Former pro tennis circuit player Graham Stilwell spent many years playing the sport at a high level as both a youth and young man. These days, the former pro tour member (from 1963-’75) who went up against and defeated the likes of past tennis greats such as Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe, John Newcombe, and Guillermo Vilas, loves to share his knowledge of the game with youngsters and adults alike.
Stilwell, who grew up in England, is administrator and teacher for 4 Star Tennis Academy, one of the most prominent tennis academies across the Mid Atlantic Region. 4 Star Tennis Academy, which has sites in the Merrifield area of Vienna as well as in Potomac, Md., runs a junior program for the Fairfax-based Four Seasons Tennis Club, which has been a tennis fixture in the area since 1972.
While Stilwell said there might be better ways to get into top notch shape than playing tennis, a healthy workout is still a wonderful benefit of the game.
“If the goal is to get in great shape, there are probably better ways to do it than playing tennis,” said Stilwell. “However, people consider hitting the ball in tennis fun while also getting in shape. Playing tennis is a good way to get into condition.”
He said pro circuit players, who often have their own personal trainers, have to be in outstanding physical shape. Recreational players generally play for enjoyment and a good workout. But the nature of the sport presents physical conditioning challenges.
“Tennis is more intensity of exercise in short spurts,” said Stilwell. “In tennis, 10 seconds [of volleying] is a pretty long point. In tennis you have high intensity for short periods, then a break. Your heart rate goes up and down. If you’re playing a long tennis match it’s pretty tiring, especially in the kid of [hot] weather we’ve had the last few weeks.”
For young children getting started in the game, Graham breaks a regulation sized 78-foot into quarters and youngsters ages five and six hit from sideline to sideline over portable nets. Children ages 7 and 8 move up to a 60-foot court. These court changes based on age are sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in part of its `Quickstart’ program.
Also, the tennis balls are different for youngsters, who start out using soft sponge balls before moving to two other stages of junior tennis balls and eventually, at age 10, going to regulation balls.
“Tennis for kids is a different sport initially,” said Stilwell. “The Quickstart programs from USTA make learning initially a bit easier for young kids. We use the smaller courts at 4 Star. We find they get to the point where they can play faster. And we have three stages of balls before regulation.”
Stilwell, a doubles finalist at Wimbledon in 1966, and member of the British Davis Cup Team from 1963-’69, has taught tennis for 32 years, working with newcomers to the sport to seasoned professionals.
“I get enormous satisfaction from being able to pass on to others both the technical aspects of effective stroke production through my on court teaching, and the mental and emotional aspects of competing,” he said.