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Tennis is a ‘Life Time’ commitment for Purcell

Roseville tennis pro begins coaching Sierra College women’s team and mentoring local players
By: Jeffrey Weidel - For The Press Tribune
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The lesson was a hard one to swallow, especially for an 11-year-old boy who was accustomed to winning practically all his junior age-group tennis matches.However, this was no typical player that Craig Purcell of Roseville encountered at the National Fiesta Bowl tournament in 1981. 

Rather, the opponent was a pint-sized Andre Agassi, a child tennis prodigy who would go on to capture eight grand slam titles at the professional level.

On that sunny afternoon in Phoenix, Purcell dropped a lopsided match to Agassi. However, one year later a much-improved Purcell returned to the same tournament, this time reaching the finals against Michael Chang, who would also later enjoy a heralded pro career. A better showing against Chang taught Purcell something important.

“I lost handily to Agassi; he was at another level. But it taught me a great lesson and pushed me to work harder,” recalls Purcell, who grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona and was a highly-ranked junior in the Southwest Region. “It was a rewarding experience and gave me the confidence that I could compete at an elite national level at a young age.”

Purcell has enjoyed an incredible journey, from once being an elite junior standout to an NCAA collegiate athlete, to an ATP Tour coach, and National Academy Director for Tennis Australia. That path has brought him to Roseville, where he’s currently the Tennis Department Head for Life Time Athletic and the coach of the Sierra College women’s tennis team.

Purcell straddles both worlds adroitly, guiding the Wolverines to another successful season and running an all-encompassing tennis program at Life Time — a state-of-the-art health and lifestyle facility on East Roseville Parkway that provides extensive fitness opportunities and programs to foster a healthy way of life.

Life Time’s programs run the gamut from enthusiastic five-year-olds to seniors in their 80s who still love the game. With a growing active tennis membership that has access to 14 pristine tennis courts, including four clay courts, the club is a welcome addition to the Sacramento tennis community.

“Craig’s experience is so diverse,” added Life Time Athletic Head Professional Thomas Morton, who is also an assistant coach for the Sierra women’s team. “He has tremendous expertise at all levels of tennis.”

A freshman at Sierra College, Haleigh Yang says Purcell and his coaching staff have played a major role in transforming her game. She played tennis at Bella Vista High, but her game needed some major work to compete at the community college level.

“We heard about Craig’s background and just knew he was going to improve our games,” Yang explained. “I came here and couldn’t hit a backhand (well). Now my backhand is nearly as strong as my forehand. He did the same thing with my serve, made some tweaks and really improved it. Craig is such a positive influence and very uplifting. He’s a great tennis coach.”

Sierra’s current squad is seeking another Big 8 Conference championship with Kelechi Ukaegbu, a freshman from Roseville High, leading the way. She plays No. 1 singles and teams up with sophomore O’Hara Cooper (Nevada Union) at No. 2 doubles.

Sierra has newly resurfaced courts and the team also practices and plays matches at Life Time, where Yang says the facilities are “amazing.”

“They have state-of-the-art ball machines, great tennis courts, and a wonderful, huge gym area for working out,” Yang said. “Life Time Athletic has a terrific tennis program and is such a tremendous overall facility. We love playing our matches there.”

From a tennis perspective, one of the primary reasons that Life Time Athletic is an elite facility is its four clay courts. No other Northern California facility has that many clay courts, which are common internationally but rare in the U.S.

It’s not unusual for an avid junior or adult player to drive four hours or more to play in a Life Time-hosted clay court tournament. With over 40 adult and junior sanctioned tournaments being hosted this year, Lifetime Roseville is in the running for the USTA Facility of the Year. 

Purcell wants to build a national-level, high-quality junior program and the clay courts will play a large role. On the professional tour, approximately 50 percent of the tournaments are on clay surfaces, where players must slide into the ball while hitting ground strokes as opposed to stopping on a hard court.

“You need to train and play on clay courts to become an elite tennis player, especially if you want to become a professional,” Purcell admitted. “It’s an art form learning to play on clay and structuring your points. For our (older) club members, clay is much safer and forgiving because they are easier on the hip and knee joints than a hard court surface.”

Although it can cater to elite players, first and foremost Life Time Athletic wants to offer a wide-ranging tennis program that accommodates all its members. A father of two young boys, Purcell and his wife (Heather) play recreational tennis as a family.

“Life Time is a world-class facility and we have a commitment to tennis excellence. But we also offer programs and activities for all player levels,” Purcell said. “Tennis is a lifetime sport that families can enjoy together. I love that Life Time celebrates tennis and provides that type of experience for people of all ages.”