athletic tennis program, but I also knew I had to get better. So I took a summer job making tacos and burritos at Baker’s Tacos about a mile from my house until 2 in the morning - so that I could focus on playing junior tournaments during the day. This was before microwaves were so prevalent. We actually deep fried our own taco shells and hand made the burritos after warming up the tortillas. I made a great double burrito for my friends.
But in those days, junior tournaments in SoCal were very tough. We didn’t have levels 1,2,3,4,5,6 or 7. There were just the “regular” summer tournaments and except for a few weeks when the very top players played national events, the competition was tough, much tougher than what I had been facing as a #2 for Loyola High School. I must have won one or two matches, but I don’t remember those. All I remember is getting smoked week in and week out. I also played local men’s tournaments and I did a little better there, but not much. When I look back as I try to counsel young junior players facing the same problems as they begin their competitive careers, I often wonder what kept me going. I knew I was getting better, but the good players were still pounding me.
That summer, Mr. Sears had sent me off to Santa Monica to take lessons from Bob Harman, who was famous as one of Jack Kramer’s coaches, and he taught me a forehand that ruined me for about 40 years. It took me that long to figure out what to do to correct my forehand and actually a little longer than that to figure out what Coach Harman was trying to get me to do. You could get away with a weak forehand (up to a point) in those days, because we played the game at the net every chance we got; but it was very difficult. I developed a world class serve, a good backhand and overhead, adequate volleys, a chip return of serve. We didn’t even play tie-breakers when I was in college. No wonder I had plenty of matches that included 15-13 or 14-12 scores. Racquets were heavier and the racket face was only 70 square inches vs the 96 to 105 square inches that players use today. If you hit a good serve deep into your opponent’s backhand, you could count on a ball you could volley if it came back at all. Not anymore!
Harvey Mudd was a tough grind for me academically. I had been a good student at Loyola and now I was severely challenged at HMC. I benefited from the fact that HMC had instituted pass/fail grading for the freshman year so there were no actual grades; but you did have to pass! I managed to make the #3 spot on the tennis team. I was a bit of an anomaly at HMC. By my senior year, there were only 4 of us who were still participating in varsity sports. Mudd was only about 15 years old when I graduated, but I think I was the first first string All-American in any sport. But as a freshman, I was not that good. The number one and two players on the team were a couple of levels above the rest of us. I struggled, but I was learning to compete; I won a little more than half my matches. On the academic scene, I struggled even more and I ended up getting an “X” in the second semester Physics class. I had to convert that to “pass” before I could continue. So I accepted a job in the Engineering Clinic for the summer at the same time making up my deficiencies in Physics under the direction of the head of the Physics faculty. It was a really small school!
This meant that I would have to rely on local talent for daily practice if I wanted to work on my tennis game over the summer. Really local because my only transportation was my bike. I had gotten into the conference singles championship representing Claremont-Mudd because we finished 3rd in the league, but I drew the first seed in the first round, freshman Doug Verdieck. Doug had destroyed everyone in the league and he would go on to win 4 National Team championships, 4 National singles championships and 3 National doubles championships. His team, Redlands, was coached by his father Jim and they were a national power dominating the NAIA and arguably the 3rd or 4th best team in SoCal after USC and UCLA despite the fact that they did not give athletic scholarships. They won the NAIA nationals 9 times between 1966 and 1975. Needless to say, they didn’t lose a single league match during that stretch. And I was playing him on their home courts. He beat me pretty badly; I got maybe one or two games, but I left a mark of things to come. He had to leave the court briefly because I had knocked one of his contacts out when one of his attempts to return my serve ricocheted into his eye. Later in my college career, Doug would become my motivation as ridiculous as it was at that time to think I could ever compete with him. Obviously, I had to get a lot better.
