The Sporting Life: Former pro reinvents tennis - Tucson Local Media: Import

The Sporting Life: Former pro reinvents tennis

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Posted: Tuesday, June 27, 2006 11:00 pm

June 28, 2006 - Rachel Brandt took the volley at around shoulder level, reared back and unintentionally fired a perfect cross-court strike into the mid-section of Zeke Zankich, a player nearly half her age. The camper, known to the group of seven players as "Grilled Cheese," crumpled over, a toothy grin masking the pain.

"That is an official welcome," camp director Jennifer Fuchs yelled to Zankich. "You are now officially part of the group!"

Grilled Cheese wasn't toast, though. In fact, he didn't even miss his next turn to hit.

A little tough love is just one of many methods used by Fuchs, the founder of the El Conquistador Summer Junior Tennis Camps, which has 11 sessions from May 30 through August 17.

Don't think of Fuchs as a court meanie, though. Teaching the sport to adults and kids has become the former professional tennis player's life, and few do it better.

"She's the only coach I've had and I don't know anyone else who would be any better," said Dillon Kennedy, who will be a freshman at Ironwood Ridge High School in the fall.

Fuchs' program began in 1999 when she took over as tennis director for the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort. In less than seven years, Fuchs reinvented youth tennis at the El Conquistador, which had focused primarily on adults prior to her arrival from Long Island, N.Y.

Adult tennis still thrives at the El Conquistador, but the resort has become the unofficial headquarters to nearly every major youth tennis tournament in Southern Arizona.

Her current session, which she teaches Monday through Thursday with the help of El Conquistador head tennis pro Doug Miller and 12 teachers and former campers, has more than 60 kids - some from as far away as Sierra Vista.

The camp features kids of all ages and abilities from Northern Arizona University bound tennis star Allison Jech to the pint-sized Robert Feby, 9, of Copper Creek Elementary School.

"I think it's helped me a lot; It's really prepared me for college," said Jech who teamed up with Brandt on the girls team at Ironwood Ridge. "I really think she's helped me to be ready and be able to play somewhere, because if I had just been on my own I don't think I would have been able to go anywhere for tennis."

All the kids compete against each other between drills that stress footwork, technique and strategy.

"We kind of push the kids in every direction," said Fuchs. "Some kids they'll understand the strategy, but maybe they won't be as coordinated, so if you keep doing just one thing you can't interest everyone. So, I'd like to say we do a little of everything."

Many perceive tennis as a sport for those with lots of money, but Fuchs' camps caters to all tax brackets. For those who can't afford the morning or night sessions, which run between $80 and $95 a week, Fuchs has set up a scholarship program through Southern Arizona Tennis, for which she serves as president.

The program picks up the tab - in some cases - as much as half of the cost for the camp.

Fuchs spent the better part of six years on the women's professional tour before an accident limited the use of her neck and shoulder. These days, she spends her time promoting the game she loves.

"It's the on-court time that makes my job special," she said. "Whether it's with the kids or the adults, it's really rewarding and hopefully I can help."

Fuchs says the sport has made a comeback. She attributes this not to a rise in racquet or apparel sales, rather to an increase in the amount of tennis balls sold.

Gone are the days of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors - an era that helped Fuchs fall for the sport. But, now a new crop of stars attempts to put tennis back on the sports landscape. New names and favorites, according to the campers, include Roger Federer and Marat Safin.

Who knows? Perhaps some day one of Fuchs' campers will grace the court at Wimbledon.

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