Tennis Jensen-Style

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The dynamic 1993 French Open doubles champions Luke and Murphy Jensen bring their special brand of high-energy enthusiasm to the tennis courts.

By Roger Cox
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The two-hour morning tennis clinic at Sea Island has just come to an end, and Murphy Jensen decides to cap off the session by giving everyone a chance to return his serve. Nervous laughter ripples through the 16 or so members and guests about to be on the receiving end of whatever this 6-foot-4-inch, completely bald former French Open doubles champion can throw at them. He cuts through the tension, offering to let each person choose which of the many serves in his arsenal they want to face.

“Which one do you want?” he asks, smiling. “Mama’s Meatloaf? The Mercy? The Monster? The Salmon Killer?” He also threw in, without warning or request, the underhand serve he calls “The Michael Chang.”

Murphy Jensen signed on as Sea Island’s tennis director in the spring of 2012, joined by his brother and French Open doubles partner Luke, who became the touring pro. Both brought an impressive array of credentials to their respective positions: that Grand Slam championship, which they won as an unseeded team, and four additional doubles titles, reaching a career-high Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Doubles ranking of No. 5 in the world. Both had coaching experience: Murphy with the Washington Kastles of World TeamTennis (a team that includes Venus and Serena Williams), Luke with the women’s tennis team at Syracuse University. Murphy, moreover, has his own TV show on the Tennis Channel and has acted in a couple of movies (“Wimbledon,” “Tennis Anyone…?”), and together they have remained well-connected to the world of professional tennis and its current competitors. But what they also brought to their positions was an unabashed enthusiasm for the game of tennis and a commitment to passing that along.

During the heyday of their career, the Jensen brothers were notorious for their antics and outsized personalities. Their matches often turned into what even Luke calls “a circus act” as they engaged in fist bumps, high fives, conversations with fans, ball boys, even opponents, and the occasional arrival on court by motorcycle—all to make the game as fun and their battles as entertaining as possible. Those shenanigans may have cost them titles, but won them whole stadiums of devoted fans.

Friday Night Lights

So it was very much in the Jensen character to introduce, during their first summer at Sea Island, a tennis festival dubbed Friday Night Lights. Often keyed to a special event, like Wimbledon or the Olympics, these galas feature what the Jensens like to call “rock ’n’ roll tennis.” With music blaring, they take the stadium court with two other pros—men or women—for a doubles exhibition that encourages trick shots, good-natured trash talk and lots of interaction with the crowd. They raffle off prizes, run free clinics and generally try to expose as many people as possible to their passion and enthusiasm for the game.

But they didn’t sign on with Sea Island just to be cheerleaders for tennis. They looked at its two eight-court, Har-Tru clay lighted facilities, and amenities surrounding them and saw a chance to create one of the great tennis destinations in the world. That, however, wouldn’t happen overnight.

“I’m looking at this as a marathon and not a sprint,” Murphy says. “I’m looking at the quality and not the quantity of what we try to produce here.” At the same time, he was not interested in being a mere figurehead. “I didn’t want to be a touring pro that has his picture on the wall,” he adds. “I wanted to be someone who could actually make a difference.”

Murphy is at Sea Island full time, and Luke expects to spend 120 days a year or more at the resort, including the summer season when it  is awash with families, and busy periods like spring break, Easter and Christmas. They’ve easily divided the roles.

“Murphy’s really the face of tennis at Sea Island,” Luke says. “He’s the guy who is going from court to court, from hour to hour, making sure every guest is taken care of. That’s been the neatest thing, seeing Murphy kind of do his magic, with his big smile and personality. He’ll even grab a racquet and play in at any time if someone needs a fourth. Just imagine that opportunity for some person at Sea Island on vacation and a Grand Slam champion says, ‘Hey, can I jump in on the court with you?’ ”

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Dual Hand Luke

“Murphy calls me his Ferrari,” says Luke, who was famously dubbed “Dual Hand Luke” for his ability to play and serve (at 130 mph) with either hand. “He wants the red Ferrari out there in front—I’m usually on [the] stadium court. My focus is mainly on technique, the tactics, a lot of the tennis parts of it.”

Their vision for Sea Island is taking shape. The daily calendar includes a clinic on doubles tactics and positioning complemented by a drill session for a solid workout. A tennis concierge works to match players needing games if they haven’t found their own in the clinics or once-a-week social round-robin. As the first summer ended, Murphy launched Sea Island’s Murphy Jensen Tennis Academy and quickly expanded from a few kids to more than 50.

“The philosophy of the academy is simple,” Murphy says. “I like to use the game to enrich the lives of people, like the game of tennis has enriched mine. The goal is not necessarily to become a Wimbledon champion, a French Open champion, a college player; it’s to see how good we can get.” He focuses not on results but attitude. “The wins and losses, the scoreboard really isn’t important to me,” he continues. “What’s important to me is if you put forth your best effort. Did you give it everything you had? Did you prepare for the match properly? Because then although the scoreboard might not be in our favor, it’s a success.”

Their adult academy also takes a different approach from the typical tennis camp in its intense focus on doubles. Beyond that, however, it is really a means of playing to the brothers’ own strengths.

A Different Angle

“Folks come up to me and say, ‘I want to hit a forehand like [Rafael] Nadal,’ ” Murphy says. “I tell them, ‘I do too, and if I did, I probably wouldn’t be here.’ ” Though Luke and Murphy both played singles on the tour, they rose to international stardom as doubles aficionados. “I’m not going to teach you how to play like ‘Rafa’ Nadal or Roger Federer,” Murphy says of his approach, “but I can teach you how to play doubles like the greatest doubles players in the game. Luke and I just come at it from a different angle. In our academy, we teach the tools and the tricks of the great doubles players like Leander Paes, John McEnroe, Rick Leach, Peter Fleming, coupled with our own experience as Grand Slam champions. You can’t get that anywhere else.”

Additionally, the brothers are looking at other ways  to generate excitement. Several times a year they stage special Jensen brothers weekends that combine instruction, competition and an exhibition with off-court parties and dinners, and the chance to get to know them personally. They’ve issued invitations to Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the ATP World Tour pros to practice and train at Sea Island, and they have the contacts on the pro tour to bring in high-profile players for conference groups. Murphy’s looking into a 3-D measurement system to analyze strokes and help players develop an ideal swing, which, along with the 65,000-square-foot spa and state-of-the-art fitness center adjacent to the courts could provide an additional incentive for pros and their coaches to use Sea Island as a base.

However the tennis program evolves under the Jensens, Murphy’s hands-on approach has already engendered new and renewed interest in the sport at Sea Island. The brothers have spent their lives getting people excited about the sport, and now hope to carry on that legacy at the resort.

“I grew up on a Christmas tree farm in northern Michigan,” Murphy explains. “You just don’t end up on center court with that upbringing, but the game of tennis took my brother and [me] there often. If you fall in love with this game, it will be with you forever and it can take you places beyond your wildest dreams. 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.”

 

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