Black History Month:
Arthur Kapetanakis | February 14, 2019
In honor of Black History Month, USTA.com is spotlighting several African-American collegiate coaches who have had an impact on the game of college tennis. In our latest feature, we talk with Georgia Tech women's head tennis coach Rodney Harmon.
Rodney Harmon is currently in his seventh season as the head coach of the women's tennis program at Georgia Tech, where he has amassed a 117-50 record over his first six campaigns. Just last season, Harmon guided the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA semifinals for the second time in program history, powering the team to as high as No. 2 in the ITA Rankings. The coach has reached the NCAA tournament each year in his time at Georgia Tech.
Prior to joining the Yellow Jackets in 2012, Harmon was the men's head coach at the University of Miami from 1995-97. Before and after his time with the Hurricanes, he had two stints at the USTA, as a USTA national coach (1991-95) and later as director of men's tennis (2002-08). ADVERTISEMENT During his second tenure, he served as the head coach for the U.S. men's tennis team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. In his first, he worked with future pros, including Todd Martin, MaliVai Washington and Alex O'Brien.
Harmon also enjoyed a successful playing career at the professional and collegiate levels, reaching the Top 60 of the ATP rankings in 1983. While still a student at Southern Methodist University, he reached the singles quarterfinals at the 1982 US Open. An ITA Men's Collegiate Tennis Hall of Famer, Harmon also played for Tennessee; he won the NCAA doubles title with the Vols in 1980 and reached the NCAA singles semis.
In this Q&A with USTA.com, Harmon discusses his coaching career, the changes he's seen in college tennis over the years, how his playing career informs his current role and much more.
USTA.com: What are some of the biggest highlights that come to mind when you think back on your career in college coaching?
Rodney Harmon: My biggest highlights of my coaching career were: (a) Having my team reach the semifinals of the NCAA Team Championship last year in Winston Salem, N.C.; (b) Defeating No. 11 University of North Carolina last season at Chapel Hill, N.C.; (c) Being named ACC Coach of the Year in 2016 and 2017; and (d) In 2013, when Kendal Woodard and Megan Kurey won the ITA National Indoor Doubles Championship at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
USTA.com: What is your favorite part of coaching at the college level? The most challenging part?
Rodney Harmon: My favorite part of coaching at the college level is working with the student-athletes to help them develop as a person, player and teammate. The most challenging part of coaching is the limit on the number of hours per week that coaches can work with the student-athletes. With a limit of 20 hours per week, including fitness, it is difficult to make a major change to a player’s stroke.
USTA.com: What changes have you seen in college tennis since you started coaching at Miami in 1995?
Rodney Harmon: There is greater parity in college tennis, as all the teams recruit around the world to find the best players. There are many non-traditional college tennis programs which can now be competitive against the best teams in the country by recruiting players from all over the world.
USTA.com: How did your experience as a college player at Tennessee and Southern Methodist University shape your coaching philosophy?
Rodney Harmon: I learned so much from John Newman at Tennessee and Dennis Ralston at SMU. The biggest thing I believe is the college coach needs to have a clear picture and plan as to where they want a player’s game to grow. To become the best you can be as a player, you have to be focused on specific areas of improvement and spend time outside of team practice working to improve your game. I believe that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I write developmental plans for each player, and I update each plan throughout the year.
USTA.com: How has your experience as a professional helped you as a college coach? What advantage does it give you over coaches who did not play or succeed at that level?
Rodney Harmon: My experience on the pro tour both as a player and as a coach allows me to give the players a clear picture of the level they would need to attain to have a chance to compete on the pro tour. I do have an advantage over coaches who did not play or succeed at that level with players who hope to play on the tour. Those players hoping to play on the tour want to know what to expect and, most of all, what they need to do to be able to compete.
USTA.com: Can you take me through your typical recruiting process? How much of your time is spent recruiting?
Rodney Harmon: With the change in the NCAA rules that allows juniors to take official visits, recruiting takes up a lot of time, both speaking to prospective players and tracking results and watching players perform at events. Typically, I will see a player play and make the decision whether she would be a good fit at Georgia Tech. From there, I will contact them and send them information about the academic and athletic programs at our school. It is then up to the player to respond, if they have an interest in learning more about our program. From there, we will have a few discussions to see if their interest, goals and grades match up to the profile we have for prospective student-athletes.
USTA.com: What are your thoughts on the college/pro decision for top junior players, and how do you handle that topic with recruits?
Rodney Harmon: With the new ITF Transition Tour, it is difficult for a player to make gains on the tour unless they are a top ITF junior player or have had success at the $25,000 and $50,000 level. I tell recruits that once you are able to compete regularly at the $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000 tournament levels and your ranking is inside the Top 250, then you should consider turning professional.
USTA.com: Do you think the success of former college players, like John Isner and most recently Danielle Collins, who both played all four years in college and graduated, will make a difference to top junior players when they’re deciding whether to play college tennis or to turn pro right away?
Rodney Harmon: I watched Danielle Collins build her game in college with her coaches from Virginia. She played against us her freshman year at Florida. She was No. 7 in the singles lineup and played No. 3 doubles against us. The following year, she won her first NCAA singles title, and the change in her game was remarkable. What was great about Danielle is that her game improved every year she was in college.
John Isner had the same profile in college, as he continued to improve each year and his first summer on the tour played some great tennis. They both improved their games and got bigger, faster and stronger working with the training staff at their schools.
USTA.com: I’m sure college coaches don’t have a lot of free time, but when you do, how do you like to spend it?
Rodney Harmon: I spend all my free time with my family. My two youngest daughters are twins and really busy with ballet, track, music and high school events. I also love to watch tennis-teaching videos on YouTube and watch sports as much as possible. I love to talk tennis, especially coaching and development.
USTA.com: Looking back at your two stints with the USTA, what are some of your favorite memories?
Rodney Harmon: Some of my favorite memories of my stints with the USTA are the staff members who worked so diligently to help grow tennis all over the country. I worked in both Community Development and Player Development during my time at the USTA, so I was fortunate to work with so many great staff and volunteers.
My favorite memories, though, were the times I coached U.S. teams in international competition—at the 2008 Olympic Games, the World University Games, the Sunshine Cup (world 18-and-under championship) and the ITF World 16-and-Under Championships.
USTA.com: Also related to the USTA, we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network. How do you look back on your experience in NJTL programs, and how did that time influence your career and life?
Rodney Harmon: My experience with NJTL was the catalyst for me to become involved in tennis. I loved playing our local NJTL matches and enjoyed our appearance at the NJTL National Championships. For me, NJTL was so important, as Arthur Ashe helped start the program and he is from my hometown. His dad worked at the park where I grew up, so the shadow and influence of Arthur was always around. I feel so lucky to have been playing during the '70s, when tennis was so popular, Arthur Ashe was on the tour and there were so many adults and children playing tennis at my home park—Battery Park—which is now named the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center.