Scarpa, The Ultimate Tennis Teacher

By Kevin Record • Tallahassee Democrat

 
So, I am in Greenville, S.C., last weekend with my 17-year-old son, Josh, making college visits, as most parents of rising seniors do.

We are on the campus of Furman University and we are there to visit with legendary men's tennis coach Paul Scarpa who is the winningest coach in Division I history, with well over 800 wins in 45 seasons. He is the Bobby Bowden of college tennis.

The problem is this: Scarpa doesn't know we're coming. My son is naturally apprehensive. This is our fourth stop in three days and we've had great visits with the head coaches at Georgia Southern University, the College of Charleston and Wofford.

This visit, Josh figures, is going to be a bust.

I've got a sneaking suspicion we might be in for a nice surprise. Through the years, I've heard stories about Scarpa. He's an innovative coach and passionate about the game. He's also been around a long time. Josh probably should have given him a heads up with a handwritten letter and put a stamp on it.

"The guy is 72 years old," I say to Josh. "He's probably like grandpa. He's not an email guy."

We pull up to the Furman tennis center around lunchtime and it's eerily quiet.

At this point, Josh was clearly ready to keep going toward the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where former Florida State coach Lise Gregory was anxiously awaiting our arrival the following day.

"There's nobody here," Josh says.

I go inside. There's four well-lit indoor tennis courts. In the lobby, there's some impressive stuff hanging on the walls, pictures of All-Americans and Southern Conference champions. I walk around the next corner, head down the hall toward the coaches offices and there sits the legend, behind stacks of papers and all sorts of tennis stuff.

I politely introduce myself and tell Coach Scarpa why we're here.

"Please come in," he says. "I'm sure you gave me a heads up. I'm horrible with email. Please forgive me."

I go get Josh. The three of us sit out on the large patio overlooking their outdoor facilities and begin a memorable two-hour visit. Scarpa has a love for tennis that you pick up on the minute he begins talking. He is fully engaged in the moment. He leans on the edge of his chair. He begins telling stories about players he's developed over the years. He's not big on recruiting. He loves to teach. This is old-school stuff.

He's not the coach who brings in six international players, gives them a schedule and makes it to the NCAA tournament by rolling out the balls and driving the vans. This guy can coach. And he just wants to talk tennis.

The reason it had been so quiet is that everyone in his summer tennis camp was in the Furman dining hall, eating lunch. Our timing had been perfect. We'd had about an hour with the legend. It was awesome.

Now, they are descending on the tennis center once again. But he doesn't want us to go.

"Can you stick around for a while," he said. "I got a few things I want to show you with the campers."

Scarpa's teaching philosophy is pretty simple. He feels like it's his job to keep the students fully engaged. He's got to keep them laughing, keep them entertained, keep them interested in learning. Always.

We are back in the lobby. He's got a tennis racket in his hands that's at least 3-feet long. He props the head of the racket against his chin and his neck and uses another racket to pretend he's playing the violin.

"Now, there's a backhand volley, right there," he says.

On a table nearby, there are two scales — the kind you keep in the bathroom to weigh yourself on every morning.

"I don't know about you, but I don't see how anybody can hit a forehand when they're weighing themselves on the back foot," the legend says. "And I can prove it to the students."

We head back outside. The campers have all gathered around the stadium court. Scarpa has their attention, as one of his student assistants gallops in, fully dressed in a horse outfit. Another student is riding atop the horse with a racket in his hand. He's about to teach the kids the importance of balance and of not swinging on the volley. You can't volley while riding a horse if you take a swing. You'll break your tail.

There is a children's playground slide in one corner of the court. Scarpa actually has his students glide the face of their rackets up the slide, so they understand, visually, that is the path the racket must take for a ball to clear the net.

Finally, he pulls out a bucket, puts a half-dozen tennis balls in it and then demonstrates another concept, hitting through the ball. If you think of the balls as if they are water, you can't throw the water on somebody unless you follow through well out to the target. And then he proceeds to shower the tennis balls on another assistant.

He's not done yet. The 72-year-old legend then engages in a rally, using the bottom of the bucket as his racket, once again illustrating the importance of hitting through the ball. 

The campers go back out on the court themselves, and Scarpa has a few more words with us before we leave.

"Josh, I hope you will consider Furman," he says. "But don't come here because you want to play for me. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be here. I've got three grandchildren and I wrestle every fall with the decision to come back or not."

You can tell why it's such a wrestling match. The guy is a legend because he truly loves what he does so well.