Published Feb. 4, 2016
Hinsdale Racquet Club serves up success
Step inside Hinsdale Racquet Club on a winter’s day and witness the cure for cabin fever.
An intergenerational clientele in tennis togs, predominantly female, buzzes about the lobby after completing their lessons. Through the glass windows beyond, instructors can be seen on court marshaling the next groups into their drills.
In the midst of it all is Tom Cahill, HRC’s director of tennis, who seems to personify a tennis ball in motion with his kinetic demeanor.
“We have fun. We have crazy fun and we get exercise,” Cahill said of HRC’s approach to adult instruction. “I jam music. I want to make it as inviting as possible.”
The enjoyment of the younger set is important, too, he asserted, but with a different emphasis.
“With the kids, I want them to understand discipline and love of the sport and respect for other people,” he explained. “These are the core values you need to learn to do other things in life, too. That’s really what sports is all about.”
Tucked away off South Grant Street, a full-court lob from Hinsdale Central High School, HRC is celebrating 45 years of helping both recreational and top-level players achieve and exceed their expectations.
For many across the state, Hinsdale is synonymous with tennis thanks to the unparalleled Hinsdale Central juggernaut that has amassed 40 state team titles between the boys and girls programs.
That legacy had already been established when HRC opened in 1971, but Cahill said the club’s close relationship with Central has helped both parties thrive.
Bringing on legendary coach Jack Sharpe several years ago “to work together to build a national caliber junior program that’s second to none” was a game changer, he stressed.
“We have the highest concentration of nationally ranked players, bar none, in the state of Illinois,” he stated.
And iron sharpens iron, as the proverb goes.
“You’re not going to get any better as a kid unless you’re not playing against other really good kids,” Cahill asserted. “All of our kids, they move up as a unit. They make each other better.”
Cahill was 10 in 1975 when his family moved to Hinsdale, and he and his siblings were steeped in tennis. He opted to pursue golf instead at the University of Illinois but helped coach his younger sister CeCe to back-to-back state singles titles for Central in the mid-1980s.
He stayed involved in developing junior players while working as a stock broker. In 2000 he was invited to be HRC’s junior director, becoming director in 2005.
Cahill worked to expand the junior program from about 50 kids to several hundred, leveraging his extensive village network and faith community at St. Isaac Jogues.
And he brought in Hinsdale native and 1963 Central graduate Jerry Snyder as office and facilities manager.
“I didn’t play tennis at Central. I played football,” said Snyder, a member of the state title team his senior year.
On the court, the University of Illinois at Chicago varsity tennis team, which rents courts for winter training, begins warming up. On an adjacent court 8-year-old prodigy Thea Latak, third place finisher in Florida’s prestigious “Little Mo” tournament in December, drills with her coach. And next to them, a group of five little girls work on basic strokes with 17-year HRC instructor Jim Lezatte.
While that kind of longevity is unusual elsewhere, Cahill said it’s pretty standard on his staff.
“Do you know how much attrition and turnover there is at most tennis clubs?” he posed. “It’s because people are happy here. We have an environment of teamwork.”
For Hinsdale’s Teri Brown and Peggy Callahan, that environment has made them loyal members.
Brown, a mother of two, said the club helped her acclimate to the town when her family moved here five years ago.
“Tom was great at getting me in a group that I could meet new people, I could have fun, it was exercise,” she said. “He keeps everybody moving and makes sure that there’s something for everybody.”
Callahan, an HRC student for 13 years, said enjoyment is emphasized as much as improvement.
“I don’t play tennis to win games all the time. I just come to do drills and get exercise and have fun,” she said. “They cover everything here.”
The fun is in full swing on two courts, when a women’s drill group practices doubles play. Suddenly, on instructor’s command, each pair of women sprint to opposite side of the court to reach the in-flight ball in time to resume playing. Smiles are abundant.
Both Callahan and Brown say their teenage daughters have recently started playing at HRC.
Cahill said tennis’ popularity is rising as people’s schedules are tightening.
“You can get a great workout in an hour and a half,” he said.
So while HRC products can be found playing for big-time college programs, Cahill also can rattle off former pupils who went on to excel in other sports, other pursuits.
“The whole concept is that tennis is a sport for life,” he said. “Tennis is not just about learning to play tennis. Any sport is about learning life skills.”