NJTL 50 for 50: Willis Thomas
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 Willis Thomas, who was Arthur Ashe’s doubles partner on the junior American Tennis Association (ATA) circuit. Thomas would go on to coach several professional players, including current Georgia Tech Head Women’s Tennis Coach Rodney Harmon, USTA Immediate Past President Katrina Adams, Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil.
The Willis Thomas File
Name: Willis Thomas
NJTL Chapter: Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (Washington, D.C.)
Role with NJTL: Program Director, High-Performance Coach
Year became active in NJTL: 1975
How did you get to know Arthur Ashe?
Willis Thomas: We played the ATA circuit. That means every weekend we were in some city on the East Coast playing tennis. Arthur and I, at about 11, started playing doubles. And we played together until about 14 years old.
We also trained with Dr. [Robert Walter] Johnson, who was our mentor, in Virginia in the summertime.
What do you remember most about Arthur?
Willis Thomas: He was head and tail above us—maybe not physically, but mentally. He had the self-control that most kids do not have. He was miles ahead of everybody else in that regard, controlling himself and not letting you get a peep into what he was thinking. He didn't wear his emotions on his sleeve; he kept his emotions to himself, and in the end, you end up being the one with the short end of the stick because probably you did get emotional, you hadn't learned how to handle that, as most kids don't. But at 11 years old, he could do that, which placed him way ahead of all of us.
He wasn't the greatest athlete in our age group, but by far he was well ahead mentally, which, in my lifetime as a coach, I always expressed that more than I did the physical part of the game. That's something I learned from him.
How much did you stay in touch throughout the years?
Willis Thomas: He went to St. Louis in high school. But when I was on the tour coaching, I would see him very often, and we would always sit down and talk. That kept us in touch with one another.
How did you become involved with NJTL?
Willis Thomas: After NJTL had been in effect for about three or four years, there was a group of kids who came up who needed more advanced training. So I got into NJTL basically to help out those kids, who needed more advanced training, which NJTL didn't offer at the time.
How has the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation grown and evolved over the years?
Willis Thomas: It grew because of our success.
I always kind of stuck to the tennis of the NJTL when it was first started by Arthur. That really inspired a lot of kids who generally wouldn’t have played tennis to play tennis. So even though the USTA over the years was constantly changing, I never changed. I worked with those kids the same way that, really, Arthur and I grew up and the way that he thought tennis could inspire kids. That was basically through instant competition.
The early NJTL was all about instant competition, so kids didn’t have to spend all this time practicing, doing it the way they were doing it in the country clubs. Because that was very boring to our kids. They were very competitive; they liked to play. All through my career, my success has been instant competition.
We did that also in our education part of the tennis foundation. How do you get kids to sit still after school for education? The way I did it was we would compete. They were studying because they had academic competitions and skill competitions against other schools. And that’s what they liked.
I never veered much from the way Arthur and them saw it. In fact, when Arthur and I were kids, we never practiced. We just played. Dr. Johnson, who was our mentor down in Lynchburg Va., he only had one court down at his house. You played to stay on that court. You had to win to play.
We weren’t out there practicing strokes. We would watch other people, watch some of the better players and see what we could glean from them. But that was the fun—the fun was the competition. It wasn’t hitting no tennis balls. At that time especially, because there was no pro tennis at that time. We just liked to hook it up. So I carried that on into my career, teaching kids out in the poor neighborhoods. They liked the competition.
Not saying that you don’t work on strokes, but that comes later, after they are hooked on the game. Kids get hooked on individual sports, like tennis and golf. You just get hooked, and the competition hooked them. Then they want to win, so then they have to work on the other parts of their game.
As long as they could serve—we’d teach them how to serve, keep it in between the lines—then you could play.