Snow?! On the morning of my flight south, I awoke to several inches of snow and the likelihood of airport delays, so I was relieved to reach Jacksonville, Florida (the nearest airport to Sea Island) only 90 minutes late on a cloudless 61-degree day. The drive north took about an hour and 10 minutes, the latter miles spilling across ochre-colored salt marshes and arcing over rivers, most dramatically at the handsome Lanier Bridge across the Brunswick River, its twin towers and suspension cables particularly dramatic at sunset. I arrived after dark, and so other than the Cloister—the new riverfront replacement for the pink Addison Mizner hotel that had long been the centerpiece of the resort—I’d have to wait until the next day to see all that had changed.
Awaking to a cloudless sky, I headed first to the tennis center. The original complex had 20 clay courts hard by the original Cloister, and the downsizing to just eight courts, all with an underground watering system, had been the subject of controversy, even though those 20 courts had been laid out in an era of chain-link fencing with minimal attention to esthetics. The new tennis center, though smaller, adopts the same Spanish Mediterranean architecture as the Cloister itself. An arching entryway guarded by wrought-iron gates leads to a covered patio overlooking the sunken clubhouse court. Beyond, walkways of inlaid brick pavers lead to the remaining seven, all of them framed by weathered wooden fencing and soft, semi-transparent windscreens. A full-service pro shop faces the sunken court, behnd which rises the 65,000-square-foot spa and fitness center.
All of this, like the hotel, manages to be elegant without being pretentious. But it isn’t the physical changes that matter so much as the presence of Murphy Jensen. At 6’ 4” and completely bald he would be impossible to miss even it he weren’t outgoing and loquacious. Standing at the net on the morning of a Jensen mini-weekend, he introduced himself to the 17 participants by saying, “Hi, I’m Murphy Jensen and I grew up in Michigan where I was raised by wolves.”
“Tennis is a simple game played by complicated people,” he continued after the chuckles subsided. “I define success not by results but by the effort. If you give your best, you will be successful, even if you never win a game.”
Most of the people on the court were, however, hoping that their time with Murphy would in fact lead to better results on the tennis courts. So for the next two hours he and two of his pros, Pete Jellico and Jack Glenn, put us 17 of us through a series of drills designed to replicate typical doubles situations: two-up, two-back; tandem movement; recovery; approach shots—nothing on the face of it radically different from what you might get at any number of camps. But two things distinguish these sessions: Murphy’s personality and his stories of the tour.
“What’s the goal of any shot?” he asks. When no one answers, he turns to Sara Murray, a 14-year-old local he’s been working with.
“To get an easier shot,” she answers.
“ESPN did a study of doubles matches and found that the team that hit the ball over the net three times won 98 percent of the time,” Murphy continued. “One of the things Luke and I were known for is consistency—that and we never quit. The year we won the French Open, we got some advice from Dennis Ralston. He told us both stay on the baseline when we were serving, on both the first and second serve.”
And in one of the more unusual drills, he insisted that one team remain at the baseline, going forward only to retrieve short balls, as a way of working on defense. He’d feed the net team overheads and as baseliners we’d struggle to stay in the point and try to force the net team into errors. “Defense is hard,” he’d say, “so I want you to practice it.”
The two-hour morning session ended with a contest to return Murphy’s serve. He had various names for them and in the first round, you could request which one you wanted: the Monster, the Mercy Serve, the Salmon Killer, the Meatloaf, the Michael Chang (underhand). In round 1, all you had to do to advance was get a racquet on the ball; which everyone did. In round 2, you had to get it over the net, which eliminated more than half. In the last round, you had to return the serve and then play out the point against Murphy. No one did, though when he hit a better serve than he intended against a woman in that final round, he announced: “Try again. In golf you get a Mulligan, in tennis you get a Murphy.”
He and I had met the night before for dinner [full disclosure, I was a guest of the resort], and the conversation varied widely, beginning when I ordered a caprese salad in Tavola, the Cloister’s Italian restaurant.
“I ate spaghetti arrabbiata and caprese salad every night during the French Open the year we won,” he told me. “Superstition, you know. Luke and I stayed in a room without air conditioning, so we slept outside on the deck.”
“It’s extraordinarily challenging for me to develop a tennis academy because I’ve never done it,” he continued. “There’s so much tradition here, which appealed to me. There’s a chance to expand and build on this [in tennis] because there’s a blank canvas and to be willing to take chances and dare to be different. But if I’m not making it fun out here and at the same time you’re learning the game at a high level, I’m not doing my job.”
He believes his coaching experience with the Washington Kastles of World Team Tennis will help. He took them to a 32-0 winning streak over three seasons. Venus Williams was a member of that team.
“If I don’t know how to do something I ask for help,” he told me. “One of the pieces of advice I got was to make the team feel like a family, where they care about each other. I might say to Venus, ‘This match may not mean much to your bank account but it means a lot to Arina Rodionova.’”
That attitude carries over to the junior academy he has started at Sea Island. In the course of just a few months, he has taken the program from a few kids to 50. Tellingly, however, when he talks about that program, he doesn’t focus on turning out the next great American champion—though he would certainly be happy if that happened. Instead, he wants to teach kids solid fundamentals and to develop whatever talent they have to its utmost and to infect them with his enthusiasm for the game.
“My parents were school teachers and they taught me the art of enthusiasm and education. At the end of the day you may not become the next Wimbledon champ, but you may become the next agent of one. If you fall in love with this game, it will be with you forever and it can take you places beyond your wildest dreams. I grew up on a Christmas tree farm in northern Michigan. You just don’t end up on Center Court with that upbringing, but the game of tennis took my brother and I there often.”
During the summers, Luke joins him at Sea Island and together they run a series of summer junior camps, which were very successful in just their first year. They’re planning to hold full Jensen Brothers weekends, where participants get to spend time with both of them on and off the court. But the Murphy Jensen Junior Academy aside, this is still, as Murphy admits, a work in progress.
“It’s a marathon and not a sprint,” he told me. “I’d rather build a great foundation slowly put the pieces together but correctly. We’re going to make mistakes. I tell my pros: take a lot of shots, miss a lot of shots because it means you’re trying. But we don’t let bad technique slide or bad form or bad tennis behavior. There’s a certain integrity with this game that needs to be upheld. I have a respect for the history of the game, the people who came before me and the people that are going to come after me. And I like to share that stuff. I’ve been lucky and blessed to have the unbelievable ride all from the game of tennis and it’s fun to share it.”