Forest Grove's Buehler charging the net
T.J. Buehler, the varsity girls' tennis coach at Forest Grove High, will be running this year's popular "Tennis in the Grove" advanced development tennis academy starting Monday, June 18.
When Buehler started the camp a few years ago, he said, its goal was "to spark an interest in tennis and of course build a program that would ultimately help the Forest Grove tennis program at the same time."
Tennis may not have the cachet in modern American athletics that the "Big Four" sports of football, baseball, basketball and hockey — sometimes rounded up to a "Big Five" with soccer as well — holds among the nation's youth.
Nonetheless, Buehler said, "We saw enough interest in that first year that we thought there was a need for something like this."
The weeklong camps are Monday through Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. They run consecutively through July 20, with a one-week break over the Independence Day holiday.
The cost is $50 per week, with a 20 percent discount for those who participate for at least four weeks.
Tennis in the Grove is designed for experienced players ages 12 and up who are seeking a more rigorous, intense focus on improvement. It is intended for high school-level players or those aspiring to become high school-level players.
The academy focuses on skills such as footwork, agility, technique, generating ball pace, and strategy awareness.
"The last couple of years, we've eliminated the beginning player and focused on the kids with some skill and the desire to improve at the game," Buehler said. "We just decided it would be better for us and the kids who want to get better that we keep it at that level."
That's not to say that Tennis in the Grove is an expert-level camp. More aptly, it is designed with the tennis enthusiast in mind, as opposed to someone merely looking to get their feet wet in the game.
"It's really just about kids with a passion to get better," said Buehler. "About two-thirds are high school kids that are looking to get better; the remaining third are kids looking to build on elementary skills."
He hasn't turned his back on beginners, either. In fact, this summer, he's starting a coinciding beginner program of its own that will be taught by Pacific University tennis player Griffin Fraser. The senior-to-be, who attended Sprague High School in Salem, will be running the beginner's camp — intended for kids ages 9 to 13 — on the same days as Buehler's tennis academy, from 10 a.m. to noon.
"We're getting a late start on it, but hopefully we'll get a nice turnout," Buehler said.
The coach, who just finished his fourth year as the head varsity girls' coach at Forest Grove High, grew up in Kansas, where he was first exposed to the game. He possessed — as he would put it — some fairly natural ability, and he parlayed that acumen into a high school state championship by his senior year.
From there, Buehler played at tiny Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., where he played all four years, won a district title and competed at nationals. During that time, he spent his summers mentoring young players, where he got his first taste of instructing.
"I would take the summers and coach at the University of Kansas tennis academy," Buehler said. "It was a good way to stay active in tennis, and it allowed me to cut my teeth as a teacher of the game."
Tennis is a game that's seemingly dying on the vine in the United States. Despite its rampant popularity in Australia, Europe and parts of South America, tennis is a game that, at least in this country, has been pushed aside by more mainstream sports like the aforementioned "Big Four" or "Big Five."
Buehler thinks a number of factors could be contributing to the decline in recent decades, including diminished artistry as a result of the power game, and the lack of iconic American superstars the likes of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who dominated the men's tour in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in what was considered a "golden age" of American tennis. (On the women's tour — unlike the men's tour, for whatever reason — Americans are still at the top of the game, with the likes of defending U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens joining accomplished veterans Venus and Serena Williams in the sport's upper echelons.)
But in addition, Buehler thinks, tennis' reduced popularity owes to a lack of exposure as a result of a lack of opportunity for the average youth to play — and that's what he hopes to rectify with his camps.
"Certainly, other sports have sort of boxed tennis out," Buehler said. "But we also don't have tennis clubs here in town, so we felt this was a great way to expose kids to the game."
And it's worked. Buehler said in Tennis in the Grove's initial year, the camp had upwards of 30 kids per week. Since it stopped catering to beginners, that number has dropped to roughly 15 to 20, which Buehler said is just about the perfect size.
"We have two instructors, which has allowed us to feed these kids a ton of balls," he said.
Tennis in the Grove has also fed nicely into his high school program, which had nearly 70 girls out for the team last season — practically unheard of for a school district of Forest Grove's size.
"It really seems to be gaining traction," said Buehler. "It's great to see kids embracing the game."
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