I AM standing across the net from the athletic figure of Barcelona-based Martin Cejas, a player and coach who is respected across Europe.
I am barely respected in my own club. The gulf in class in palpable.
Cejas speaks little English but this is easily the best tennis lesson I have ever had. All the hundreds of words that spill out of the mouth of the average coach are replaced with simple actions. “No, Frank, thees. Like thees,” as he demonstrates the correct movement into the net for a backhand volley.
I am gripped.
Cejas soon has me volleying like I’ve never done before. Middle of the racquet, with power and directed to the corners. And now it all seems so easy. “Excellent, excellent,” he shouts.
It is a Saturday morning and day one of a three-day intensive tennis coaching weekend with Jonathan Markson Tennis at Barnes in west London. Stretched out before me under a hot sun are 20 all-weather and astro courts of which six are taken up by the Markson course.
Around 35 people, of all ages, are here to improve their tennis from occasional club players to county standard stalwarts. We are split into groups of five to six based on ability and each group is given an individual coach.
Markson tennis was founded in 1981 by Jonathan Markson, a former pupil of Glasgow Academy who became a great tennis player, a lawyer and an entrepreneur. Sadly, he died last year from leukaemia at the age of just 55.
His philosophy, however, lives on in his academy which teaches a more classical view of tennis as a sport of angles, deft touch and precision. If you only want to learn how to hit hard from the back of the court you may be disappointed.
Coaching begins with a thorough warm up and then players are assessed on all the basic strokes. At the start, we are videoed (in my case attempting to) perform a series of strokes and then videoed again at the end and the differences discussed within the group. The aim is to see significant improvement in technique.
Players rotate within their groups so everyone has the chance to work with each of the coaches over the course of the three days. Head coach Michael Miller walks around throughout to offer individual pointers.
Sessions are split in conventional style between the key strokes (forehand, backhand, volley, serve, overhead etc). There is also a focus on fitness, footwork and mental attitude, in particular developing the ‘killer instinct’ in matchplay that will see off an opponent.
For me, the weekend is a chance to work intensively on my tennis. I play regularly and have had lessons, but finding the time to practise what you have been told is difficult. The result is often that details are forgotten and little progress is ultimately made.
In this environment there is plenty of time to get the details right, question the coaches and practise intensively. There is also time to get your know your fellow trainees and some of the most useful pointers come from others in my group who can spot my basic errors.
Indeed, one of the most noticeable things through the weekend is the vast improvement in the play of everyone on the course. Collectively, we are all sharper and hitting the ball harder even in this short space of time.
One of the stand-outs from the Markson weekend is the quality of the coaches. Unlike some other tennis holidays where the coaches are simply on a year out, Markson likes to hire fully qualified teaching pros with years of experience. You can ask the most difficult of questions and you know they will have an answer. More importantly for me, you can ask the most basic of questions and they will take time to work with you. I was struggling with my double-handed backhand and one of the coaches took 20 minutes with me to go over all the fundamentals (grip, body position, footwork etc) to ensure I was comfortable.
Over lunch – at a quaint scout hut where the food was hearty and plentiful – there was more time to quiz the experts.
At the conclusion of each session there is a chance to play a series of points against the teacher, which brings out the best in all of us. Despite my efforts I was rarely able to take a point off the long-limbed Martin.
I may not have managed to hit one past my coach, but I did come back tanned, a few pounds lighter and with some skills that will help see me through the summer season.
Jonathan Markson runs UK tennis camps in Yorkshire, Oxford and London throughout the year. The company also offers tennis holidays overseas including Portugal, Spain, Italy and South Africa (0207 603 2422, www.marksontennis.com)
A five-day non-residential tennis camp in London (not bank holidays) with lunch costs £345.
Advanced return fares, booked online at www.eastcoast.co.uk, start from £33 standard class or £95 first class. Train times and fares can also be found via 08457 225225 or from any staffed stations.