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Courting success

Sun., June 22, 2014, midnight

Mike Shanks, in his 15th season as men’s tennis coach at Whitworth University, also gives private lessons. (Dan Pelle)
Mike Shanks, in his 15th season as men’s tennis coach at Whitworth University, also gives private lessons. (Dan Pelle)

Tennis coach Mike Shanks teaches with a positive spin

The world’s oldest tennis tournament begins tomorrow.

This time last year, coaching was among the bigger stories at the Wimbledon Championships.

Seven-time Wimbledon loser Andy Murray had recruited Ivan Lendl to polish his game and his confidence. The fortnight ended with Lendl looking on stoically as Murray prevailed over Novak Djokovic, becoming the first Brit in 77 years to win the men’s title.

This year, another top-player-turned-coach has been thrust into the spotlight: Amélie Mauresmo, whom Murray hired after splitting with Lendl.

Mike Shanks never played Wimbledon.

But a quarter-century ago, he was the Northwest’s best 35-year-old doubles player and ranked in singles.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t take up the sport until his mid-20s.

These days, Shanks coaches the Whitworth University men’s team and offers private lessons.

During a recent interview, he discussed his career, his favorite players, and the advice he dispenses most often.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Shanks: I was born in Spokane but went to about 10 different schools in Washington and California by the time I graduated from high school. My stepfather was a civilian electrician for the Air Force.

S-R: What were you interested in as a kid?

Shanks: Staying in one place.

S-R: Any favorite classes or extracurricular activities?

Shanks: I was on the debate team and excelled at pool. I didn’t do much athletic stuff until I got involved in WSU’s intramural program.

S-R: What was your first career?

Shanks: I paid my way through college selling books door to door. Then I hooked up with a high school fundraising company out of Oakland, California, and eventually became their sales manager for the Northeast.

S-R: When did you take up tennis seriously?

Shanks: Not until I was 25. I’d just finished playing three-on-three basketball when a friend asked if I wanted to play some tennis. He beat me, and I didn’t like that. So I started practicing and fell in love with the sport. By then I had my own fundraising business that allowed me to live in the Southwest and play tennis year round. I played more in two years than most people play in 10.

S-R: How did you get into teaching tennis?

Shanks: I was 27 and vacationing in Hawaii when I ran into Craig Richter, who gave me my first tennis lessons in Spokane. He’d been made head pro at the Coco Palms hotel on Kauai, and asked if I’d like to be his assistant.

S-R: Two years after you took up tennis, you were an assistant pro in Hawaii?

Shanks: Pretty much. One time I even gave a lesson to Ricardo Montalban, who was at the hotel filming “Fantasy Island.” But I wasn’t getting to teach as much as I’d like because I also cut the grass, washed courts, pulled weeds and worked in the pro shop. So when I was offered the assistant pro job at Central Park Racquet Club in Spokane two years later, I moved back here. Six months after that, I inherited the head pro job.

S-R: Then what?

Shanks: After another two years, I got a call from Craig Richter. He was going to Hong Kong to oversee racquet sports at a big new development, and invited me to join him, which I did. Six months later, that project stalled and I returned to Spokane. I’ve coached the Whitworth men’s team for the past 15 years.

S-R: How many people in Spokane make a living teaching tennis?

Shanks: Probably four or five, plus some assistant pros who don’t earn as much.

S-R: What’s the difference between a good tennis player and a good instructor?

Shanks: Most really good tennis players have trouble relating to beginners. Teaching requires knowledge of the game, but it also demands patience.

S-R: What level of players do you coach?

Shanks: All levels. About six years ago, one of my players’ grandfather donated money for Whitworth’s tennis bubble (an inflated tennis arena). Since then, we’ve developed community programs, including ladies’ leagues in the morning and junior programs at night, with clinics and private lessons in between.

S-R: What do you charge for private, one-on-one lessons?

Shanks: Forty dollars an hour.

S-R: How has your instruction style evolved?

Shanks: Early on I tended to spew out everything I knew, which muddled the process. Gradually I learned that if there are three or four things wrong with someone’s stroke, usually concentrating on one element fixes the other problems.

S-R: What typical mistakes do beginners make?

Shanks: The most common mistake I see is not tracking the tennis ball all the way to the strings. Bill Tilden, who dominated world tennis in the early ’20s, wrote a book called “How to Play Better Tennis,” and his theory was that 70 percent of the mistakes in tennis are caused simply by not watching the ball well enough, long enough. I couldn’t agree more.

S-R: Does Spokane have a strong tennis culture?

Shanks: It’s pretty good, but not like Seattle or Portland. Affluence has a certain amount to do with that. Parents over there have more money, so the clubs are bigger.

S-R: Did the recession impact your volume of tennis students?

Shanks: It didn’t seem to. I’ve stayed as busy as I can be.

S-R: How has technology – lighter racquets, more string choices – affected the game?

Shanks: Technology has had an astounding impact. If you watch Wimbledon, you’ll see incredible shots that weren’t possible with earlier-generation racquets. In the old days, you could feather those tough angle shots, but you couldn’t rip the cover off the ball.

S-R: What’s your busiest season?

Shanks: Wintertime, because our (college conference) season goes from the middle of January through the end of April. And January-February is right before the high school season, so those players fill us up until 9 o’clock at night.

S-R: What’s your work schedule then?

Shanks: I work six days a week. Some days I get here around 8 a.m. and leave after 9 p.m. My wife is very patient.

S-R: How do you relax?

Shanks: It takes me an hour to drive here and an hour to drive home, so that’s when I organize and review my day.

S-R: Do you have any tennis heroes?

Shanks: I’ve always admired Roger Federer because he could do it all and was a class act. But I also liked McEnroe. He could be a pain in the neck, but he had absolutely amazing hands and could be very entertaining. You never knew what was going to happen.

S-R: And your favorite tournament?

Shanks: Now that racquets are so powerful, it’s a tie between Wimbledon and the French Open.

S-R: What do you like most about teaching tennis?

Shanks: Seeing people’s confidence grow.

S-R: What do you like least?

Shanks: Picking up balls.

S-R: Can anyone learn to play tennis well?

Shanks: “Well” is kind of a tricky word. My toughest students are ladies who never played sports as youngsters; never learned hand-eye-foot coordination.

S-R: Do you have a favorite coaching moment?

Shanks: About three years ago, we struck up a relationship with Arc of Spokane, which serves the intellectually and developmentally disabled. They bring a busload of folks here, and our student-athletes work with them. Early on we had one gal named Loren who would turn her wrist sideways every time she swung at the ball and consequently, never make contact. I worked with her for three weeks, and still she couldn’t hit the ball. The fourth week, their chaperon came up to me and said, “Mike, you might be disappointed in how little progress Loren has made, but every week when the bus pulls up to bring us here, she’s the first one on.”

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at


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