Jewel Peterson continues father Ernie's legacy through Peterson Tennis Management
Before she was playing lights-out tennis at the pro level, a younger Coco Gauff could often be found napping in coach Jewel Peterson’s car on the way to practice.
Peterson, a former WTA pro who now runs academies through Peterson Tennis Management—carrying on the work started by her late father, Ernie, in the Atlanta area in 1979—trained Gauff four days a week at age 7-8, spending at least two-and-a-half hours on court with the precocious youngster each day.
“I tell everybody, working with Coco was a dream,” Peterson told USTA.com. “She was very motivated at a very young age. If you can see her fight and her tenacity, her intensity now, just imagine at 7, 8 years old… I have not seen that type of spirit again in a player. That’s very unique.”
Even after the Gauff family moved to South Florida, Coco would still train with Peterson in Georgia from time to time. But the phenom, who is now inside the WTA’s Top 40 at age 16, is just the latest of many success stories out of the Atlanta-based tennis academy through the years.
A past winner of the USTA Developmental Coach of the Year award, Ernie Peterson’s former students included include Sloane Stephens, Jermaine Jenkins, Jarmere Jenkins, Natalie Frazier (the first black female to play for the University of Georgia) and USTA national coach Jamea Jackson.
The star-studded list also includes Jewel, of course. In her playing days, she was a four-year All-American and an NCAA semifinalist at the University of Southern California, before a pro career that included 70 singles wins and a career-high ranking just outside the Top 200 in 2004.
Jewel grew up as a student of the game, and much of her coaching philosophy comes from her father. Ernie’s teaching methods focused on simplicity and repetition, and he also took great care to instill a positive mindset in his students.
“I loved watching the effect his coaching had on players, not only in their ability on the court, but just as people,” Jewel looked back. “They were more confident. It just seemed his students had a way about them where they were happy whenever they would come and train with him.”
As former USTA CEO and executive director Gordon Smith said, following the coach’s passing in 2010: “Ernie not only developed great players, he developed great human beings.”
With her father’s teachings guiding her still, Jewel now leads Peterson Tennis Management, working with players at all levels, from beginner to elite. She runs small group academies, with four to six players per court, at two sites in the Atlanta area: Tributary Tennis Center in Lithia Springs and Lost Mountain Tennis Center in Powder Springs.
“We're really about maximizing the time that we have with our players on the court,” she explained. “We really believe in making sure that players are able to spend quality time with their coaches, one-on-one segments during the sessions, so that each player is getting the coaching and type of coaching they need. Everybody thinks differently and processes differently. And if you have a small group, you have the opportunity as a coach to tailor it to each of your players.”
Tennis has boomed as a social-distancing sport during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Peterson Tennis has seen a 50% increase in players in the last year, contributing to the nationwide trend.
But as Peterson continues to add more students and strengthen her world-class coaching resume, she remains one of a small number of Black females in the profession.
“There’s definitely a shortage,” she said, highlighting counterparts like Angela Haynes, Shenay Perry and Jamea Jackson, all of whom she grew up training with and competing against.
As those women have demonstrated, coaching can be the perfect avenue to remain in the game following a successful playing career.
“People need to see that Black coaches are out here, Black female coaches are out here. Players, Black players going to college, playing in college, need to see that.
“Coaching is such a joy,” she explained. “If you love the game and you love to teach, it's a great opportunity to be able to continue in the very sport that you love, while also helping others.”
For Peterson, the work of increasing diversity in tennis starts at the grassroots level. To that end, she credits the USTA’s mission to make tennis look more like America, noting Katrina Adams’ role as a former two-term USTA president and the organization's continued efforts on that front.
“The more minorities you get in the sport, the more it is going to also see that kind of dynamic change as well [in the coaching ranks],” she added.
Changing the American tennis landscape is a team effort, nationwide, just as it is on a smaller scale in the daily operation of Peterson Tennis Management.
“I know nobody can do anything on their own,” Jewel reflected.
“I am truly grateful to God; my father, who started this beautiful journey; my mom, Jean Peterson, who helped my father train me and to this day will do anything to help me; my sister Monifa Peterson who is always there to encourage me and speak a positive word; my pastor, Pastor Talibah Durham, who is always there to provide constant wisdom and counsel in all areas; and of course, my wonderful staff.
“They are the reason for the success of Peterson Tennis.”