NJTL 50 for 50:
McCarton Ackerman | July 31, 2019
As the USTA Foundation celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the National Junior Tennis & Learning network, USTA.com looks at 50 NJTL leaders and alumni who helped shape this incredible community dedicated to helping youth strive for academic and athletic excellence on the tennis court, in the classroom and in life.
In this installment, we catch up with NJTL alumnus Autumn Williams, who currently works as the head coach for the women’s tennis team at Texas A&M University Kingsville.
The Autumn Williams File
Name: Autumn Williams
NJTL Chapter: Love to Serve in Chicago
Role with NJTL: former participant
Year became active in NJTL: 1991
How did you first get involved in NJTL?
Autumn Williams: I started playing tennis when I was eight years old. When I was nine, my mom was approached by [Love to Serve Founder & CEO] LaMont Bryant about having me join. ADVERTISEMENT I was in the organization from age nine all the way through high school and then coached in the program once I was in college. I was involved with a lot of different tennis organizations, from NJTL to the ATA [American Tennis Association] and the USTA.
As a college coach, what are the values you gained from NJTL that you try to instill in your players?
Autumn Williams: The biggest thing is a sense of community. Unlike other tennis player upbringings, we traveled together as a team in NJTL. What I try to instill in my current student-athletes is the ability to be friends on and off the court, to compete against each other in practice because we have to form a lineup, but then walk away knowing there’s still that strong connection.
How do you think that NJTL has evolved over the years?
Autumn Williams: I think it’s gotten much bigger overall. I know several people who are still involved with NJTL programming. I think it still serves a huge purpose for giving kids exposure to tennis and making it accessible for everyone. The team environment is what keeps kids in the sport.
Even though you didn’t grow up watching Arthur Ashe play, did his legacy impact you in any way?
Autumn Williams: The ITA (Intercollegiate Tennis Association) gives out the Arthur Ashe Leadership and Sportsmanship Award. I’m the chairperson for the South Central Regional Awards Committee, so I look through all of the essays and nominations for players and coaches.
What the ITA has done in keeping his legacy by offering this award is so important. It’s people like Arthur Ashe who changed the fabric of our country. His activism and being a spokesperson for human rights changed how we look at athletes. It really is a big deal to me and I take those essays very seriously.
Coco Gauff served as an NJTL ambassador four years ago for Down the Line and Beyond in Philadelphia. With her current success, how much of an impact does that have on the kids who met her through her ambassador role?
Autumn Williams: I think it’s huge. I remember meeting Serena in Chicago when I was 15 and her body, her skin tone, her influence did a lot for me as a teenager. The way she and Venus dominated really inspired me as a tennis player and had a huge impact on my life.
Growing up, I was asked by many of my peers, “Why do you play that ‘white’ sport?” Venus and Serena gave me something to say that this isn’t a white sport and I enjoy playing it. It helped keep me involved in tennis. What Coco did as an ambassador will hopefully do the same thing for others.