© Garrett Ellwood
By John Freeman, special to USTA.com
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Born and raised in rural Kentucky, Tom Pennington cheerfully describes his style of play as "Redneck Tennis."
With a nod to Jeff Foxworthy, what exactly is that?
"It’s hitting the ball as hard as you can and not understanding that if you hit 10 balls hard, you don’t care if you miss eight because it feels so good," said Pennington, laughing at the image. "That’s me."
Never mind that he’s built a hugely successful physical therapy practice, the largest in Kentucky and among the largest in the nation. Or that he built a two-court indoor sports facility near his home in Bowling Green so he and his five children and his sport-minded buddies could play tennis, basketball and volleyball year-round without weather concerns.
"It’s our miniature YMCA," said Pennington, 50, who’s competing for the Southern section in the USTA League 4.5 Senior National Championships in Rancho Mirage. "I’ve been blessed."
His team captain, David Compton, a teaching pro in Louisville, describes Pennington as "one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever known."
Raised in the small Kentucky town of Madisonville as the youngest of four children, he was taught tennis at an early age by his mother, a retired nurse who’s now 87.
"She was absolutely consumed by tennis when we were kids," recalled Pennington. "She’s completely self-taught with rudimentary strokes. Never had a lesson in her life, but she knows what she’s doing."
He grew up playing on a couple of "barely painted asphalt courts" near his home. He recalls that as many as 20 players would wait on the challenge court, with "win or sit" strictly enforced.
"That’s why I play so fast-paced," he said. "I’m trying to win as quickly as possible."
That style served Pennington well as he later competed for Western Kentucky University, his hometown school. His 16-year-old son, Beck, is a recent winner of Kentucky’s high school tennis title and is now ranked among the nation’s top juniors.
"I’m proud to say he hits the ball hard like I do," said Pennington. "It’s the Redneck way."