USPTA Professional Wendall Walker was in the Air Force when he first picked up a tennis racquet.
He was in the barracks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when a young man from North Carolina walked in. The man had played tennis in college, but couldn’t find anyone to play with.
“He had racquets, so I went out and he got me started,” Walker remembered. “I played all through the years I was in the Air Force, 24 years.”
Walker didn’t intend on becoming a career serviceman when he enlisted. Then again, he didn’t mean to become a tennis coach when he started playing, either. But through both careers, Walker has worked to bring people together.
When he left the service – he retired an Air Force Captain – he and Dawn, his wife of 56 years, moved to Atlanta. There, he kept playing, and noticed the coaches “were good players, but they weren’t way better than me. I started getting the [coaching] bug a little bit.”
Fifteen years later, they moved to Seminole, Fla., near St. Petersburg, and after playing at McMullen Tennis Complex for several years, he started playing and working in the pro shop at Shipwatch Tennis Club. After a while, people began encouraging him to coach.
“So I did. It was wonderful,” Walker said. “There’s a place for 4.0 tennis players to teach young kids who are not superstars and teaching adults and seniors who are beginners.”
For the past 10 years, Walker has taught at Shipwatch and Southwest Rec Complex in Largo, Fla.
“10 to 12 hours a week. It’s just perfect,” he said.
But tennis has given Walker more than just a part-time hobby. Walker prides himself as “a promoter and a facilitator and a supporter” of the sport. The septuagenarian, who turns 78 on Nov. 27, sends out regular emails to Shipwatch’s over 200 members and to roughly 2,000 tennis players in the Tampa Bay area to organize matches and other events.
“They always look to me when we have a tennis social or something to be there and promote and send out emails and be an emcee,” Walker said. “I’ve been a sounding board, a central publicity kind of thing. That works well for me.”
In the summer of 1971, Walker became an equal opportunity officer and race relations instructor for the military. For 12 years he conducted hundreds of educational seminars and facilitated discussions on human relations.
“It helps me get along with people and to respect them and their differences,” he said. “I don’t shy away from it. I engage.”
Walker is an easy person to engage with. His bubbly personality comes across even over the phone, and he’s as popular at his clubs for his lessons, which prioritize safety, skills and fun, as he is for his colorful outfits.
“I have matching shirts, shorts, hat and shoes in gold, red, blue, orange, purple, pink, yellow, black and green,” he said. “It is fun and gets me a lot of branding mileage that my tennis skills don’t achieve.”
Throughout his life, Walker has found a sense of community wherever he’s gone. It’s what kept him in the Air Force long past his obligation. It’s what he worked to foster across racial divides. And it’s what has kept him coming back to the court.
And the dance floor.
“I like teaching. I support the head tennis pro at the club where I belong and play and teach,” he said. “It’s just wonderful going. I contribute in a lot of different ways. I’m a little bit more of a social person nowadays. I’m a 4.0 tennis player but a 5.0 dancer. People like me and they seek me out. I seek them out, too.”