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June 21, 2016 06:48 PM

Toby Smith talks with the Reverend Dr. Rob Woodruff, a tennis-playing preacher.


RobWoodruffMinisters are no different from anyone in other vocations. Men and women of the cloth work and they play. Some fish, some bowl, some jog, some hit golf balls. Rob Woodruff, pastor of Albuquerque’s Second Presbyterian Church, competes in tennis at a high level. He enters tournaments and he takes part in USTA leagues. He recently was runner-up in the men’s 4.5 singles at the New Mexico Adult Open. Woodruff, 41, took up tennis when he was 10 years old when his mother brought home two discount-store rackets for him and his younger brother David. The siblings played initially at Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado, their hometown.  

What was it like when you started?

[Laughs] We had some family battles at Chautauqua. Our parents didn’t play. My brother and I learned the game by hitting against each other.

Did you play in the park all your early years?

No. Tennis for a long time for me was at the Meadows Swim and Tennis Club in Boulder.  I joined junior programs, had a few lessons and was in kids’ clinics there. For two or three summers I went gonzo on tennis.  There was a ladder at the club. When I was 12 or 13, I had a rivalry with another boy, Randy Gage. He kicked my butt.  He was about a year older and we played maybe ten times. The downside of the club was that it was only open in summer.  I only played June, July and August. That was it.

What about high school?  Were you on the tennis team?   

I played one year at Boulder High and two years at Boulder’s Fairview High. Mostly doubles, maybe No. 3. My doubles partner and I competed at state in 1993. I don’t think we did much. Finally, indoor courts came to Boulder, with the Harvest House Tennis Club. You could now play year-round.

Did you play in college?  

I played all four years at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, a Division 3 school.  I think my tennis helped me get in. I was captain for two years and played No. 3 singles. That was the highest I got.

Tell me about the tennis coach.

His name was Gundars Tilmanis.  He was born in Latvia and raised in Australia.  He was a real clinician and he helped me a lot.  He used to say, “Ninety percent of people who are better than you have hit more tennis balls in their lifetime.”

Good thing to remember, I think.  Anything else?

[Laughs.] “When you play doubles,” he said, “if you get your first serve in every time and you return your first volley deep, you can call me collect from anywhere in the world.”

You went on to Princeton Theological Seminary.  Was a career in the ministry in your family?

Not at all. My father worked in real estate.  We went to the First Congregational Church in Boulder. But
as for going into the ministry, I was anomaly.  I kind of fell into it.  I was ordained in 2002 at the First Presbyterian Church of Boulder. In 2008, I began work on a professional doctorate at the Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.  I received that in 2012.

Did you play much at Princeton?

In my three years there I played very little.  After seminary, I did a mission year in Guatemala.  I played a few times at the Tennis Club of Quetzaltenango. That was a surreal experience. The club had three hard courts and the gate to the courts was guarded by a man with a gun.

Who in the world played there?

These tiny guys.  They were Mayans, and one of them was maybe 4 feet 5 inches tall. Some of them had no teeth. One played with a cowboy hat on. They all would slice the heck out of the ball. I hit with them a little bit.  This was at 7,500 feet. I could feel it.

What followed Guatemala?

When I returned to the U.S. I pastored the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I played on 4.0 and 4.5 USTA league teams there.  Later, I returned to Guatemala. I met my wife there and worked on my Spanish.

Are you fluent?

I am, and that helps. Second Presbyterian is a bilingual church, located in Martineztown. It was established in 1889. I’ve been here since September 2003.

How did you get involved in New Mexico tennis?

I cold-called the Tennis Club of Albuquerque, which I found in the Yellow Pages.  Ocho (former head pro Dave Ochotorena) got me on a 4.0 team and Jud Lee was the captain. I played on a 4.0 team every year for several years.  The computer finally bumped me up to 4.5. These days I work with Tom Rios. He says I have the tools to be a 5.0.  We’ll see.

How do you handle tennis on Sunday mornings? Can you tell your congregation you’re not going be there because you have a match?

In a tournament, if I am scheduled to play on Sunday, I offer to forfeit. Most people are willing to reschedule.  Most guys want to accommodate.  League matches are usually played on week nights, so I don’t often have a conflict there.

How do you react when someone curses during a match?

I’m competitive. I can get vinegary, too. But I keep things in check. I would never judge someone else.


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