John Embree, USPTA CEO

There is a lot of talk today about mentoring the next wave of tennis-teaching professionals. All of us who have been blessed to pursue a career in tennis were impacted at some point in our young lives by someone who introduced us to our great game. Or, we fondly remember the person who honed our skills while providing the sanctuary for us to achieve success, both on and off the courts. 

I am no different than so many industry colleagues who benefited from the tutelage of a parent or coach or tennis-teaching professional who brought us under their wing and nurtured a passion that we did not know we had for this wonderful sport. By nature, I tend to be modest and purposely not talk about myself, especially in this space. But I do think there can be a message taught from my humble origins with the hope that everyone who reads this piece will be able to identify with my story. Maybe it will stimulate pleasant thoughts of days gone by when hanging with kids at a park or club and spending enjoyable hours banging balls and playing games. 

My start came in the 60’s. My father was an accomplished junior player from Chicago who went on to play both soccer and tennis at Dartmouth College. Naturally, he introduced me to the game at six-years-old but was by no means my coach. He knew better. Growing up in my home town in suburban Chicago, the local high school tennis coach spent his summers running a model junior program out of a six-court park facility. Even though Burns Field was two miles away (seemed much farther back then), I would ride my bike there and spend endless hours watching the high school players from his teams develop their games while us younger tykes drooled with envy, hoping that we too could become like them one day. It was an idyllic environment for certain. I could not have asked for a better training ground. 

Unfortunately, I did not find out how lucky I was to have been guided so deftly by one of the great high school coaches in the state of Illinois, and maybe nationally, until well into my professional life. Jay Kramer coached Hinsdale Central High School for 50 years, won 13 state high school championships, finished as runners up 13 other times, had eight consecutive seasons when his teams were undefeated from 1972-1979 and coached countless players who went on to play college tennis. It was not until later on in my career at Wilson that I learned that Jay was a member of the USPTA for 46 years until he retired. Not only that, he was named Illinois High School Coach of the Year several times, 1988 National High School Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Federation and was named USPTA High School Coach of the Year in 1994. His induction into the Chicago Tennis Patrons Hall of Fame in 2006 was a foregone conclusion. 

I never knew how lucky I was to have had his guidance at an early age. He sold me my first Jack Kramer autograph at a cost of $17.95 including the blue spiral imperial gut. Remember that string? When the Wilson T2000 came out in 1966 or 1967, I was one of the first to embrace this first “game improvement product.” Man-o-man, that was the cat’s meow! As you surmised, my loyalty to Wilson started at a young age and remains today. 

I also learned two tough life lessons while toiling away at this mecca of tennis. During an under 12 event, I lost to someone whom I felt I should have beaten and acted like a complete jerk. I threw my racquet, cussed so loud it could be heard by the spectators and violently kicked open the gate with my foot as I exited the court. Little did I know that a sports writer from the local paper was there to witness my tirade and he wrote about it in the Hinsdale Doings. My parents were less than impressed: they made sure that this behavior would never happen again. Ever since then, my on-court comportment has been exemplary.

The other memorable occasion involved my father. As I progressed in developing my game and had some success in state tournaments between nine and 12-years-old, my head got a little too big for my britches. I kept egging my dad on to play a true singles match against me, thinking that I was going to kick his behind. Finally, he acquiesced and agreed to play. He thrashed me in one set, 6-0, and that was it. While we would play doubles together in the years ahead, that was the last time he stepped on a court with me to compete in singles. It was a lesson in humility that I will never forget. 

It is not surprising that my father was such a strong influence on me from my earliest days. Like so many other life stories of other tennis players, a high school coach in a public park served as my mentor. It was more than 55 years ago that these experiences occurred, yet I remember them like it was yesterday. What is your story?