Tim Sands' progress in tennis since he took up the game in 2006 has been remarkable. He has moved from a 22-year-old 3.0 player to a 4.5 player who is still improving.
That's like moving from Class A to Triple A in baseball.
Sands played second base on the varsity at Lackawanna High School and played soccer and basketball recreationally. He relied on his foot speed, hand-eye coordination, physical conditioning and mental alertness.
Having played well in those three sports, Sands wanted to try a new challenge. He went to the South Towns Tennis Club in Orchard Park and started taking lessons from tennis pro Dave Kocak, who now teaches at the Miller Tennis Center.
"I fell in love with the game right away and I must give most of the credit to my love for the game and any improvement to Dave," Sands said.
Kocak got Sands involved in two drill clinics twice a week and Sands started playing at least three other times a week. From the start it was evident that Sands was going to be an outstanding tennis player.
"I knew that Tim was a great athlete, was very fast, and was in excellent shape," Kocak said. "We tried to make sure that he did things the right way and he responded beautifully. It was just a matter of time before Tim's game really took off. Equally important, as his game developed, he realized that he could really become an outstanding player, and started to believe in himself that he could rise to the upper echelons of tennis."
In 2007, Sands played against both 3.0 and 3.5 players. Kocak knew Sands was ready for competitive league play and put him in a 6.0 Mixed Couples League. Sands and his partner didn't lose a match. That summer Sands played some 3.0 singles tournaments. He wasn't deterred by his losses because he felt his game was getting better.
"My goal was to improve -- win or lose," Sands said. "Each year, I wanted to improve a level, from 3.0 to 3.5, from 3.5 to 4.0, from 4.0 to 4.5, and eventually higher."
In 2008, with Tim playing up to five times a week, sometimes twice a day, and running every morning, his game took another leap.
His progress has been remarkable. His forehand and backhand are steady and he makes few errors. His footwork and shot preparation are noteworthy. He has solid volleys, strives to keep the ball in play, relies on his foot speed and uses his fitness to wear down opponents.
Playing a large number of tournaments has been instrumental in his success but, in 2009, it led to burnout.
"All of my playing and working out incessantly caught up to me," Sands said. "I knew that I had to take some time off. For 2 1/2 months I worked out a little. However, I didn't play any tennis at all."
Sands returned anxious for competition. Soon after returning, he defeated Joe Pannullo, an outstanding 4.0 player who had won many open tournaments against much younger players. Winning that match gave Sands confidence and made him realize that he could do even better. That year he was bumped up to 4.0.
In 2010, because of his work schedule for UPS, he couldn't play USTA and stayed at the 4.0 level. In 2011, he played nine USTA matches and won eight, which resulted in his moving up to 4.5. He has since won some 4.5 tournaments and is hoping to reach his goal of becoming a 5.0 player.
Since 2009, Sands has won 32 singles tournaments. His schedule still consists of his running every morning, playing almost every day, including advanced practice, tournaments or USTA matches. Unbelieveably, the 28-year-old does all of this and still works from 4:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. or later, five days a week, at UPS. He averages four to five hours of sleep a night.
Two months ago, his Tri-Level USTA team advanced to the nationals in California.
"Even though we didn't win in California it was one of the greatest highlights of my tennis career," he said.
Don Nowak was a Tri-Level team member and has played and practiced with Sands many times.
"I have played tennis for many years and I have never seen anyone improve as quickly as Tim has," Nowak said. "Every part of his game has improved dramatically. He is equally adept in doubles as he is in singles.
"Everyone has a tremendous amount of respect for Tim. He is an outstanding sportsman and an extremely fair competitor. It is hard to believe that he seems to get better every time that he steps on the court. I have no doubt that he will be approaching the 5.0 level at the end of this year."
In early June, Tim and his fiancee, Joann, will be getting married. Will this cut down on his busy schedule?
"I don't think it will," Sands said. "She is my biggest fan and I always seem to play better when she is at my matches."