Tennis instructor enjoys teaching others what he loves

PERKINS TWP. Five eager students line up along the court, rackets in hand, and brace themselves. At
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

PERKINS TWP.

Five eager students line up along the court, rackets in hand, and brace themselves. At their instructor's command, they toss their tennis balls up and swat them in unison with a snap of their wrists. The swish of the rackets and the 'thwap' of balls landing across the net echoes through the gymnasium.

"Slow it down ... a little too fast," Pat Ortner says as the preteen athletes prepare to try again. "Get your toss up a little higher. Remember, if you have to move your feet to get to the ball, don't hit it -- it's not a good toss."

As the head tennis instructor for Baywinds Athletic Club, Ortner, 41, makes his living teaching others to serve. Once they've mastered that, he helps them develop other fundamental skills for the game he loves.

Some of his students are as young as 4, holding smaller-scale rackets and learning to grip them properly. The oldest was 84.

But among the nine classes he coaches weekly, most students are in grade school or high school. A few return through their college years, and several older players come back to help him coach the youngest ones Saturdays.

"The most fun thing is starting with a kid barely able to swing a racket and seeing them progress to a tournament-level player and possibly onto the college level," Ortner said while his students scooped up the tennis balls scattered around the indoor court. "We've had four state champions and several runners-up here. Some of the kids, I've known for almost 14 years, so I become a friend to them."

Ortner's own passion for the game developed in sixth grade, in the midst of playing three other sports. It was the year he broke his arm, making him unable to participate in football, baseball or basketball. But after picking up a tennis racket, he realized he could still use his left arm for something while his other arm healed.

From there, he was hooked.

He started taking lessons at Baywinds and set a record -- 86 wins, 12 losses -- by the time he finished high school.

He participated in junior tournaments and was ranked among the top 40 young men in the Midwest. He went on to play for two years at the college level and later coached in Fremont, Sandusky, Heidelberg College and Tiffin University.

He has 22 years of coaching experience and is certified through the U.S. Professional Tennis Registry.

Ortner also participates in the high-performance program through the U.S. Tennis Association -- in which he's met celebrities like Andy Roddick, the Bryan brothers and Venus and Serena Williams.

After a short water break, Ortner splits his students into teams of three and five to play for points.

Pacing the sidelines, he stops by each player and to offer added guidance.

"Make sure to swing all the way up to your shoulder," he tells one player. "Stay below the ball and lift up ... turn your body. The racket should be flat on contact."

He speaks slowly and calmly as he repeats the instructions several more times.

"The most challenging thing, which I think I've gotten better at over the years, is patience," he said. "It takes a long time to develop a player, and you have to understand their ability."