WESTMORELAND — For 29-year-old Jacob Miller, life has been about keeping his eye on the ball.
A tennis ball, specifically.
Many people in the region who play the game know his name — they may take lessons from him, he may string or restring their rackets, or he sells them equipment. He’s been teaching tennis for a decade, and by his estimate, he has about 1,200 clients in the Brattleboro and Keene areas, ranging in age from 4 to 83.
“I’m self-motivated and an entrepreneur,” the Westmoreland resident says, “and I stay pretty busy.”
Raised in West Chesterfield, Miller says even as a child, he was attracted to sports. “I was always drawn to a ball,” he says.
Besides tennis, he’s also an avid hockey player and golfer, swinging at the links five days a week in the early morning hours during the summer before his daily tennis duties begin. He also plays on a local men’s hockey club team sponsored by Clark-Mortenson Insurance.
His parents, Lew and Debbie Miller of West Chesterfield, were supportive of his interest in athletics. “They knew I had a bent toward it; they agreed to help me in any way they could,” he says, while noting that they weren’t the kind of parents who overdid it by zealously pushing him to excel at all costs.
“I came to tennis late in my youth,” he says.
Sue Doyle, a tennis pro at The Keene Racquet Club and a longtime local private tennis instructor who has often co-taught with Miller, recalls meeting him when, as a 7th-grader, he showed up to play in the annual Keene Tennis Tournament.
“He didn’t win, of course, but I was so impressed with his sportsmanship and desire to play,” she says.
“He’s a very good tennis teacher and a great guy,” Doyle notes. “The kids love him; everybody loves him. He’s very knowledgeable and very good at interpreting what is appropriate training for each individual.”
This month, Miller added one more job to his portfolio, being named tennis director at the Keene club, an indoor, three-court facility on Martell Court. His part-time position there is designed to, in the words of a club notice, “engage new members, network with the area community and bring some enhanced tennis opportunities to club members.”
Miller is already a club pro at the Brattleboro Tennis Club and director of tennis at the Brattleboro Outing Club, which features outdoor clay courts during the warmer months. He also hosts eight consecutive one-week tennis camps for youths during the summer, also in Brattleboro.
All those jobs combined can keep him on the court for up to 50 hours a week, he estimates.
One of his tasks at all the clubs, he says, is to generate more local interest in tennis, and to advocate among schools to place more emphasis on it. As a sport, tennis exploded in popularity during the 1970s and ’80s, but waned after that. It now appears to be on the upswing again. According to the website Statista, there were more than 18 million people playing tennis in the United States in 2017, the highest figure since 2010. About 345,000 students played tennis in high school that year.
“What I bring to the club in Keene is my combination of a business background and my love for tennis,” he says.
The leadership of The Keene Racquet Club felt it was time to have someone on staff who can see to the task of marketing the club, which has experienced a long-term drought in members, according to Kevin Starkey, a club member and tennis instructor who has known Miller since he was a teenage player.
“He’s the perfect man in the perfect place at the perfect time,” Starkey says.
Over the years, Miller has discovered a love for getting to know his clients and running his own business.
“The more I know about a person, the more I can teach them tennis. I’m even more excited about being my own boss. I’m the face of my business; I like having the sweat equity.”
The major challenge in teaching experienced tennis players, he says, is ridding them of bad habits. “They’ve acquired all this extra stuff over the years, and what you have to do is break them of these things and start over again.”
The other strategic element in teaching the sport is to learn what the player wants to get out of the game. “Some want to become championship players, some just want to get better, and some just want to have fun. You have to know what they’re there for.”
Miller attended Keene High School for two years and then spent his junior year at a tennis academy in Palm Coast Florida. He returned to Keene High to complete his senior year as a home-schooled student and captained both the school’s hockey and tennis teams.
He studied at Keene State College for a year, then accepted a tennis scholarship at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He excelled at tennis there, competing in NCAA Division I, and graduated with a degree in sport management. After that, he played two months as a professional tennis player in Brazil, then returned home and began giving tennis lessons.
Miller considers Bob Whitehouse, the former boys tennis coach at Keene High School, one of his mentors. Another is Jim Biggs, the assistant tennis coach at Sacred Heart.
“Bob, he’s a mentor because we share the same faith, Christianity, and he exemplified professionalism; he’s a gentleman, a true competitor and sportsman. Jim saw something in me and encouraged me to reach a higher level as a player and as a person.”
He keeps in frequent contact with both.
Parenthetically, both Whitehouse and Doyle played competitively as doubles partners for more than 40 years, consistently ranked number one in various age brackets. In 2013, they were awarded gold medallions at center court during the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport, R.I., in recognition of their achievements. Whitehouse is now retired and lives in Florida.
Miller explains that his enthusiasm for his work, and in life, stems from his strong Christian beliefs.
“My faith is the most important thing to me, the underlying driver in my life. God is in control, and my job is to trust that and pursue what I find I’m led to pursue. I’m a Bible-believing Christian. I believe in being more like Christ.”
He attends Grace Community Evangelical Free Church in Spofford, which his father founded in 1978 and where he still serves as senior pastor. It was there that he married his girlfriend, Emma, last year. She works at Village Bloom Florist in Walpole, which is where they met. “I knew she worked there, and I went in to buy flowers for Mother’s Day,” he says.
It’s apparent that Miller has found his niche, and he says he envisions developing this career in tennis for years. His determination is perhaps somewhat reflected in the professional tennis player he most admires — Lleyton Hewitt, an Australian who retired a few years ago, and in 2001, at 20, became the youngest male ever to be ranked number one in the world of singles.
“He was a fighter. He was smaller and didn’t hit the ball hard, but he knew how to win. Winning is an art,” Miller says, explaining that the ability to win is a subtle combination of having confidence and being willing and able to adjust your playing style to fit that of your opponent.
After Miller has spent more than an hour and a half speaking about tennis and his life, he’s much too polite to end the session. But knowing his crowded schedule, it’s time to wrap it up. He’s got a court appointment.