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John Wilkerson: A Tennis Life

Paul Ryan
John Wilkerson (center) with former students Zina Garrison (left) and Lori McNeil (right). Photo courtesy Dave Rossman/Houston Chronicle.

This article was featured in the 2017 Yearbook edition of Inside Tennis Magazine.


John Wilkerson was supposed to be a baseball player.


At 15 years old, he was playing against adults in the Mexican League. Meanwhile, his brothers played tennis every Saturday. They tried to get him on the court for two years, but John refused.


“Back in those days, I thought tennis was for girls, that it wasn’t a manly sport,” Wilkerson says now with a laugh. “It never came to my mind again when I picked up the racquet and started hitting. I saw the challenge and I saw how it tested you, especially mentally.”


When his brothers finally did get him out on the court, he beat them all.


They told him to try out for the tennis team, so he did. He beat everyone on the tennis team too, including the coach. His first year with the team, he won the District and State Championships in both singles and doubles. His name was on the front page of the Sports section of the San Antonio Express-News. He was hooked.


“At 16, I picked up a tennis racquet and I could tell, that’s what I was here for,” Wilkerson says. “It’s like seeing that beautiful young lady for the first time; ‘where have you been all my life?’”


Wilkerson remembers a time soon after he first started playing when he went to play some local professionals in San Antonio. There was only one court and the group of pros only played doubles. Only problem was, Wilkerson had never played doubles – he had never even heard of doubles.


Wilkerson lost the first match, and with only one court, had to wait four more matches before he got another shot. His partner was none too pleased with having to wait so long and immediately scolded Wilkerson as they walked off in defeat.


“This old guy gave me the best lesson possible,” Wilkerson says. “He said, ‘damn it, if you’re going to play with me, you can’t be making all these damn mistakes.’ I didn’t take it personally. I went back in there, hit it down the middle and in a year’s time, I was the best doubles player out there.”


Wilkerson continued to excel, earning a tennis scholarship to Prairie View A&M University. When he was in his early 30s, he reached the pinnacle of his playing career, winning the 1971 American Tennis Association’s Men’s Singles Tournament.


The ATA is a predominantly black organization, originally created as an outlet for African-Americans who were not allowed in the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) back in 1916. Wilkerson’s victory was not only a massive personal achievement but also a historic one for the ATA.


“The year before, a Caucasian guy had won it,” Wilkerson says. “I watched him play from the quarterfinals on and I was in awe of him and how well he played. Black people had won it most of the time – all the time before that. The ATA was so dejected.


“The next year, believe it or not, I’m in the Finals against him. It’s three-out-of-five – I beat him 1, 3, 1. It was a joy for the black people to see their champ was black again. It was a great experience.”


Photo courtesy
John Wilkerson (second to right) was honored as a Team USA Coaching Legend in Indian Wells, Calif. in 2015. Photo Courtesy

At the time, many said Wilkerson was ‘the one that saved the ATA.’ The organization just celebrated its 100th year and will host its 100th National Championship this coming summer.


“[The ATA] gave me the opportunity to see people who looked like me playing tennis and that I wasn’t in this alone,” Wilkerson says. “If you didn’t see that, you’d think tennis is mostly a white sport – you would think you were unusual. But when I saw there were other people, it meant a lot to me.


“I’ve got friends all over the United States. I was lucky to see the Arthur Ashes and the Althea Gibsons and all the tremendous players to come through there.”


Wilkerson got the next crop of young stars ready himself, coaching both Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil from the time they were 11 years old. Wilkerson served as the head teaching pro at MacGregor Park in Houston, where most of his clients were white. To help grow diversity, he started a free children’s tennis program, getting the chance to coach Garrison and McNeil from a very young age.


“Everybody is special,” Wilkerson says. “I had no idea – I wasn’t trying to get them ready for the pros. I just wanted to develop some young players that were black and get black players out here. I knew I could teach people to play like Chris Evert or Billie Jean King, but I wasn’t thinking pros.”


Under the tutelage of Wilkerson, Garrison became the first African American to win the Wimbledon and US Open Junior Titles. McNeil reached a career-high singles ranking of 9th in the world in 1988, while Garrison reached 4th in 1989.


The trio still sees each other often. In 1993, Garrison founded the Zina Garrison Academy with Wilkerson, with the goal of providing the youth of Houston with the same opportunity McNeil and she were afforded over 40 years ago. Wilkerson currently serves as the Senior Director of Tennis for ZGA, while McNeil is Director of Tennis.


For all his efforts, Wilkerson has received countless awards. In 1979, he won the Lloyd Sessions Educational Merit Award and the Eve Kraft USTA Community Service Award for his contributions to tennis development both in Texas and nationally. In 2014, he was honored as a Team USA Coaching Legend by the USTA.


He has been inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame and the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame. Yet despite all of these accomplishments, Wilkerson has never let his goals change.


“Everything I have received ranks high,” Wilkerson says. “I don’t put one above or below the other. I just thank God that I’ve been able to do this and hope to be a role model and example for other people. I appreciate awards but I don’t look for that. My reward is the kids I see every day – to see them succeed. To see them not only become good citizens but good parents. That’s what my reward is.


“All I was trying to do and I’m still trying to do it is get young people exposed to this game and show them what it can do for you.”


John Wilkerson is a classic case showing that it’s never too late to start playing tennis. Much to his original dismay, he picked up a racquet for the first time at 16 years old.


For the sake of the sport and for many youngsters in Texas, thank goodness he did.


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