Jacksonville’s Diegans Named USTA Florida Tennis Volunteers of the Month
For Patrick and Heather Diegan, husband and wife tennis-teaching professionals at Saint Johns Tennis Academy in Jacksonville, tennis is a family affair.
“Our shared experiences and teaching methods are blended into our Academy. We make a great team with our strengths and weaknesses balancing each other out,” says Heather, a USPTA Elite Professional who is currently studying to become a Professional Tennis Registry (PTR) Master of Tennis.
Heather and Patrick, who married in 2017, are longtime USTA Florida tennis volunteers who have dedicated themselves to providing tennis to juniors and adults alike. Both are veteran Junior Team Tennis captains and Team Challenge coordinators.
“I started forming teams for Florida Team Tennis back in 1997,” recalls Patrick, a USPTA and PTR Elite Professional with 36 years of teaching experience. “I have worked with many local area Junior Team Tennis coordinators over the years. My work involved team organization, management, and traveling with the local teams to sectionals many times.”
“I first became a tennis volunteer at age 16 at the Lakeland City courts where I used to work and play in local USTA tournaments and summer tennis camps. I volunteered as a coach for juniors 10-14 years old and would take them around to all the local courts to play USTA Junior Team Tennis,” adds Heather. “It was so much fun to coach at such a young age.”
In 2008 Heather opened Saint Johns Tennis Academy, to give the gift of tennis and her passion for the sport back to the community. The Academy operates out of Mills Field Recreational Park.
“I love my community and love to give back within the arena where I started myself,” Heather says in her biography on Saint Johns Tennis Academy’s website. “Within the Academy, we are all geared to create a close ‘tennis family’ environment with the program and the best standard of teaching to all our students young and old.”
Patrick joined the Academy two years later in 2010, bringing his extensive coaching knowledge to the staff.
“I started coaching back in the UK at my college in London,” says the Rochford, England native. “Here I coached university staff and students. I really enjoy seeing the improvement in my students and helping them reach their full potential.”
At the Academy, the Diegans teach some of the most passionate players in Jacksonville. When the Academy began, it had 64 junior students and three ladies league teams. 12 years later in 2020, participation grew to 90 junior students and the number of ladies league teams doubled.
“As Saint Johns Tennis Academy grew, we housed up to 7 teams to play Sectionals one year at the Florida Tennis Center in Daytona,” says Heather. “That year SJTA brought in the most teams and one of our 18 advanced teams was a finalist and progressed to Nationals in Surprise, Ariz.”
More recently, the Academy needed to adjust their delivery of programming and play due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This summer, the Academy hosted a 6-week summer tennis camp that boasted more than 100 registrations, as parents looked to keep their kids active with a sport considered conducive for social distancing.
“We had red ball, orange ball, green ball and yellow ball for all levels between the ages of 4 and 19,” shares Heather.
Safety was the top priority for the Diegans and in order to host a successful summer camp, strict procedures were put in place to keep participants safe. They instituted a mask requirement and temperature checks, provided hand sanitizer, enforced social distancing, restricted seating and limited the size of groups.
“Heather and Patrick worked hard to embrace reopening guidelines and practice them at their camp,” says Molly Zimmer, USTA Florida Tennis Service Representative. “They remained flexible and came up with creative ways to deliver a quality camp.”
As part of the camp, the couple ran six successful Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) events where several of the Academy’s students came out for first-time match play while their seasoned tournament players participated to improve their UTR scores each week.
“Our players cooperated with masks and parents sat in their cars to watch the kids play,” Heather explains.
Jacksonville Parks & Recreation, specifically Mills Field Recreational Park, was one of the recipients of a $2,000 facility recovery grant awarded by the USTA this summer to Florida tennis facilities to provide immediate relief amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. That grant provided funding for PPE and tennis balls for SJTA’s summer tennis camp.
“It really helped us give a quality summer tennis program to our community in parks and recreation,” says Heather.
Their work with students also extends beyond the Academy. Heather and Patrick also teach a no-cut middle school tennis program at three middle schools within St. Johns County. They currently have five co-ed teams with kids from all levels of tennis – novice to advanced.
“We try to house two teams per school. One where our experienced players play full-court yellow ball, the other with younger, novice players playing full-court green dot ball,” shares Heather. “It’s so much fun, very much like Junior Team Tennis. These teams make new players love the game and grow a love for tennis for life!”
The couple’s devotion to not only their players but the sport in general is obvious. Both have committed their time and talents to teaching and supporting players of all ages and abilities develop their game on the court.
“I like to give back to this great sport,” says Patrick. “If you volunteer your time and you give something back to tennis, that is important to me.”
“I love to volunteer,” adds Heather. “I can share in the love of being social, facilitate teamwork with the kids, help develop friendships and help families unit in learning how to play the game of tennis in a fun and competitive environment.”
USTA Florida thanks Heather and Patrick Diegan for their dedication to tennis, their passion for teaching the sport to others, and their efforts to grow the game in St. Johns and Duval counties.
Birthplace: Charlotte, North Carolina
Family: Patrick Diegan (husband), Brian Lester (son), Anna Lester (daughter in law), Rachel Lester (daughter), Sean Diegan (son), Jim and Carol Prevatt (my parents), Jerri and Jill Gable (brother in law and sister)
Favorite Movie: Gorillas in the Mist
Favorite Food: Italian food
Favorite Travel Spot: Currently anywhere in Europe
Favorite Shot: Slice lob and two-handed backhand
My earliest tennis memory was… ”12 years old hitting for hours on the tennis wall at Lakeland City Tennis Courts while my mom played ladies league tennis.”
If I could play tennis with three people, they would be… “Steffi Graff, Mal Washington and Stan Wawrinka. That would make an awesome mixed doubles match!”
When I am not playing tennis I am… “At home doing my administration duties as Tennis Director or fishing with Patrick at the beach.”
My best tennis memory is… “The day I met Stan Smith in person at the Lakeland City Tennis courts and he signed my tennis shoe.”
I like to volunteer in tennis because… “I love working with youth and adults outside on the tennis courts where I can help others improve in their game, meet new people and have fun outdoors being active and healthy.”
Birthplace: Rochford, United Kingdom
Favorite Movie: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Favorite Food: Fish and chips
Favorite Travel Spot: Southern England and France
Favorite Shot: Volley
My earliest tennis memory was… ”Hitting the ball around in local parks back in England with my father and brother.”
If I could play tennis with three people, they would be… “Bjorn Borg, Thomas Muster and Andy Murray.”
When I am not playing tennis I am… “Fishing/beach with Heather, writing about tennis.”
My best tennis memory is… “Borg McEnroe Wimbledon final live in 1980.”
I like to volunteer in tennis because… “I like to give back to this great sport.”
Interested in volunteering in tennis? Visit www.USTAFlorida.com/Volunteers to learn more about available opportunities.