You know about that staid atmosphere you experience when you watch a major tennis tournament on television? College contests played around the country – including at Miller Tennis Center in Amherst – aren’t like that.
“The kids, our members, everybody gets into the matches here,” owner and master teaching professional Todd Miller said. “They sit in the lobby but they also sit along the courts. They cheer. They absolutely love it.”
“My father will sit next to me and say, ‘I still can’t get used to this,’” said Miller’s wife, Debbie. “I’m sitting next him yelling, ‘Go Bulls. Go Tony!”
Tony would be their son, 23, a member of the University at Buffalo men’s tennis team. The tennis center is the indoor home and practice facility for the UB men’s and women’s squads, as well as those from Daemen and D’Youville colleges. Daughter, Tina, 25, was a collegiate tennis player, too, before becoming one of 18 teaching pros at the center.
Todd Miller, 57, has headed the tennis program at the center since 1980. He and his wife, 55, both Sweet Home High School graduates, met on the Western New York junior circuit. Debbie joined the center staff in 1986, the year before they married, and the couple bought the place a decade ago, changing the name from Amherst Hills to Miller Tennis.
The center, at 5959 Sheridan Drive, features eight air-conditioned indoor Plexipave hard-surface courts, 10 outdoor clay-style courts and a heated swimming pool. Tennis offerings include a youth program open to those ages 4 to 10; high school-age programs, camps and an academy for those of varying abilities; and adult programs, lessons and leagues.
Pickleball is also part of the fun. The center will host a clinic and play evening from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. next Saturday and the fourth annual New York State Pickleball Tournament July 14-16. For more on all offerings, visit millertenniscenter.com.
Q. You have a new director of tennis, Marcus Fugate is the director. Tell us about him.
He’s from Rochester. Formerly, as a junior, he was ranked number one in the world. He played on the tour and some of his notable wins were over former U.S. Open champion Juan Del Potro, and Milas Raonic. He’s had a great track record in developing kids that play for top colleges and also went on to play pro tennis. We have roughly 18 pros on staff, some of which have played on the pro tour. There’s also a mix of college coaches, former college coaches and former elite college players.
Q. When it comes to adults, what age groups are coming in to learn tennis for the first time?
Todd: Eighteen to 85. We’re doing a promo in June called Try Tennis Free for beginners who’ve never participated here before. It’s small group lessons, one day a week for three weeks, with the hope that they become hooked and want to move on to either our Quick Start program or 2.5 drill program, and eventually become regular players here.
Q. How does membership work?
Todd: We’re a year round club and have different membership categories. You can pay your membership monthly and it’s relatively inexpensive compared to other markets. A junior membership ranges from $26 a month; an individual membership is $36; a couple is $56 and a family is $66…. We will give a no-charge evaluation to anyone who comes in here and we usually have them try a program.
Q. How are some of those who grew up playing at the center doing at the high school and college levels?
Todd: It’s great to see the kids who’ve had great college careers. Some have even played pro tennis. But a lot of them have gone on to become head professional and college coaches, doctors, lawyers and successful business people, which is really the most rewarding.
Debbie: Look at Michelle Mitchell.
Todd: This little girl I used to coach was once 1 in the country. She started taking lessons when she was 5 and she played at the University at Pennsylvania. She lost to Maria Sharapova. She went to law school at Cornell and last year she tried a case with Alan Dershowitz.
Another was Jay Udwadia, who started here when he was young. He played a little professional tennis but he’s been one of the top college coaches in the country. He’s at Oklahoma State. One of our pros was the former director of Ivan Lendl’s academy. Another former one was at Indian Wells. We’ve had a bunch that have had directorships at John McEnroe’s Academy.
The top players don’t play high school tournaments. Most are involved in USTA tournaments and getting into the sectional and national rankings. Just about every ranked kid in the region trains here. It’s because of the staff and what we’re doing.
Q. You have an under 10-year-old play day scheduled during school break on Wednesday and an under 10 program. What’s the program like?
Debbie: We use small courts, small racquets, different balls that fit their skill level. I can fit six courts on one regulation-sized court. It’s a mini-version of tennis. They come in and the lobby is packed with parents and their cameras. It’s non-stop action and fun. They all come off the courts with rosy cheeks because they’re moving the whole time.
Todd: We had one kid who started with that and won the International “Little Mo” 8-and-under tournament in California. He’s 9 years old and he’s well on his way to becoming a pro.
Q. What are some top tips that can help any tennis enthusiast to improve their game?
Todd: Have fun with it. Learning is easy when you’re relaxed and enjoying a sport. It’s important that whoever is teaching follows that same mantra, that they want you to have fun and make sure that students are having success every step of the way, not over-reaching but moving in a progressive fashion to achieve their goals. It’s important to practice between lessons with other students, family members or by renting the ball machine.
Debbie: It’s really important to learn the basics. Learning proper technique is important … so you can play a long time. Especially for adults, it can be hurtful if you don’t understand the right techniques.
Todd: You should do your homework before taking lessons from a pro. Find out about their success rate, their past performance, their certifications. Talk to people who have taken lessons from them. I’m partial to the Professional Tennis Registry, a worldwide organization with 16,000 teaching professionals in 126 countries. They provide education and certifications from under 10 through senior development, including high performance. There’s also the USPTA, which has been around for a long time and is very good. It’s also good to take lessons from a teaching professional on the cutting edge because the game has evolved so much. Every six months, there’s changes. You don’t want to take a 1970s lesson with 2017 equipment.
Q. What should those enthusiasts be doing in the coming weeks – when it comes to training and practicing – as they prepare for outdoor season?
Todd: You have the elements to contend with and it’s hard to simulate that indoors. Elite players don’t play to get fit; they’re fit to play. For novice players, tennis will provide fitness. It’s one of the best fitness activities you can do because it’s fun compared to being on a Stairmaster or whatever else seems like a chore. The benefits are enormous. We have guys here that have played into their 90s.
Q. You have a couple of big pickleball events coming up in the next few months? Why did you expand your offerings this way and how will you do it at the club?
Todd: We recognize that it’s a fast-growing sport and many people across the country are enjoying it. We want to be a part of it. We see it as a special event tableau. We won’t do it daily or weekly, maybe monthly or twice a month.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon