Wednesday, August 26, 2009

At 46, He's Older and Better

Posted By on Wed, Aug 26, 2009 at 3:55 PM

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By rights, Donny Flowers should not be a tennis teaching pro.

He didn't play tennis in high school or college, and didn't play much at all until he was 25 years old. His first NTRP rating was 3.5, roughly the equivalent of a 20 handicap in golf or a 6-minute mile. He's 5'8" tall and weighs 150 pounds and the only way his serve will top 120 miles an hour is if he counts both of them. At 46 and married with two kids, he still looks about 17. Half the hackers in Memphis can remember beating him 20 years ago.

So what's he doing as the U.S.P.T.A. pro — that means certified — at Memphis Country Club and now Tunica National Golf and Tennis? The answer has to do with ping pong, hard work, hard knocks, getting better as you get older, and helium balloons. And being nice, don't ever forget nice.

Flowers' father was a national champion ping pong player. Donny started playing when he was seven years old, and by the time he was 20 he was one of the top players in the country, with enough trophies to fill up a room. In 1976 at the Astrodome in Houston, he played Mitch Stevens, a double-amputee and the top-ranked wheelchair player in the world. And he lost.

"I tried everything. I hit short, I served dirty, but it didn't matter. He inspired me."

Flowers began practicing longer, harder, and smarter, adding footwork drills to his hand-eye coordination routines. He got interested in tennis a few years later at what was then called Wimbleton, a Memphis tennis club, where Steve Mansour was teaching at the time. Like Flowers, Mansour is small and quick but not overpowering. Flowers would call everybody and play anybody — men, women, mixed doubles, beginners, pros, you name it. He didn't know it at the time, but that's a good recipe for improvement and the key to being a successful teaching pro. To this day, he'll happily play with novices because it was not so long ago that he was one himself.

He improved quickly, using his exceptional reflexes and touch to beat "better" players. He became an assistant to Mansour and two other Memphis pros, Steve Lang and Ronnie Bran, at Wimbleton, Leftwich, Memphis Country Club, and a tennis club in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He worked nights at FedEx and during the day did clinics, stayed late, gathered up the balls, worked with the beginners, filled in as a fourth, and generally behaved like the most sincere, friendly, and unassuming guy at the club.

Six years ago he was rewarded with the tennis job at Tunica National, joining Keith Evans, a former touring pro who has since moved on. Flowers and his doubles partner Marty Pearson are ranked second in the South in the over-45 age group.

Tunica is a funny place. Thanks to gambling taxes, the county has more money than it knows what to do with. There are four indoor rubico courts but no outdoor courts. The county owns the center and the golf course, so dues are about $70 a month and court time is free. The local base is loyal but small, so Flowers "recruits" from DeSoto County, Memphis, and Helena, Arkansas. He thinks lessons should be fun. He'll string a helium balloon to the net to emphasize the low-to-high swing and give a prize to the first student who hits it. On New Years Eve, he stayed overnight and held a lock-in tennis party for kids.

What's really fun though is watching a little bandy-legged guy with a pleasant smile and unconventional strokes — he often hits with both hands for the hell of it — dissect some other teaching pro or college player with all the physical gifts, classic strokes, attitude, and a 130-mile-an-hour serve. He's the classic guy that you think you can beat but you can't.

When I mentioned that I play squash now, Flowers' eyes lit up, and he asked if I would teach him the game. Damn right I would. First chance I get, I'm going to beat the little shit without losing a single point. Because I know from experience that if he gets hooked, that's what he'll be doing to me in about two years.

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