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Craig Mercer: “My Life in Tennis” V.1: “The Discovery Years”

Written by: Craig Mercer

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***”Player: Craig was Canadian Atlantic Junior Champion and ranked #1 in all age categories in singles and doubles, ranked as high as #3 in Canadian junior tennis, member of the Canadian Junior National Team and Quebec Junior Champion in singles and doubles. Craig has competed in over 20 Canadian Junior Nationals and ranked in the top 25 in Canadian men’s tennis.

Student: Craig played #1 on the University of Toronto Varsity Blues Tennis Team while acquiring an Honours Bachelor of Arts. Craig has a Master of Sports Management from Bond University in Australia where he was founder and President of the Sports Management Network, Sports Management Teaching Assistant and Sports Management Marketing and Promotions Director.

Professional:  Since 2000 Craig has been a Coach, Manager, Event coordinator, Tournament Director, Tennis Director and business owner. More recently, Craig was founder and President of Orize Sports Management Inc. in Montreal and is now Director of Operations at Ace Tennis located in Burlington and Toronto.”***

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When reflecting on my “discovery years” in tennis the moments I remember most involve my family: my parents, my sister Ainsley and my brother Garth.

It all started on a warm spring day in 1988 while on a family vacation at Orange Lake resort in Florida.  Garth and Ainsley were walking with my Dad towards Mom and I with tennis racquets and said with excitement, “we just had a tennis lesson!”  I was shocked that my parents did not offer me that same opportunity, immediately looked at them and said, “Can I play?” Without hesitation they granted my request. Garth, my parents and I walked into the pro shop, bought Garth a slightly longer racquet and gave me the one that they bought for him earlier that day. It was a red Prince Junior racquet and I loved it! I proceeded to experience my first encounter with tennis. I was 6 years old.

My next tennis memory was that summer. Dad took me on a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  We went to a rodeo, did horse back trail riding in the mountains, mingled with cowboys and I remember a lot of driving. We stayed at a really nice resort with tennis courts and Dad arranged for me to have a lesson. I had an absolute blast, literally, blasting balls everywhere. Lots of fun- but the problem was that none of the balls stayed in the court. Towards the end of the lesson the pro promised me a Coke if I hit 5 shots in the court before the end of the lesson.  I thought he said “coat” so I went into focus mode. Still, I could not do it.  I was firing balls into the fence and all over place.  The pro said, “that’s okay, I’m going to buy you a Coke anyway.  Again, I heard “coat.”  After the lesson we went to go see my Dad. The coach and my father were chatting and I was really excited to see my new coat! Then I notice the pro put change into a Coke machine, pull out the soft drink and say,  “here you go Craig.”  I looked at him, thanked him, and then said to myself  “oh, Coke, he said Coke, not coat, that makes sense.”  For the rest of the trip I was elated about my tennis. At the hotel we watched one of the US summer hard court tournaments on television and I watched a lot of Andre Agassi.

The Wyoming trip solidified my love for tennis. Soon after returning home to St. John’s, Newfoundland my parents enrolled the three of us into Tony Manning’s tennis program. This program was in the basement of his house where there was a group of children hitting off the wall. Mr. Manning would concentrate on the technical fundamentals of the game. Not before too long we graduated to practice in the gym. Mr. Manning would rent out the Holy Heart of Mary High School Gym and have a similar format. Players would hit off the wall, but he also set up nets and we would rally and play points.  I remember learning the continental grip, semi-western grip and how to hit topspin. I also remember a great atmosphere. It seemed that everyone was there to get better.

Once Mr. Manning felt we were ready to play on a real court we went to the Greenbelt Tennis Club. I thought that this was the best thing ever!  In St. John’s you play indoors from September to May, but then it can be so rainy, windy and cool that a lot of people prefer to play indoors on many summer days.  We used to call Greenbelt “Windbelt” when we would play outside. The Greenbelt Tennis Club had only 4 indoor courts at the time and was bubbled.  There was no clubhouse at this time. There was only one other indoor facility in the province, Seaboard, which was a 5 minute drive away from Greenbelt and had 2 courts, although we rarely played there.

I would play a lot with Garth and Ainsley, but especially Garth.  I would hit high loopy topspin shots that would drive my talented older brother crazy! Garth, a lefty, would like to flatten out the ball, take the ball early and get to the net. We had so much fun practicing and playing matches together.

At this point we were familiar with all of the top pro players and my role models were Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Grant Connell. My Mom bought me Agassi shirts and the jean shorts with spandex so I could look like him.  Garth and I also had role models from our club. The top u14 and u16 boys really impressed us. For us, being 7 and 8 year old boys, we thought that these guys were great.   We would play practice matches and say, “I’m Shaun Rich, okay and I’m John Cook.” We envisioned that one day we were going to be better players then them.

I would also play with my sister and remember how hard she would hit her lefty forehand. We would rally forehand to forehand down the line and it would be fun to try to keep up with her pace. Playing with my Dad was also a lot of fun. Dad would never let up when he would play against us. He would hit his serve at 100% power. I remember one time when I was about 7 or 8 years old Dad rifled a serve right at my body. The ball struck me right where it hurts… if you know what I mean, and I dropped to the ground. I very gingerly got back up and saw my Dad standing at the net chuckling. Right away I was ready to take on another.

My Mom, Dad, sister, brother and I all started at the same time and we played a lot together in the early years. I remember my Dad telling me that there are many great things about playing tennis- It’s a sport that you can play your entire life, it is played all over the world and a great way to meet interesting people and the chances of suffering from injuries to the head or broken bones are very little.

My siblings and I were all involved in various sports, musical instruments and choirs at this time and my parents found it challenging to keep up with our busy schedules.  I remember after a hockey game that Garth and I played being in the back seat of the car and my Mom saying, “If you had to choose between hockey and tennis, which sport would you choose?”  After taking about 20 seconds to reflect, both of our answers were the same, “TENNIS!

Next issue: “Discovering Competitive Tennis”

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