ST. PETERSBURG — Saddlebrook Resort may boast the best men's tennis doubles team on the planet, the Bryan brothers. But at the Racquet Club of St. Petersburg, tucked away from the traffic on Fourth Street, a distinguished mixed doubles tandem is on a roll of its own.
Kathy and Ron Woods, each with a rich history on the U.S. tennis scene, are serving notice to baby boomers around the country: It's not too late to get, and stay, in shape with tennis.
When it comes to spreading the gospel of the game to the AARP set, the Woods have written the book on the topic.
Their just-published effort, Playing Tennis After 50: Your Guide to Strategy, Technique, Equipment and the Tennis Lifestyle, is geared to all levels of boomers: those who are new to the game, want to return to the court after years away, or have never stopped playing.
So what moved them to put their thoughts into a book?
"In 2011, the population of 50-and-older people is going to be 100-million in this country," said Ron, 64, sitting at the club with Kathy, 50, on a recent afternoon.
"I've been teaching health and fitness my whole life. And the problem is, what do you do when you're 50 years old and realize you don't have an activity to do every day? You don't have time for team sports. You're sick of the gym. The treadmill is boring. Golf is expensive. But tennis is a great sport you can play for years. We have people here playing in their 80s."
"Seeing that senior population out at 8 a.m. playing is so inspirational," Kathy said. "So it seemed like there was a market to reach out to."
The Woods' book is 200-plus pages of tips and tactical insights, but one of the essential points is that players must learn strategy before fine-tuning skill.
"For instance, in doubles you want to hit mostly down the middle of the court," Kathy said. "So we give suggestions on how you do that, what you do with your racket face. It's game-based teaching, as opposed to standing in a line and hitting random balls. And we use very simple terms that people may never have thought of."
The contextual approach to tennis instruction is much more prevalent in Europe, where the game is booming. It's a style the Woods learned from their international travels as tennis teachers and their long careers in the sport.
And it all started with a love match 28 years ago.
For love and the game
Their tennis courtship, so to speak, began in Pennsylvania in the mid 1970s.
Kathy graduated summa cum laude with a degree in educational psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she played varsity tennis.
Ron graduated from East Stroudsburg, where he would eventually be inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame. He went on to become a professor of physical education at West Chester, coaching men's tennis and serving as dean of the School of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics.
Not surprisingly, the game brought them together.
"We met at the Chase Tennis Camp in West Town, Pa., teaching tennis at a summer camp for kids," Kathy said.
A romance developed, lasting through Kathy's college years, and they married in 1980 upon her graduation from Penn.
Kathy directed tennis programs in every area they lived: Princeton, N.J., Key Biscayne — where Ron worked as the U.S. Tennis Association's director of player development for more than 20 years — and then Westport, Conn.
Kathy's dedication manifested on and off the court. She earned the USTA's coveted Gold Ball by winning the national 30s doubles title and was ranked first in singles and doubles by U.S. Professional Tennis Association, which certifies pro instructors.
She made history in 1994 with the Professional Tennis Association by becoming its first female president. She served until 1996, and no woman has held the post since. Her final year on the job was marked by a high honor: She won the prestigious Tennis Educational Merit Award from the International Tennis Hall of Fame for outstanding service at the national level.
Ron, meanwhile, planned to make education his career, earning a doctorate in sports psychology and motor learning from Temple. But his tennis prowess was well-known; his resume included the U.S. Professional Tennis Association's national coach of the year award in 1982. When the U.S. Tennis Association offered him a job in 1987, he chucked tenure and headed for the courts.
Directing a new era
As the first director of player development, Ron was charged with helping nurture new American stars after the heyday of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. He oversaw a large coaching staff, with former tennis great Stan Smith serving as his right-hand man.
"Lo and behold, the first two kids who came into the program were Pete Sampras and Michael Chang," Ron said.
Ron held the post for 10 years, helping oversee a golden era of sorts in U.S. talent with a group of young stars that also included Dade City's Jim Courier, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Mary Jo Fernandez.
He remained with the USTA for another decade, spending six years directing the organization's new focus, Plan for Growth. In that role, he oversaw community programs with the goal of increasing tennis participation in the country.
"The result is that, years later, tennis participation is great," he said. "We're doing better than any other sport. We've had a 30 percent increase in the last five years, the only American sport that's increased in participation."
In addition, he spent eight years on the coaching committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 1997, he received the International Tennis Hall of Fame's Tennis Educational Merit Award.
"There aren't many couples who have done more for the game at different levels than Ron and Kathy," said hall of famer Smith, a two-time Grand Slam champion, an all-time great doubles champ and winner of last year's Davis Cup Award of Excellence.
"They feed off each other in terms of tennis and are very supportive of each other's endeavors. They love the game and can relate the game to life."
Four years ago, when Ron retired from the USTA, he and Kathy wanted to relocate to a place with sports, the arts and a beach. They settled on St. Petersburg to start a new game.
A natural idea
Ron was in the midst of writing a college textbook, Social Issues in Sport, and wanted to teach at a university. He landed a job at USF as an adjunct professor of sport science, and a job at the University of Tampa as well.
Kathy wanted to find a tennis club to teach at. She fell in love with the Racquet Club of St. Petersburg. She became its tennis director, continuing her passion for teaching and, as always, playing mixed doubles with Ron.
Then they had an idea. Late in Ron's tenure with the USTA, he had initiated a Welcome Back to Tennis campaign for players over 50. He and Kathy traveled to 50-and-over tennis events and realized how big a market existed.
A book for that crowd seemed like a natural. Ron had plenty of writing experience, authoring Coaching Youth Tennis, Tennis Tactics and Coaching Tennis Successfully for the USTA. His publisher, Human Kinetics, loved the idea. And the Woods completed their work in six months.
"Kathy contributed more to the on-court and psychology aspects," said Ron. "I worked more on the fitness sections."
And a winning mixed doubles effort was completed.