But local talent meant playing with the local senior men who were mostly B or C players who could only give me marginal competition. So when I practiced in Claremont that summer with those senior players, I wore 1-pound weights on each wrist and 2-pound weights on each ankle to make things a little tougher for me. My opponents looked at me a little funny and they didn’t appreciate the lack of respect I was demonstrating for their skills, but they still couldn’t beat me. I went home for weekends and played whatever adult tournaments I could get into. At the time, it didn’t seem to be doing that much good, but as I look back on the change that took place from the end of my freshman season to 6 or 7 months later when we started our dual match season in 1968, it must have had an effect. In the spring of 1968, I became “a tennis player”. I finally knew how to finish and could actually beat a good player. As a freshman, I could do ok at #3, but I really didn’t even have a chance against our #1 or #2 players, and they were getting beat most of the time.
In the fall of 1967, in an adult men’s tournament in Inglewood, I won a match against a true “Open” player, Frank Keister, who was a top-ten nationally ranked 35 and over player; he was a real “tennis player”. I had never beaten anyone at that level before. He was a much better player than I was, but I served him off the court hitting at least two unreturnable serves each game. He got so frustrated trying to return my serve that the rest of his game fell apart. I couldn’t believe I won the match. My serve had been “in the zone”.
A funny thing was, my dad came to watch the match. I almost always went to my matches on my own, but I was really happy my dad had seen that match. I’m not sure, but I think the next day was Father’s Day. The strange thing was, he watched from a hill about 50 yards away in the park where we played and he left after the match without talking to me. And this wasn’t across the street from home; Inglewood was a good half-hour freeway drive from our home. I never quite got to understand my relationship with my dad. Tennis was my thing. He had wanted me to be a baseball player. When I was an All American tennis player in college, he still really wanted me to go out for the baseball team. As I look back, I think if he had coached me just a little differently when I was 13 and 14 years old trying to learn to hit the curve ball and a little small to be a catcher, I would have made that jv baseball team and my whole history would have been different. But that didn’t happen and I fell in love with tennis. That and college and then my professional career on the other side of the country took over and kept me too busy to really have the kind of talk a son might have with his father as he settles into adulthood; then, suddenly when I was 29, he had a devastating stroke and although he lived another 19 years under my mom’s care, after that it was very difficult to communicate with him and he wasn’t really all there. I really regret not having had those conversations with him as I got older.
He had an amazing life. His father was in the Marine Corps and he grew up following his dad’s deployments from Camp Le Jeune to the Caribbean to Shanghai. He and his brother were star athletes in Shanghai. They were the battery (his brother pitched, he caught) for the Shanghai all-star team that played against the barnstorming major league players including Babe Ruth! No wonder he wanted me to play baseball. He was a junior or senior at Shanghai American High School when his father left him and his younger brother there as he was called back to the States. It was 1932 or 33 and the prospects in the US were not very good. He managed to get a job as an apprentice lithographer working for the British American Tobacco company in their printing and packaging plant in Tsingtao. Five years later, he was the manager of the plant. But can you imagine being a star athlete as a teenager in Shanghai on your own in the early thirties. I never really got to talk to him about those times.
In any case, that match win was a big deal for me and the development of my confidence. The next day I did not serve quite as well and I lost to a good college player who played for Cal State Northridge’s tennis team, John Conover. I made a match of it, but he was the better player. If we had played six months earlier, I would have been hard pressed to win more than a couple of games. I was definitely getting better. Then a couple of months later I won another tournament match at a Mt. San Antonio Community College against a 35’s player who was the best player in the Claremont area, Neal Roberts. Winning these matches was absolutely vital in building my confidence. A year earlier, Neal would have routined me and probably did in practice. Three years earlier, in my junior year at Loyola High, I was barely able to win a match in the “D” tournament and I was only hoping to someday be able to play in the “B’s”. These were actual “A” players that I was beating.
