By Vishal Saha
After former Head of Tennis – Mr Phillips – departed Hampton to move across the Atlantic to the USA, Mr Baker has taken on added responsibility in the sport. He sat down with HSC.
As well as being popular among the English department and a keen hockey player, Mr Baker has always had a passion for tennis. “What I really like about the game is that it’s an escape from just being part of a team. There’s more emphasis on yourself out there on the court – no excuses and no teammates to blame when things go wrong.”
When Mr Baker first joined the school he became part of Mr Phillips’ team of teachers who looked after tennis. Before becoming Head of Tennis, he supported various teams throughout the tennis seasons and frequently took boys to their tournaments and matches. Mr Baker had a positive first impression of Hampton tennis: “I was hugely impressed by how good Hampton’s tennis was, given the fact there is no specialised tennis programme here.” It is evident that the boys at Hampton thoroughly enjoy their tennis. At the games sessions in the Summer, it seems that boys enjoy playing against each other, whether they’re in the team or not – something Mr Baker thinks is very good, in terms of getting more people to enjoy and play the game.
As we continue our conversation, I can tell that stepping into Mr Phillips’s shoes as a senior tennis coach will be a big challenge for Mr Baker. He reflects for a while, thinking about the question. “Well the key thing, really, is that Mr Phillips is irreplaceable, quite genuinely.
“He’s irreplaceable not only in terms of his effort and enthusiasm and passion for the game, but also in his playing ability and experience. He had a scholarship to an American university and went through some of the most incredible training and coaching systems. So a big challenge for me is that, although I do love the game and have had experience of teaching other sports like hockey at a high level, I can’t show people exactly what I want them to do – I can only talk through the theory.” I get the idea that this could be a tricky obstacle for Mr Baker.
Hampton is renowned for its high level and success at sport, whether that’s winning a football cup or dominating at rowing against other schools. Mr Baker has a clear sense of where he sees tennis in the Hampton sporting landscape. When I ask him whether he has any aims for the future of tennis, his confident tone re-assures me with some positive messages about the sport. “Yes, I definitely do. On the other hand, I think the thing to say is that we have to be realistic. In a way, we don’t want to become exactly like Reed’s or St George’s or the other tennis powerhouses – it’s extremely difficult to beat top schools like that. But that’s because tennis at Hampton is not about that – tennis is here to complement what you do in a day-to-day school context, to complement the academics and to provide an escape and something enjoyable. So, what I would really like to happen in the next couple of years would be to have at least one dedicated coach who comes in for Summer sessions for each of the year groups. As with the football and rugby teams, where there are external coaches out there on the 3G and the fields, it would be great to have a tennis coach at every single games session.” I can definitely tell Mr Baker wants the best for the boys here playing tennis.
Every year, the Hampton Mallorca Tennis Tour takes place where boys from all years go on a trip to play tennis in the sunny weather of Spain. I ask Mr Baker what he thinks of the trip.
“I think the tennis tour to Mallorca is one of my favourite events of the year. It’s a great opportunity to play on clay.” A lot of the boys that go on the trip don’t get the opportunity to play on clay at the clubs or have simply never done so before. Whilst boys might think they understand the game, getting to grips with the clay is quite a challenge for some. However, some of the boys find that it suits their style of play better and suddenly opens up an interesting competitive edge between all of the boys that go. “I think a big positive of the tour is that it is one of the few opportunities that a significant number of the boys across the whole age range in the school get to travel together as a group and bond essentially as ‘the boys who play tennis at Hampton.’ The last thing to add is that getting to be on court with professional coaches who have a different expectation in terms of the level of focus and concentration and give a much more interesting edge to the training sessions.”
Mr Baker obviously is fond of the trip since its new experiences for boys will be unforgettable.
I move on to a more straightforward question – ‘Who is your favourite tennis player?’ Mr Baker smiles with a small laugh. ‘Well I guess I’m showing off my age in the sense that I was like most Brits – I loved Tim Henman, especially when it came to Wimbledon. I’m still upset that the more old-fashioned style of ‘serve and volley’ is not such a common thing anymore! Otherwise, I think my favourite would have to be Andy Murray.’
Tennis is a sport which requires lots of practice and dedication to really become good at. For many, it’s difficult and daunting to simply pick up a racquet and start playing. I ask Mr Baker if he has any tips for a beginner starting the game.
‘I think patience. Drawing on my other experience with sports, I’ve found that patience is hugely important because you simply can’t expect to master a game like tennis in the same way like football. Even though that’s not suggesting that football is easier in some way; but a certain level is possible in football without the technical element and without hitting the sheer amount of tennis balls you need to. There’s a fantastic book called ‘Bounce’, which talks about the long journey to becoming a champion or expert in any field.
The book discusses common myth we have of ‘innate talent’ and the key ingredients for success: thousands of hours of purposeful practise and the ability to embrace failure.
‘In the book, it mentions how Serena and Venus Williams must have had to hit nearly a million tennis balls before they were teenagers.’
As our conversation draws to its end, I am eager to hear Mr Baker’s personal view on the future of tennis at this School. He leans forward and speaks brightly, with an optimistic look on his face.
‘I’m hopeful for the future of Hampton tennis – it’s in the best position I think it has ever been in. In my opinion, that is entirely down to Mr Phillips’ legacy and I can only hope to do it justice for as long as I coach tennis. As well as this, much of it stems from the boys and their efforts and abilities; I think looking we have an increasingly stable coaching structure that hopefully offers the boys more opportunities to develop their own game and to be enthused by it in the long run.’
As our talk finally concludes, I am grateful that Mr Baker has shared a great deal of insightful and perceptive words to think about.
If anything is for sure, tennis seems to be in some safe hands.