Bob Beaumont had been teaching tennis for several years before coming to the Baltimore Tennis and Fitness Center in Pikesville to work for tennis guru Lenny Schloss.
"My method produced hit-and-miss results," Beaumont said. "I had researched tennis and read instructional guides and hints in Tennis magazine. But when I came here, I found Lenny's program really cut through a lot of the mental static in my own game, as well as in the games of my students. I got rid of the mental interference and I found I could translate that to the people I was teaching."
Students using the Schloss method stop worrying about hitting the ball. They stop thinking about the perfect stroke. They stop anticipating the result on the other side of the net before they strike the ball. And they stop thinking negative thoughts.
Instead, the program produces nothing but positives, and because of that, most of the large numbers of students who come for lessons at the Pikesville club stick with the game. It is an important fact in a game that has had a flat participation rate.
It has taken Schloss, who was ranked as high as No. 17 on the men's pro tour in 1969, by his own count 50,000 hours to perfect his program. But the effort and the results have been so great the United States Tennis Association has taken notice.
According to a recent USTA survey, 23.5 million Americans play tennis, but there are another 20 million who have allowed their games to lapse.
"Each year, we add about 5 million players," said USTA president Allan Schwartz. "And each year we lose about 5 million. Our biggest foe is the computer. Kids sit in front of it and get fat. But we're going to advertise the benefits of tennis - fun, healthy, networking."
When Schwartz studied the survey more closely, he found Maryland is ranked second in the United States in percentage of its population playing tennis. That 12.9 percent translates into 630,000 players. And that number makes the state the 13th most active in terms of the sheer number of players.
"While the national average number [of players] per 100 is eight, the Maryland figure is 10 or 11," Schwartz said. "That's clearly ahead of the national average, and while other parts of the country exceed the national average, they don't do it by 35 percent, which is the excess percent of players in Maryland."
Schwartz, whose organization sanctions the U.S. Open, said he doesn't believe those numbers are accidental.
"I think Maryland is twice blessed with nationally prominent, high-profile believers in the sport," he said, and pointed to Hall of Famer Pam Shriver and Schloss, owner and instructor at the Baltimore Tennis and Fitness Center.
Shriver continues to keep the pro side of the game in the spotlight here with her annual Mercantile Tennis Challenge charity event, which will be held this year on Dec. 4 at 1st Mariner Arena. Shriver also remains in the public eye as a broadcaster.
Schloss, meanwhile, has created a teaching program that has attracted more players for lessons on a per-court basis than all but one other club in the country.
"That one other club is our flagship, the Mid-Town Tennis Club in Chicago," Schwartz said. "And he's pushing us."
The Schloss club gives more than 1,000 free half-hour lessons each year.
"We go to the inner city, churches and schools," Schloss said. "We let the kids try it. We go into the classrooms and expose the game to physical education teachers. They like it and the kids love it.
"I have 10 coaches working here for me and we have about 500 students a week go through the system, and most of them stick."
One of those who has stuck for nearly a year is Natalie Bernier, 13, a Pikesville Middle School student.
"I was a little nervous when I first got here," she said. "But everyone was so helpful and the method they use helps you learn easy. You get the rhythm of the game and the correct strokes and I'm never bored. You're always active and you're placed with others at your own level and you keep moving up. I'm looking forward to high school, when I can try to make the tennis team."
Schloss' success with keeping players in the program has fascinated the USTA. Schwartz's goal is to reach 30 million active players by 2010. With that in mind, he has handed over a small percentage of the USTA's new $200,000 research and development budget to Schloss to test and expand his program into other states.
"I have never been sure whether he's a Pied Piper or simply onto something that will work for someone with less charisma, but we're going to find out," Schwartz said.
The USTA president asked Schloss to go to Fort Myers, Fla.; Stony Brook, N.Y.; Grand Marais, Minn.; San Diego and Pawtucket, R.I., and re-create his plan in June and July.
"We told him, 'You can't give the lessons,'" Schwartz said. "But he could train someone - not the most charismatic someone - for 48 hours. Then bring in raw beginners and see how many, when through, will continue the game."
Schloss' program instills skills more quickly, enabling would-be players to play the game after just one hour. That approach, he said, allows the player the benefit of 80 percent more exercise and fun in a much shorter period.
"There is the instant gratification that people in our society now want," he said. "We reduce verbal instruction by 80 percent. We utilize a tool called 'HAL' - hit and learn. It's a portable device with a ball on a rubberized pole that goes toward the net and then comes back to you. After the first hour, students are correcting their own mistakes. They've learned footwork and no longer worry about their strokes. And that frees them up to use their visual skills more. It's all about moving and hitting without verbal overload."
Schloss installed this program in city parks in the five states. Feedback is already coming in.
"I have observed increased confidence in my students and a quicker understanding on their part of what the various skills involved in tennis should look and feel like," said John Muus, the community tennis coordinator in Grand Marais. "Overall, I'm very pleased with the positive impact the HAL system is having on our students' learning and enjoying the game at a quicker rate."
Rachelle Clausen, a student in the San Diego program, said she was amazed by how quickly she felt comfortable.
"The system gives very simple verbal cues with immediate success," she said. "The system puts almost all the correcting into my hands and simultaneously provides the support I need to know what to do to make the corrections."
Schloss is overjoyed by what he is hearing.
"It's not an, 'OK, this is nice, thanks a lot,' but very enthusiastic, very excited comments, and that enthusiasm is being passed down to the students," Schloss said. "Those surveys are coming in now and they indicate the program is replicable and not just Lenny."
The USTA will wait for all the results and feedback over a prolonged period, but Schwartz said Baltimore already has provided his organization with three important lessons.
"One is that passion sells," he said. "Pam and Lenny prove that. The other is if we could get more high-profile people with their magnetism involved, it would be worth bottling. And we've learned a willingness to experiment to learn new ways, better ways, to involve you in the game and retain you."
In the swing
Maryland ranks second among the 50 states and District of Columbia in percent of the population that plays tennis (population includes all those 6 and older):
New Jersey 13.1
Washington, D.C. 11.8
Rhode Island 10.8
New York 10.3
Source: U.S. Tennis Association