In the meantime, as I am going through this metamorphosis from high school jv failure to college standout, who is coaching me? Well, Mr. Sears certainly had a lot of input those first few months, but he was not by any means, a technician. He gave me some great initial concepts for my serve as far as my hands going up and down together and having a nice rhythm, but the rest was very generic to the times. I was a devouring everything I could get my hands on, but there were no websites or even videos for guidance. There was World Tennis magazine and a few books and not that much easy access to those books. Only a few matches ever made it to television. Father Leonard at Loyola High was more of a team manager than coach. Coach Ducey at Claremont-Mudd was the basketball coach and he was barely at practice until basketball season ended; he pretty much just put us out to play; the leaders of the team kind of ran practice. Mostly, we played sets until I started doing a lot of serve and volley drills beginning in my junior year. I always wonder what could have been if I’d run into someone with my current knowledge when I was a teenager; I would have been such a sponge. I was lucky to come under the influence of Van der Meer and Braden before I was 23, but I really needed to get that kind of guidance when I was 16. It makes it hard to be patient when I am trying to get competitive players who think they know it all to try something I want them to change. I see their future through my past, but, of course, they don’t know that.
The sophomore year at Mudd was no longer Pass/Fail. And I was introduced to my first real engineering class, Dynamics of Elastic Systems with Dr. Alford. Oh boy! You had to learn to analyze, think and apply principles. I never became an engineer, but that approach has served me very well for the last 50 years. Problem solving. Something that tennis players are supposed to do as well. I did pass that Physics class finally over the summer and I actually managed a B in the third and final semester of Physics, but the academic load was substantial. Most of the team members didn’t play any tennis at all in the fall; there were no team practices. I was lucky to get someone to get out and play with me a couple of times a week, but I managed to keep up that minimal level of play. Over Xmas break I played as much as I could. In January, the Griffith Park courts hosted the LA Metropolitan Championships. In those days it was still a big tournament; there was a 128-entry qualifying draw for 8 spots in the 32-man main draw which included players from UCLA and USC and some of the best current and former college players in LA. For players like me, who lost in the qualifying, there was a second tournament for losers in the qualifying, the City Flight. I’m not sure but I think it ended up being a 64-man draw. And I won it! The competition probably wasn’t as tough as beating Frank Keister or Neal Roberts, but it was the first tournament of any size at all that I had won. The only other event I had ever won was the Griffith Park Junior Club Boys 18’s championship, but that probably had less than 8 competitors. It was new territory for me.
I don’t know how it happened, but I’m pretty sure the guy wearing my name tag playing third singles for Claremont-Mudd just a half a year before could not have won that event. The #2 on the team the year before, Bruce Bean, had graduated, but the #1, Don Drummond was back. We picked up three good freshmen and we suddenly had a team that could be very competitive. We couldn’t beat Redlands, but we were a strong #2 in the league and competitive in most of our non-league matches. We had basically pulled away from Pomona and Whittier. Except for their #1, Occidental was behind and Cal Tech was way behind. I won at #2 against all those teams and I even won one of my matches against the #2 at Redlands. That was a big deal. Then when we went to the Ojai tournament in April, I made another breakthrough.
In those days, Ojai didn’t have as many different divisions. There was the Pac 8, an Open tournament, a Junior College tournament and an independent college tournament which included Div 1 schools. I won two 3-set matches against players I should have beaten to reach the round of 16 where I came up against John Conover who had beaten me the previous June in Inglewood. I won that match in three sets and I was in the quarterfinals against Tom Gorman from Seattle University. That summer Gorman would reach the finals of the Cincinnati Claycourts which later became the Masters 1000 event now played in Mason, Ohio. I won the first set before he figured out what was going on, I think it was 6-1. It was the only set he lost in the tournameat. I had started using a 15-ounce, 5-inch grip Wilson T-2000 steel racket that winter and when I got the serve going it was really big. Needless to say, I was pretty pumped up for the match. I had watched him play world class players on the center court at the Pacific Southwest Championships the previous fall and I knew he was a real player. He would go on to reach a world ranking of 8 in the world in the next few years. Actually, I figured he must have been to a helluva party the night before and it just took him that first set to get his head straight.
