Buoyed by Results, Ackley to Get Into Fighting Shape

In recent months, Frank Ackley and Mike Dickens have played in two national championships
Frank Ackley plans to play 5.0-level team tennis this winter in Melbourne, Fla. Jack Graves

Frank Ackley, the East’s top-ranked 65-year-old United States Tennis Association singles player in 2015, said during a recent conversation at his house in Springs that he hadn’t played singles at the national level in a while, “ever since I broke my leg in a freaky accident on the grass courts at The Bridge.”

“It happened so quick,” he said. “I was going for a volley and my partner [Mike Dickens, of Melbourne, Fla.] was too. We ran into each other and I went down and was pushing myself back up when he fell on me. That sidelined me for eight months. When it happened we were getting ready to play in the [2016] national grass courts in Monmouth, N.J.”

In recent months, Ackley and Dickens have played in two national championships and, though unseeded, have done well. Last month, at the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club, said to be the oldest tennis club in the United States, they reached the quarterfinal round of the national clay courts, losing to the eventual winners, Andrew Rae, the world’s number-one in both singles and doubles in that age group, of Australia, and Daniel Grossman, of Tiburon, Calif.

In the first round, Ackley and Dickens toppled the fifth-seeded team 6-2, 6-2 and emerged as victors 7-6, 2-6, 6-3 in the second round before losing 6-2, 6-1 to Rae and Grossman in the quarters. “They were so solid — they play together all the time. They did everything right and took care of us. They beat Tom Smith and Paul Wolf, the top team in the U.S., the team that won the grass courts in New Jersey, 6-1 in the third set of the final.” 

“I didn’t play in the singles because I’m not in really good shape, which you need to be to play singles in these national events,” Ackley continued. “There are some guys that’s all they do, they travel all over playing tournaments. . . . If you’re not in shape, you begin sucking air after the first couple of games and your game drops — you start going for winners, hitting riskier shots, and that’s not my style.”

Earlier in the fall, he and Dickens had won a first-round match at the national grass courts before losing to the second seeds 6-4, 6-4 — “a guy from Australia and a guy from New England. They lost in the finals to Smith and Wolf.”

He would try to get himself into “fighting shape” this winter, said Ackley, who spends the winter in Melbourne, where he and Judy Soman have a condo, playing tennis and golf.

Asked how he compared the two sports, the former University of Tennessee’s women’s tennis coach said, “They’re totally different. One is physically demanding, a fistfight; golf is precision and mechanics. It’s always the same. You improvise in tennis a lot on the run, the ball takes funny bounces and you have to adjust — you gotta do what you gotta do. . . . I love golf too. I used to play at the Sag Harbor Golf Club. They called the greens in those days ‘the browns.’ They oiled them so they wouldn’t fall apart.”

He had come to golf first, when he was a student at Mercy High School in Riverhead, whose home course was the Baiting Hollow Country Club. “One day on the golf course I wound up watching the tennis team hitting balls and running around. Larry Chizever, Mercy’s volunteer tennis coach, showed me the game, and the next year I was on both teams. They let you do that then. I was number-one on the tennis team and was two or three on the golf team.”

“Golf is all mechanics and mental, and you don’t lose any weight. . . . You have to be tough mentally in tennis too.”

“Yes, the courts at Baiting Hollow were hard courts,” he said in answer to a question. “The only high school in the country that I know of that has Har-Tru courts is Ross.”

“I’d like to get ready again,” he said, summoning up the U.S.T.A. website on his laptop computer and looking at the long age-group tournament list. “We’ll end up the calendar year with only two tournaments. . . . They take your four best tournaments when they’re figuring out your rankings. Some guys play in 20. Andrew Rae does. Oh my God can he play — effortless. When you play him you’re the one moving around. There are tournaments all over, in Baton Rouge, South Carolina, Jackson, Miss., Atlanta, Texas, Indiana. . . . There’s one this summer in New Haven. That’s closer to home. There’s one coming up in Longboat Key, on the other coast. But my brother’s duck shoot at Spring Farm is that day and I can’t miss that. The day after the duck shoot we’re driving down.”

To get ready for the national clay courts he had been helped greatly at the East Hampton Tennis Club, he said, in the days leading up to it “by the pro there, Gary Clermont, and by Phil Koufmann and Greg Connor. We did serve and volley drills every day in the afternoon. It was a crash course. They’d adjust to try to help me out — it wasn’t a practice match. We wouldn’t have beaten the fifth seeds otherwise. . . . I haven’t hit a ball since that tournament in New Orleans.”

“Frankly,” Ackley confided, with a smile, “I really like beating seeded guys.”