New tennis director looks to boost sport in Ashland

Those who run into Kelly Baker at the grocery store or coffee shop aren't likely to leave empty-handed.

Sure, he may want to know how your day has gone. And yes, he's as interested in the weather as the next guy. But when it's time to go the energetic Columbia, S.C., import will do his best to send you off with a business card and a free lesson because he knows from experience that in order to get results — and he has a history of doing just that — one must always be on task. And for Baker, the task at hand is selling and teaching the game of tennis to the city of Ashland.

Baker, 48, was hired in December as the new tennis director at the Ashland Tennis & Fitness Club, and less than two months into his new gig — he didn't start until early January — he's busy instituting many of the same programs that he previously orchestrated at Duke University as the director of tennis at the Duke Faculty Club.

At Duke, Baker says the challenge was merely to bring tennis back from the dead, which he accomplished one hard sell at a time. Initially, he practically begged people — cornering them in the parking lot, no less — to take lessons. By the time he left six years later the club had done a complete 180 and was staffed with four full-time pros.

"This is a walk in the park compared to that," he said. "This place is a rock. It just needs a little bit of infrastructure. We're just trying to lead it into the new generation of how fitness clubs are being run nowadays.

"We've got a staff in place that can really do some dynamic things so it's up to me to get everybody working in the same direction."

That direction, says Baker, will include setting his sights on those who have never played tennis competitively — or haven't for a very long time — but are willing to give it a shot via the TNT (Tennis in No Time) program. The club has also revamped its entire youth tennis program, from the little aces (kindergarten through first grade) to advanced high school.

Kelly also provides a free 30-to-45-minute evaluation with each new member then groups them with club players who have similar skills to ensure competitive matches. And in March, the club will begin hosting tennis socials, complete with wine and cheese after lessons and Margarita Fridays. The youngsters will get pizza and ice cream.

The goal, says Baker, is to get bodies on the courts.

"A lot of our demographics are aging up and aging out," he said, "so we're trying to change our demographics to what is out there in the fitness industry. We want to bring new life into the (sport) in some ways and they feel like I'm the guy that can do that."

So far, Baker has lived up to his reputation.

In a month and a half, ATFC's junior program has seen a noticeable spike from 30 kids to 65, according to the club's general manager, John Souza — impressive, considering that junior tennis participation is backsliding nationally.

How? All those free lessons are probably paying dividends, sure. But another factor is Baker's teaching philosophy.

"Kelly has this soft demeanor," said Souza, who helped select Baker from a pool of 80 candidates nationwide. "And, he's very program-minded. He played Division I tennis and has been a little bit of a club rehabilitator, so he has a lot of experience developing new programs. And he had his wife (Roan) are tennis nuts. They are on the court all the time."

Baker jumped at the opportunity to join forces with ATFC when he first saw the ad. Ashland seemed to be tailor-made for he and his wife, an artist.

"It was great for outdoor sports and hiking, whatever I wanted to do outside," Baker said. "And it's a safe place to live. Plus, it has a progressive mind set and a community mind set that I wanted to be a part of."

After being picked as a finalist for the job, Baker flew in to Ashland and immediately felt at home.

"They made me feel like I was part of the family," he said.

A family that he hopes will continue to grow.

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