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If a 6-year-old boy had picked up a bat, instead of a racquet, The Park might not have the vibrant tennis program it enjoys today. Lauren Gillian, who didn’t share his dad’s enthusiasm for baseball, has been teaching tennis for the past seven years. He and his co-instructors currently have 75 students learning the sport.

Growing up in Chicago, Lauren progressed from smacking balls off his garage to earning a tennis scholarship to Dome University in Nebraska. He was their top singles player for four years, while earning a degree in communications and marketing. After college, he became a USTA hitting pro, volleying with legends like John McEnroe.

Lauren was coaching the Dominican University team, when he discovered Forest Park’s courts. Searching for a practice site, he called Larry Piekarcz at The Park. Larry was welcoming and Lauren wanted a way to pay him back. When The Park was looking for a tennis instructor, Lauren stepped up. He’s been the head tennis pro for the past seven years.

Lauren’s first priority is that the student has fun. Instruction follows, with no critiquing or badgering to ruin the enjoyment. He’s totally fine with “drop-ins” and arranges classes according to skill level. The program attracts everyone from novices seeking cardio exercise, to high school players looking to hone their game. The most common question Lauren gets is, “When’s the next lesson?”

Lauren’s approach to teaching can be reduced to three letters, POP, Placement over Power. He explains that tennis calls for flexibility in the shoulder and wrist, as opposed to arm strength. Unlike some other sports, it also requires lateral movement, which provides plenty of low-impact exercise. He tells his students they can get further tips on how to play the game by watching women pros. Their rallies last longer than the men’s.

Lauren’s day job is marketing manager for Connor Sports Flooring, a company that provides the surfaces for the U.S. Open, NBA and March Madness. With this expertise in mind, he requested that the park district rebuild its cracked courts. The Park responded in stunning style, completing the job for $240,000 and giving the new surface the bright colors of the Australian Open.

When it comes to instructing players, Lauren has found that teaching the serve is the most difficult task. Seeing how serving is the weak point of my game, I submitted to a lesson. In less than five minutes, I was hitting serves with pace. Some even cleared the net.

Teaching tennis at The Park from 6 to 9 p.m., May to November, has done nothing to dampen Lauren’s enthusiasm for the game. He finds it so exhilarating, he can play 5-6 hours a day.

His motto is simple: “I love the game of tennis and want everyone in the whole world to play tennis.”

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.