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Playing along: On the tennis court with Art Carrington

  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tennis pro Arthur Carrington gives Bob Dunn a few pointers during a short lesson at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Tennis always seemed like something foreign to me when I was growing up. It was something other people did, like skiing or enjoying high school.

Back in July, I asked tennis pro Art Carrington why tennis still has a lingering reputation as an elitist sport.

“Because people don’t know it isn’t,” he said.

Carrington, of Easthampton, played with the likes of the late Arthur Ashe and these days he’s teaching youth tennis at the Holyoke Canoe Club. Tennis still isn’t usually among the sports most Americans are introduced to through school or youth leagues like baseball, football, basketball or hockey, he told me. Because of that, Carrington said many people think, as I did, that tennis remains a pastime of the cultural elite. I’ve never actually seen someone playing tennis while wearing an ascot, but that’s how I’ve tended to picture it in my head.

That reputation is somewhat undeserved, he points out, since the initial investment for equipment is relatively small — a basic racket and a can of balls can be had for about $30. It is true, though, Carrington said, that access to courts at many parks, clubs and college campuses still requires some type of pass or fee.

My image of the game was rooted in Ware, where I grew up. There were tennis courts, but only in the literal sense of the words. They were marked-off areas of play, bisected by a tattered net — and even knowing as little as I did about the game, I was pretty sure cracked asphalt wasn’t an ideal playing surface.

Even those courts were in a separate section of the park, cordoned off behind a chain-link fence. I knew the fencing was up to keep errant balls from flying off to all areas of the park, but it still felt exclusionary to me.

Add to that the obtuse scoring system, plus terms like deuce, ace, love, fault and double fault, and wooden rackets that had to be carefully stored to prevent warping and damage — and you had a sport that seemed to me more trouble than it was worth.

Carrington, who grew up in New Jersey, was introduced to tennis at a neighborhood tennis club; he never met a white player until he was about 12, he said, and he wasn’t aware of the sport’s elitist reputation.

Carrington notes that sports that are typically thought of as mainstream are actually the ones that very few players can excel at into adulthood. Unless a player is on track to play for the NFL, he said, his football-playing days are likely over early. Tennis, on the other hand, is a game people can play into their 60s and beyond, he says — and he should know. At age 65, Carrington says he still spends about three hours a day on the court, teaching and playing. Players lose some speed as they get older, he said, but continued practice and play time will enhance and improve their motor skills.

“Tennis is for life,” he said.

Carrington took time out from teaching to show me some of the basics. I figured I’d find out if I had any business being on a court — and, if nothing else, I’d have an excuse to wear the white polo shirt that sits at the back of my closet, otherwise unworn for fear of spilling food or beverages on it.

Carrington started me off with a proper left-handed grip, which is a two-handed backhand, with the left hand at the base of the racket and the right above it.

After a quick demonstration of forehand and backhand returns, Carrington positioned me in the center of my side of the court. He lobbed a ball over the net, I took a swing and ... the ball and my racket connected.

It was a small moment, to be sure, nothing like the way your arm feels when a well-hit baseball leaves the end of a wooden bat. This was more like striking a tuning fork and hearing it let out a clear note — and almost as satisfying in its own way.

Carrington told me that keeping the ball as close as possible to the middle of the racket would help me control where it will wind up, which is helpful when trying to drop the ball in a spot where your opponent isn’t. Keeping your opponent as far back from the net as you can is part of the strategy, he told me. Let your opponent return a volley close to the net and they’ve got a good chance of smacking the ball right past you.

Carrington was taking it easy on me as we volleyed, even letting me know where to expect the next ball to land. Even so, I worked up a healthy sweat in just a few minutes, as I shuttled back and forth.

Carrington is a natural teacher, never seeming overbearing or overly critical. Each successful return was met with encouragement.

“That’s it.”

“You’ve got it.”

“Gooood.”

After picking up a few pointers about managing a competent serve, and having completed a couple of quasi-respectable volleys, I started to think that I had been a bit unfair to tennis. Much to my surprise, I began to picture tennis as something that I could actually do. Now that I don’t see it as just the upper-crust game that I had believed it to be for so long. I will have to find something else to direct my well-worn “working-class-hero” angst toward.

Perhaps polo ... unless someone can prove me wrong about that, too.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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