Anyway, from that point on, I felt I was a “tennis player”. I knew that with my serve, I could walk on the court with anyone and give them a match. Of course, I was fooling myself, especially since I had never played on a clay court, but my level of self-confidence was entirely different. As I try to get players I coach to make that transition, I always wonder, what was it that made the difference for me? Was it wearing those weights over the summer? Was it the accumulation of victories in all those events I was trying to play? Was it just an accumulation of hours on the court? I wasn’t at 10,000 hours, but maybe I was close to 5,000, but I doubt it. I’d only really been playing for 5 years and the first year and a half was only a few hours a week. Tilden said 5 years to make a player and 10 years to make a champion. Now we say 5,000 and 10,000 hours. It was a good thing I was experiencing some success on the tennis court, because everywhere else my world was crumbling. For the first time in my life, I had taken an interest in a girl and she had absolutely shattered my heart. I was pulling down D’s in my math and engineering classes. More and more, my self-esteem was linked to my prowess as a tennis player. It wasn’t that I was goofing off or not working; I just wasn’t getting it. I could have had tremendous help if I had just asked for it. Harvey Mudd was an unusual institution of higher education. The outstanding professors came there because they wanted to teach, not because they wanted to publish. Classes were small, sometimes less than 10 students with the professor, not a teaching assistant. If you wanted help, all you had to do was walk into the professors office and ask, even the department chairman. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to do that. And I paid a high price for that stupidity.
Mr Sears gave me an introduction and recommendation to Dennis Van der Meer to work as a camp counselor in his junior tennis camp at Lake Tahoe. He was becoming well known with his frequent articles in World Tennis and record of coaching talents like Jeff Borowiak and Erik van Dillen, as well as Billie Jean King. With my record as a quarterfinalist at Ojai, I sent off my letter to Dennis and hoped for the best. I felt very lucky to get the job that summer working almost 24 hours a day for $50 a week and room and board. When we weren’t on the courts, we supervised the kids under our direction almost 24 hours a day. They gave me the older kids because they figured out I was more serious about discipline than some of the other counselors. I slept in the living room of a 2nd story 2 bedroom, 2 bath unit with 4 to 6 kids up to 18 years old in the two bedrooms. They had to climb out the windows if they wanted to get out at night - and sometimes they did, but then they had to deal with me when they came back in the front door if they were not in as good condition as when they left. The kids called me “Straight-arrow”. When they got too far out of line, I would take them out for a 2-mile run at 1 in the morning. I was soooooooo young!
But I learned so much. Van der Meer was a master at working with groups. He had mastered the trick of learning everyone’s name in just a couple of minutes as they introduced themselves and once he had their attention, he could deliver. He broke everything down into learning progressions and had everyone working in teams so no one would spend any time just standing around waiting for a turn. Without the technical stuff, just the way he handled large groups and kept them engaged was a terrific learning experience. Then, on top of that, he was basically state of the art as far as teaching fundamentally sound strokes. Just a few years later, he would found the USPTR to compete with the USPTA, but emphasizing the kind of teaching progressions he used in his camps and tennis universities. Many of the people that helped him found USPTR were already with him that summer of 1968 or the next summer when he got me a job down the road about 25 miles at the Glenbrook Inn. Doug MacCurdy was a fellow counselor in 1968 and would go on to be the head of instruction for the ITF for many years after running Van der Meer’s camp in Lawrence, New Jersey for a number of years. Dr. Louie Capp joined the staff from NASA in 1969 and is still instrumental in the Van der Meer Tennis University.
Certainly, the experience helped me understand my own game a little better and I picked up a couple of tips, but the main thing was the use of the step-by-step, programmed learning approach to building skills. This approach really appealed to me and I liked the fact that those earlier steps gave the student a chance for immediate success and the satisfaction of moving on to the next step. I’ve tried to incorporate that approach into most of my drills, although it gets much more complicated as you move on to more skilled players. The trick is not so much to recognize the necessary elements or steps, but to figure out which one to emphasize next in an individual’s development and everyone is a little different.
...to be continued
... UNDER CONSTRUCTION