Serving Johnson, Linn, and the surrounding counties
702 S. Gilbert St. Suite101 B
Iowa City, IA 52240
The profound respect for tennis that Craig developed persisted, but it was not until late in his education at the University of Iowa that he decided to make a living through tennis.
Craig had been teaching for the Iowa City Recreation Department for several years and was certified by the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA).
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For Craig Carney, tennis is not a hobby. It is a lifestyle.
Maybe it was a red herring that, as a teenager, Craig spent entire paychecks from the movie theater and grocery store on tennis lessons and equipment. Having joined the sport during the tennis boom of the 1970s, just about everyone was picking up a racquet.
“Tennis was the sport to play,” he said. “There’s never been a phenomenon like that since.”
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Teaching deepened Craig’s knowledge and appreciation of tennis, as he learned about the needs of entry-level players. He combined this knowledge with skill built from a stringing business he started in a one-room shop above an Iowa City T-shirt store.
Soon, he was ready to expand to a business that would serve the larger Iowa City tennis community.
For more than 35 years, Craig has devoted 7 days a week to the store. Since Racquet Master opened, Craig has maintained a close relationship with the University of Iowa Tennis programs. The men's team gained a new coach, Steve Houghton, the same year Racquet Master opened. Houghton has trusted Craig with the team’s racquets since. By the mid-1980s, Craig was stringing all the men’s team’s racquets and later the women’s racquets as well. That tradition carries on with the new tennis coach, Ross Wilson, who came aboard in 2015.
“I really like working with the teams and helping them out any way I can, making sure the racquets are strung perfectly before each match,” he said. “I take it very seriously that I’m the stringer for them.”
During the spring tennis season, Craig strings racquets for about 10 men and 10 women before each meet, which occur nearly every weekend. In addition to the Hawkeye teams, local pros at North Dodge Athletic Club and the tennis director at the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex refer business to Craig as well.
“They want to make sure students get a good deal and the right racquet for their level and style of play,” he said. “And they get that when they come here, which you don’t get at general sporting goods stores.”
While another salesman might push a customer to purchase the most expensive racquet, Craig takes the time to ask what kind of player a customer is and ensure they have the opportunity to try multiple racquets before they select one.
To promote this philosophy, Craig and Linda also run “Demo Nights” for local players to test out new racquets in a fun, relaxed environment.
Racquet Master carries 50 to 60 models of racquets, all of which Craig is knowledgeable about. The store and the sport have come a long way since carrying 6 racquet models in 1981. It opened during a tennis boom, and it persisted through the tennis downturn of the 1990s.
“During the past several years, largely due to efforts by the United States Tennis Association and manufacturers, tennis has gone up 10%,” Craig said.
“Tennis remains something that takes real athleticism,” he said.
When Craig witnessed the success pro shops enjoyed during the 1970s, something told him that tennis was going to continue to grow and that he too could make it in the tennis business.
Racquet Master began as a tennis-only shop; and although it sold bikes and skis from 1987 to 2006, it is once again solely about racquet sports.
“Now I’m back to making a living in the racquet business only,” he said. “Conditions are better for it now, compared to the past decade, because there are more organized tennis activities going on. It seems like there’s potential.”