By Roger Cox, Editor
"We are recidivists," declared Rita, a woman from Queens, New York, back for her second stay at Total Tennis that summer. Several of the campers were people she'd met on previous Total Tennis vacations, and she was now part of a group of more than ten people from all over the Northeast who had worked it out to be there at the same time. One of that contingent, himself another hearty Total Tennis perennial, described the camaraderie as commonplace. "We run into a lot of people we've met before, campers and staff," said Gary. "They're very friendly here. You call, they know who you are. You come through the door, they remember you." At any given session, roughly half of all the campers have been there before.
Total Tennis has a 25-year-long reputation for high-quality tennis camps. Originally staged at a private school in Massachusetts, it moved to its own year-round site in New York's Hudson Valley in the fall of 1997. Although the five-hour-a-day program remains unchanged—including the fact that you stay with the same pro throughout your visit—the quality of the experience has very much improved. So has the facility itself, which now has 25 courts in all, five of them indoors.
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Places that cater primarily to tennis players are an endangered species. Most that do exist were built during the tennis boom of the 1970s. They cling to the notion that nothing is better than spending your vacation on court in the company of other players. But at a time when the world seems to have contracted mad-golf disease, tennis has become a devalued currency—one benighted national sports publication had even gone so far as to declare it dead. That makes it all the more extraordinary when someone like Ed Fondiller comes along and flaunts conventional wisdom by opening a year-round camp whose only market is tennis players.
Although the camp had run profitably for two decades of summers at the Williston-Northampton School in Massachusetts and thus had a loyal following, it was still a brave act to open a facility that would operate year-round, outside the Sunbelt no less. But when Total Tennis founder Ed Fondiller at last found an old lodge in New York's Catskill Mountains, an easy 90-minute drive from New York City, he believed he could make it all work.
So what if the lodge and its rooms needed extensive work, and courts had to be built? The quietly picturesque setting on 70 acres of woods and meadows had views of the rounded peaks of the Catskills and promised an escape from the city. Thus Fondiller and his crew set about extensively renovating the lodge and rooms, had brand-new courts and an indoor center built, fixed up the outdoor swimming pool, and then introduced his own brand of intensive tennis clinics in this sylvan setting.
Rather than stay in dorms you now bed down in simple lodge rooms, most of which have private baths. The food for the group dining has improved too, and now the main lodge and its bar provide a place for campers to congregate at night. There is usually some kind of evening activity planned, from a talk on sports psychology to a Saturday night dance in the game room with a DJ. Add to that a fitness center, day spa, and occasional singles weeks, you have the formula for a popular tennis getaway.
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Ed Fondiller adopts a simple approach to his camp: "I try to keep it laid back and relaxed," he says. "I want to keep tennis in perspective. If you're not out there having fun, you shouldn't be playing."
Talk to any of the camp regulars, and the comment you hear over and over again is that they like the people who attend. Despite its 5-plus-hour-a-day format, this is not a boot camp and neither does it seem, in general, to attract campers intense about their tennis. It provokes astonishingly disparate reactions. Many love it, while others—typically those who had attended Total Tennis when it was in Northampton, Massachusetts—rue the lack of things to do in Saugerties. And one disappointed camper complained that Fondiller had been very rude. "When one of our group complained that we hadn't received as many hours on court as we expected, Ed didn't try to do anything about it. Instead he said, 'That's the way I run my camp,'" the camper reported.
Tennis Staff. Ed Fondiller founded the camp and continues to take an active part in its day-to-day operation. Much of his staff has been with him for years and about half of them now work at the camp year-round. During the busy summer months he supplements those pros with high school and college coaches and some college players.
Tennis Programs. Campers have the option of a half-day or full-day program. The morning sessions typically begin at 8:45 with an introduction to the morning's topic—ground strokes, doubles, whatever—and then move onto the courts for three hours of drills interrupted by a juice break. Afternoon sessions usually start at 1:30 p.m. and continue to 3 p.m., after which there may be a round robin, pro-am doubles, or open court time. Because campers tend to work with the same pro throughout their stay (barring days off), the work done on court can be tailored to their needs and skill level. Ratios never exceed 4:1. Everyone also gets a ½-hour private lesson.
Courts & Fees. There are 25 courts altogether: 11 red clay, 12 hard (5 of them indoors), and two artificial grass. Court Fees: None outdoors; $15/hour indoors.
Caveat: Any program that puts you with the same pro throughout the week risks the occasional personality conflict. If you're not happy, my advice is to ask to be switched, even if that means having to join a group of players above or below your level.
Spa & Fitness
Golf Courses. Although there is no golf course at the camp, there is one 9-hole course just up the road.
And ... The camp has a recreational swimming pool open during the summer and fall.
Total Tennis has 43 rooms altogether. Most occupy one of three three wooden buildings: the Lodge, Cherry Hill, and the Barn. Sparely furnished, they typically have one or two beds with quilted bedspreads, simple pine dressers and end tables, carpeted floors, and tiny private baths with tubs and showers. All are air conditioned but none has a phone, television, or even radio (bring an alarm). Those in the Lodge and Cherry Hill also have balconies or patios with rocking chairs facing the swimming pool and the Catskill Mountains. The rooms are not much more than places to sleep, change, and store your belongings, and some are very small. Furnishings are sparse, so think clean, functional, but by no means posh. On very busy weekends—when there could be as many as 70 people in camp—Total Tennis also uses the rooms in three cabins.
Everyone eats in the dining room at long pine tables. Longtime Total Tennis loyalists say the food is better than ever under the new chef, who also tends to be conscious of minimizing the amount of fat he uses even in something like tortellini Alfredo. On he whole, the food is simple but tasty. In a typical week you may get an outdoor barbecue one night (chicken, ribs, veggie burgers), Italian another, turkey a third. Lunch and dinner both includes plenty of salads, vegetables, and fruit. And breakfast consists of hot and cold items.
If you're looking for an all-day tennis camp with lots of social atmosphere, also check out:
Rates include lodging, three meals a day, roughly 5 hours/day of tennis instruction (with the option for half-day sessions). Higher rates may apply over holidays.
Weekend and 2-day midweek prices quoted here, though longer sessions also available as are more intensive weekend programs.
2-day midweek, $425; 2-day weekend, $575
Seasons. Year-round, however the outdoor season runs from mid May to mid October. During the winter most people come for weekends or long weekends.
Travel Instructions. By Air: The nearest major airport is Albany, 47 miles to the north. By Car: Total Tennis is three miles from Exit 20 off the New York State Thruway. That puts it roughly 90 miles north of New York City. By Bus: Adirondack Trailways stops in Saugerties on its route between New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal and Albany. You can phone from the drop-off point (Dacey's Family Restaurant) and someone from Total Tennis will pick you up. By Rail: The nearest Amtrak station is Rhinecliff, New York; it is approximately $22 by cab from there to the camp.
General Tourist Information. Although Saugerties provokes flashbacks to the original Woodstock Festival, it has become known more recently for its antique shops and its eight-square-block National Historic District. For more information about it, visit the Saugerties website on the Hudson Valley Network.