USTA Heart of America Hall of Fame inductee Dan Wellington on his Road to Tennis and Coaching the Next Generation
February is Black History Month, and here at USTA Heart of America, we’re proud to have such a beautifully diverse district, from players, to coaches, to officials–as well as our Hall of Fame inductees.
Dan Wellington is one such inductee–and for good reason.
Dan has had an incredible life in sports and beyond. So much so that it would take pages to present you with a detailed resume. He’s played and refereed basketball, played professional baseball, and, of course, has played and coached tennis. His background in sports he credits to his father, who taught him and his brother, Jerry, how to play baseball. When his father retired, he took up golf. “I hung out with my father on the golf course and tried to decide whether to try that or tennis,” Dan said.
He decided on tennis, but he hadn’t played before in his life.
So, Dan picked up a racquet and tennis balls and hit the local courts. He could be found on the court practicing by himself most days until one day, he challenged one of his friends–and beat him three times.
It’s safe to say after putting in the man hours on his own, Dan had fallen in love with tennis.
From then, Dan played a lot of tournaments through the American Tennis Association (ATA)–America’s oldest African-American tennis organization–in and around his hometown in Connecticut, but found a real passion in helping young people take up tennis. He taught them what it takes to become a complete player, even if that meant critiquing their game. Dan taught tennis programs, and hosted pro tournaments, at Yale–some taking place on breathtaking Stadium Court. He’s met Serena Williams and other famous tennis professionals during these events.
Dan’s tennis career and contributions to the sport have seen him as a member of the USTA Connecticut and ATA Boards of Directors, among others.
While a dominant player in his own right, Dan is a teacher of tennis, first and foremost. From kids to wheelchair tennis, he’s studied and trained to teach it all. Dan is a scholar of the game and very passionate about what he does.
“I’ve always been a coach and a guide who really, really loves coaching kids and adults,” said Dan. “It’s all in the teaching. I won’t sugarcoat anything; coaches need to teach. When you hire coaches, they need to go to coaches’ workshops to learn how to teach.”
Dan sets up ladders and other drills for kids and beginner players to master. He notes the importance of teaching these players the proper strokes, grips, and footwork early in their tennis careers–”I don’t give them a chance to pick up a lot of bad habits,” he says.
Another piece of Dan’s coaching style that sets him apart? “I do not holler at my players,” Dan said. “It just bothers me when coaches do that.”
I can attest to this. Dan was so kind as to invite me to observe one of his tennis clinics for beginner kids. He’s a firm, but fair, coach, and his approach was transparent to both the kids and their parents, who were also in attendance. He expects his players to pay attention to the lesson at hand, listen to directions, and come prepared with a positive attitude and willingness to learn. He was encouraging and at the same time not afraid to critique form–and he never once shouted.
I was incredibly impressed at how, in an hour-long lesson, Dan had these children starting to understand the fundamentals of the serve (something even I struggle with at my age!) and improving their hand-eye coordination through drills. The kids were having fun, and it was really cool to see Dan’s teachings “click” with his students in such a short amount of time.
Dan is a big advocate for investing in kids’ futures. He works with school counselors, teachers, and coaches to help them find a way to keep these kids learning after high school. “I love helping other people,” said Dan. “I’ve helped kids go to college; I’ve talked to kids about how important it is to go to school. Even if they don’t go to college, trade schools are also important.”
It’s also important to Dan to keep motivating his students when they move on to college play and beyond. “When you have kids playing under you, you need to follow up and see where they’re going. If they’re having any difficulties, It’s important to sit down with the parent and the kid and find out where they're coming from.”
Dan’s commitment to the sport of tennis and his investment in teaching the next generation of tennis players recently earned him a well-deserved spot in the USTA Heart of America Hall of Fame.
When asked how he felt when he found out he was being inducted, he was all smiles. “Oh my God,” he laughs. “It’s so funny. I was shopping at Menards [hardware store] when I met Ernest. I had a nice tennis outfit on and he asked me what I did. I told him I coached at a school in Connecticut. I didn’t know he was on the Hall of Fame committee.
“He calls me and asks if I could join him for lunch one day, but to ‘bring a briefcase’ with my resume. So, I did, and included information on some of the stuff I’ve done in Connecticut and some here in Kansas City, and the name of my academy–Wellington Tennis Academy LLC–and presented it to him in a manila folder. He said he was going to turn in the info to the committee.
“Two weeks later, Ernest handed me back the folder and said, ‘They want to induct you into the Hall of Fame.’ I said, ‘You’re lying!’ But then I had to apologize for calling him a liar!”
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be in the Hall of Fame. I have trophies for everything else, but now I’m a member of the Hall of Fame.”