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Myrtle Beach Player Uses Unorthodox Game, Serve to Perplex Opponents

Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Wonza Welch and his doubles partner were expecting a close match during the 70 and over 3.5 final Saturday morning. They were not expecting Robert Stone to humiliate them.

Stone's unorthodox serve sailed over the net, looking like it was coming at Welch or his partner, only to bounce and hop two feet away, sometimes causing Welch and his teammate to cleanly whiff at the ball. Stone's serve and crafty use of underspin also had Welch exchanging “Can you believe this?” looks with his court side friends.

Welch and his Charleston team were undefeated heading into the final match of the USTA South Carolina 70 and Over State League Championship. But the men from Charleston had not played Stone.

Whereas most tennis players toss the ball above them and serve with their arm above their head, Stone drops the ball and slices it, his palm and strings facing the net when his racket hits the ball. Stone also prefers underspin with his forehand, backhand, second serve and overhead. Whenever the moment feels right, which is to say whenever the ball is in play, Stone chops the forward movement out of a rally.

“No pace on that darn ball,” Welch said to himself during another game in which his team was losing. “It’s not coming to me; it’s spinning!”

Stone plays this way out of necessity.

Twelve years ago, Stone, a tennis player almost all his life, had rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder and lost most of his strength and all of his cartilage there. He was 62 at the time and wanted to continue playing tennis to keep exercising. “I've never been a gym rat,” said Stone, who plays on a Myrtle Beach team.

So he learned to serve underhand and to use more underspin.

The results have made his opponents irate. Tennis players rarely get outright angry when someone aces them with an overhand serve, Stone said, “But if you ace them underhand, they get pissed.”

Earlier in the 70 and Over State League Championship, one opponent said of returning Stone's serve, “This is about as much fun as a root canal.”

Another pair of opponents essentially quit after only a few games, Stone said. When returning his serve, they'd take a step and stop, watching the ball tail away from them, along with their chances of winning.

“Nobody could put the ball in play,” said Bob Johnson, Stone's doubles partner.

Stone's serve works especially well against older players, who admittedly don't move as quickly as they once did. Returning and handling the serve's last-second hop requires a very good guess or tiny, quick adjustment steps, movements older players don't always care or have the ability to make.

Jerry Moore, Welch's doubles partner, often took a step and stopped when trying to return Stone's serves and drop shots. His movements were not by choice. “I needed a bionic knee for me to get there faster,” Moore said. “He was a good player... picking on us old guys.”

It took Johnson, Stone's doubles partner, about 20 looks at Stone's sideways serve before he finally could return it consistently. Players see that kind of serve so rarely during tournaments or USTA adult league play, by the time they've seen Stone's serve 20 times, the match is over and they're congratulating him at the net.

“We weren't used to the other guy doing it,” Welch said. “That was kind of a shocker.”

Stone's team won the first set 6-3. On the final point of the match, Welch served, down 0-5. From the ad side, he served it to Stone, who spun a drop shot in the doubles alley. Welch didn't touch it.

“Just wide,” Welch said jokingly as he jogged to the net.

The foursome shook hands and congratulated each other. Walking away from the net, Welch's doubles partner, Moore, had a more accurate description than his partner of what had just taken place: “Too good,” he said.

Stone, far right, first row, used his unorthodox serve and game to perplex opponents all tournament long. (USTA SC photo)