Mind of a Champion
by Peter Keiser
Gerri Viant’s love of adventure knows both external and internal landscapes. Whether backpacking around the world or exploring the vast interior of her feeling system and psyche, the joy of the journey permeates her. Viant, teaming with Sue Aery to win eight Womens Nationals and reach the finals of another two during a remarkable 13-year run from 1990-2002, knew travel was in her future.
As a child she remembers looking at maps and plotting itineraries. “I always knew I was going to travel,” she says. “My parents encouraged me. My mother would sit down with me and I would show her trips I was planning.”
It wasn’t just that Viant loved to travel. It was the way she did it that says so much about her. Growing up in Adelaide, Australia there was a kind of cultural bias within her social sphere toward the big tour – of doing Europe, first by flying West to London and then fanning out across the Continent to begin a long trek that would bring the wanderer home.
Viant chose another way. Instead of going West, she went East, making her first stop New Zealand and from there, California. “I was 21-ish when I left Australia. My parents saw me off from the airport. I went back packing around the world, but instead of going to England and Europe at the beginning, I went to the United States.”
Arriving in Los Angeles, it didn’t take Viant long to acquaint herself with what would become her adopted country. As she remembers it, she may have been on her way to purchase a Greyhound Bus pass that would enable her to travel extensively throughout the U.S. Stopping to ask directions, she met a woman who responded to Viant’s cheerful independence and curiosity. Not only did Viant wind up with her bus pass, she also discovered a friend who introduced her to family members, college roommates and friends that housed her as she traveled for six months across the USA.“I trusted my gut,” says Viant.
She continued on her path across the country and eventually reached the East coast where she stopped off to see her childhood tennis coach, Alan Lane. For Viant, when not occupied with maps and street plans, was also a gifted tennis player at an early age.
“My mother always saw me chasing a ball,” she says. “Playing tennis was very informal where I grew up. You would be riding your bike and then you would say ”Let’s go hit.’ Playing the Juniors was very social. You went with your mates and you had a good time.”
Viant did pay enough attention to her game, though, becoming a top ranked junior player in South Australia. And she never gave up the sport or lost the skills she had acquired so early.
Her reunion with Lane began what became a pivotal period in Viant’s life as well as her path to a Hall of Fame platform tennis career. “I had been home a month when Alan asked me to come back and go out to Rockland County.”
Eventually, Viant would land a job as Assistant Tennis pro at the Upper Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey. It was there that she was first introduced to paddle by Club pro Jay Fraser . “I liked the game. I immediately began volleying and I remember that I ran back and hit the ball off the screen when it passed me.”
She remained at Upper Ridgewood for two years and then in September of 1984, she interviewed for the job of Head Pro at the Nyack Field Club in Nyack, New York. “I knew the Club had paddle courts and I asked who taught paddle. I could feel there was an opportunity, so I offered to teach it – I mean I thought to myself ‘How hard could it be?’ It meant that I could stay there over the winter and get to know the membership and the people who would be playing tennis in the summer.”
“I had to do a few clubs to get enough people to make it all work out- Upper Ridgewood, Ridgewood Country Club, Nyack Field Club, Arcola, Nyack Field Club – but the Field Club hired me and it turned out to be a life changer. I am truly grateful to Paul Bernabo, the Board Chairman who hired me. It was a gutsy move because there were very few women being hired as Head Pros at the time. It changed my life.”
With the mandate to develop a paddle program, Viant went to work as both teaching and performing professional. It didn’t take her long to become accomplished at both. “Fran Sennas who played paddle at the Nyack Field Club was my first partner. She and I played President’s Cup for two seasons and that’s when I met Connie Jones.”
It was with Jones that Viant would reach her first Nationals finals (1987) and then win her first Nationals Championship (1988). It was also the only Nationals she won without Sue Aery whom she had known mostly as an opponent since 1981.
“Sue Aery grew up playing paddle at the Essex Fells (New Jersey) Country Club. She became the Head Pro at Essex Fells and was on the same path that I was, “ Viant says. “To be a good team, you have to be one unit. You have to work at it. I felt Sue and I had more in common; our styles really jelled. We won our first year together playing the Nationals out in Chicago.”
That championship morphed into many as from 1990 through 2002, Aery and Viant went on a thirteen – year tear that netted them eight Nationals Women’s crowns and two runner-ups. They were both inducted into the Platform Tennis Hall of Fame in 2006 as “the most successful team in the history of women’s platform tennis.”
There is every reason to believe that given the blend of talent, skill and psychological make- up, Viant and Aery could have extended their winning ways. However, Sue Aery made a decision that she wanted to go back to school in order to obtain a chiropractic degree. This arduous course of study coupled with a move to upstate New York meant she had to give up the kind of competitive paddle that would meet her standards.
At the 2002 Nationals on Long Island, both Aery and Viant knew it would be the last under the regimen they had followed for so many years. It also presented the opportunity for them to win their third Nationals title in a row, a feat they had yet to accomplish.
Says Viant about their last Nationals win: “I can remember the court, what I was wearing. Sue was going to announce her retirement after the match. Before we started we went out to the car to spend some quiet time the way we always did. While we sat in the car, we realized this would be our last time. It was very emotional. We were both crying, and it took awhile for us to collect ourselves. They had to come get us from the car. We were almost late for the match.”
They went three sets against Julie Dodd and Lauren Zink. “In the third set, Sue was serving at 6-5. The match was close. We went up 40-0 and suddenly, I think we were both having a hard time holding it together. Sue had a fault here and there and it got to 40-30. I took the ball back to Sue and said to her, ‘Big serve! Big serve.” Then Sue served a let cord and we won. Lauren Zink, the great sport she is, came over, shook Sue’s hand and said ‘Nice serve.’”
