With a tip of the cap to literary giant Charles Dickens, last week brought to mind tennis tales of two cities — London and Cambria.
Wednesday, July 8, was the “worst of times” for Roger Federer’s opponent, Gilles Simon, at Wimbledon in London. But 4,744 nautical miles west of the U.K., it was the “best of times” for Jackie Happel and Arabella Staufenberg in Cambria.
The two girls — who will enter eighth grade at Santa Lucia Middle School in the fall — were receiving tennis instructions from Julie Braeger, a member of the Cambria Tennis Club. Jackie and Arabella were taking advantage of the club’s tennis mentoring program, which offers youths ages 11 to 16 free summer lessons Wednesdays and Saturdays from 1 to 2 p.m.
Both girls worked on the technique of tossing the tennis ball into the air with the proper trajectory and speed in preparation for the all-important offensive part of tennis — the serve. It took several tries, but thanks to Braeger’s patience, Jackie got it pretty close to perfect.
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Jackie said it is more likely she will be playing volleyball than tennis at Coast Union in the fall of 2016. Asked why she attended the free lessons, she said that Arabella “is my best friend; she likes tennis, so my mom asked me if I wanted to go with her.”
As for Arabella, she “definitely” intends to go out for the varsity tennis program next year.
What Braeger tries to accomplish in an hour with the kids is “just to communicate with them in a way they can connect with.” For example, in explaining to Jackie how the arm should work when hitting a tennis ball, Braeger used the motion of a jumping jack exercise: “That was a good motion for her to relate to. She got it after that.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday, July 9, it was the “worst of times” for Serena Williams’ opponent, Maria Sharapova, at Wimbledon, but across the Atlantic Ocean and the continental United States it was the “best of times” for Alexis Mireles and Jimmy Welch in Cambria.
The top two seeds in boys tennis at Coast Union were engaged in an intense training session led by their coach, Ron Ruggles. Both players are known for smacking tennis balls with authority and have been practicing faithfully on a regular basis, but Ruggles put them through some concentrated, strategic drills involving professional tennis techniques.
They were shown: a) how to hold the racquet at various stages of play; b) what footwork is most appropriate at specific moments in a match; c) how the shoulder should be positioned after whacking the ball; and d) how to position the body when hitting backhands and forehands at various positions on the court.
They were asked how they are able to process the specific, strategic points that Ruggles emphasized — and incorporate those points into their games.
“Most of the stuff he has already taught us, but when we’re out here alone practicing, we sometimes pick up bad habits,” Alexis explained. “So we go back out and try to break those bad habits,” Jimmy said, adding, “This helps us learn it and relearn it in our practice sessions.”
The two are also key players on the Broncos’ football team (Alexis as quarterback; Jimmy plays fullback and linebacker), but they practice tennis five days a week. Tennis is so important to them that they come out and work on their games after physically strenuous football practices and weight-lifting sessions.
Jimmy claims he needs to work on the mental aspects of the game.
“For me, a lot of it is mental. I have a lot of the technique things I have to get down — that’s what tennis is, a lot of repetition and technique. But it’s mental, getting focused and being able to perform.”
For Alexis, he strives for consistency. “I don’t want to have on days and off days. I just want to be consistent every day.”
Both athletes are eager to help the Coast tennis team win some matches. In 2015, although Alexis was 33-5 in singles play, the team was 2-13.
“I want to win some games as a team,” Alexis said.
Jimmy added, “At the end of the day, it helps to say, ‘Yeah, we got that team a win.’ ”
And as much as Jimmy loves tennis, football also means a lot: “I love it because it’s a family and we all bond really closely.”
Alexis says football, the team game, is about trust: “When I let go of that ball, I have to trust there will be someone on the other end to catch it.”
Whether this football season — and next spring’s tennis season — will be the best or the worst of times, these two student athletes are hard-working, articulate role models for the underclassmen watching and hoping to succeed in sports.
As Charles Dickens said, “The men who learn endurance, are they who call the whole world, brother.”