This match will always rank high, maybe the highest in Viant’s voluminous memory vault. But there was another match, one that she points to as critical to her development as a champion.
“I was lucky to have played with and against some very Nationally ranked players on a regular basis – Robin Fulton, Pat Butterfield, Diane Tucker. The weekend games were really at a high level,” she says. “I remember Pat Butterfield and Diane Tucker and how at the end of the day, those 4-all games, they would win. At the time, I was just happy to be on the same court with them.”
“Then one time, we were playing a match at Pound Ridge. It was against Butterfield and Tucker and the score was 4-4. I thought to myself, ‘I’m just as fast around the court as they are, my racquet skills are just as good, I’m in just as good a shape as they are.’ I realized then it was just a mind -set. I started to see that I was that close, that I was able to win those games too.”
“Paddle tennis is about establishing consistency; so much of it ‘s the mental part of the game. It’s a game of huge momentum swings and of two or three key moments in a match. It’s your awareness of those moments and how to contain your emotion in them, testing yourself in that environment, that makes the game so great.”
It took a year for the partnership to become “unretired” as Aery and Viant paid a visit to the Nationals in 2004. Even with the lay-off and without the kind of preparation each was used to, the pair still reached the finals.
“After Sue, I still wanted to play but to do the mental preparation and practice all over again with another partner just seemed too much. Teaching for competition is more intense than teaching for a living. I didn’t think I could go through it another time.”
Viant did play another high -level tournament. “I played the Chicago Charities in 2010 & 2011 and reached the finals both years.” she said. “It got me back playing with the big hitters. But fundamentally, the game had stayed the same. The court dimensions are still the same. Percentage shots and consistency are still a big part of the game.”
“What’s changed is the influx of former WTA pros, NCAA players, and full-time platform tennis teaching pro’s entering the womens tour. The sheer athleticism and racquet skills are changing the way the game is being played today.
Though her participation in highly competitive tournament play may have waned, there were other outlets for her copious energies. She continued to teach and run the tennis and paddle tennis programs at the Nyack Field Club. She also became fully engaged in the teaching and promotion of paddle at multiple levels through a traveling platform tennis camp.
“It was Sue Aery’s idea,” says Viant. Aery had started Gold Medal Paddle Camps with Mary Ginnard. A year or so later in 1999 she and Viant combined to form Performance Paddle Camps. The two of them did the camps the first year and then brought in Mike Gillespie, with whom Viant had won the Mixed Doubles Nationals in 1989.
“Mike came aboard in 1999-2000 as Performance Paddle Camps was taking off. Tennis club pros would invite us in to do a clinic during the fall. We would teach the pros how to teach the sport. We would provide lesson plans for a whole season. At that time, there was no certifying body for paddle tennis pros. The Performance Paddle Camp instructors became part of the founding Board of the PPTA- the Professional Paddle Tennis Association. “
“There were more people playing and we needed more pros who knew how to teach technique,” says Aery. “We got together with Mike, put together a format and Gerri put it together organizationally. We had a ball. We took beginners and up. We really got the pros interested.”
“Each camp builds a very small community. We would have our own community that would spread the word about how wonderful the game is anticipating ‘What fun things are we going to do now?’ The camaraderie was wonderful. That is what we enjoyed so much. Whether they were good or not at such a high level more players, more instruction, more certified pros meant even more people playing paddle.”
Performance Paddle Camps is still going strong and as such is a testament to Viant’s love of the game and the delight she takes in seeing it grow. The sincere, effective almost joyous kind of teamwork that helped create the camp off the court serves as a model for the skill, strategy, and tactics that are taught on it.
While she just this year retired from her position at the Nyack Field Club after 32 years of sterling service, Viant may find herself busier than ever even though her time now is supposed to be her own.
I have a “newly created role at Wilson”. I am one of only two Wilson Advisory Staff Captains in the country responsible for scouting and signing key players and coaches. Though she will not have an official position with Wilson, she will remain an active ally, a kind of ambassador of that company which she feels came to her aid when she began as a tennis teaching pro. It is that kind of loyalty that confirms Aery’s assessment of her as “true, consistent and steadfast.”
She will also do instructional videos and comment on major tournaments via live stream. The role of commentator suits her well. “You want to comment as if you were playing the match. I want people to really see what I see.” Her continuing success as a platform tennis teacher, especially when it comes to the mental aspects of the game helps her immeasurably. Her commentary on the South Shore finals was fresh, thoughtful, enlightening and dynamic – never inserting herself, never giving the feeling that she wanted to. She is completely, happily immersed in the sport that she loves.
The fact that so many of the game’s top players seek her advice and coaching appears almost humbling to her. “To have nationally ranked players both men and women seeking my advice about the mental side of the game is a real compliment and makes me feel right in the middle of what is going on with the game now.”
“I feel the game has given me so much. It’s such a unique sport. I’ll talk to anybody. I’m willing to give help, to give back. If we do that, we all benefit.”
The talk will often be about Gerri Viant and her methodical, relentless preparation; about how she and Sue Aery would study tapes of their opposition, work out in the gym, drill and practice, eat the right foods. But what she also brings to the table is an understanding of people, particularly those who don’t, haven’t, or can’t do it her way. And she makes those people feel good because she knows many if not most can love the game as much as anybody else. Because she is profoundly a people person, Gerri Viant works with what people can do, not what they can’t. In doing so, she advances the good of the game, which is what she is all about in the first place.