In January, Jonathan (Jon) Vegosen began serving a two-year term as Chairman of the Board and President of the USTA. Vegosen, who has served on the USTA Board of Directors for four years, most recently as First Vice President, has volunteered in the sport for nearly two decades at the district, section, national and international levels. A resident of Chicago, Vegosen is the 50th President of the USTA.
A former varsity collegiate tennis captain at Northwestern University, where he earned his B.A. (graduating Phi Beta Kappa) and J.D. (graduating Cum laude), Vegosen was named to the 1973 All-Big Ten Conference team. While in law school at Northwestern, he taught tennis in the Chicago area for three years, and later served for more than a decade on the Board of Directors of the Chicago District Tennis Association (CDTA), including a term as President.
In 2002, Vegosen was named Volunteer of the Year for the CDTA and the following year he received the Stanley Malless Award from the USTA Midwest section for his distinguished service. He served on the Board of the USTA Midwest Section, becoming section Vice President, and also was Vice President of the Midwest Youth Tennis and Education Foundation. In 1994, he was the top-ranked men’s 45s singles player for the USTA Midwest Section.
As USTA First Vice President, Vegosen served on the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center Master Plan Study Group, and was Board Liaison for a number of USTA committees, including Diversity and Inclusion, Advocacy, International, and the Advisory Group on Committees. He also is a past Chair of the USTA Collegiate Committee.
Vegosen is a founding member of and practicing attorney with the Chicago-based law firm of Funkhouser Vegosen Liebman & Dunn Ltd. (FVLD) FVLD has a wide range of clients, including publicly-held companies, owner-managed businesses, media companies, wealthy families and individuals, and celebrities. He has been a member of the CEO-mentoring organization Vistage since early 2002, becoming a Vistage Speaker in 2004.
Vegosen and his wife Shari have been married for 34 years and have two sons, Jared and Spencer. All of the family plays tennis. The Vegosens’ youngest son, Spencer, was No. 1 in the nation in the USTA boys’ 16s rankings in 2004 and won 11 sportsmanship awards, nine of them national awards, during his junior tennis career. In 2004, the Vegosen family was presented with the prestigious Ralph W. Westcott Award as the USTA’s Family of the Year.
Early in his term, Vegosen took time to sit down with USTA Magazine to talk about his priorities as President and address the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the sport and the association.
Congratulations on being named the 50th president of this association. I would imagine it’s equally thrilling and daunting to assume such an important position in a sport that has been such an integral part of your life.
I’m very excited about this opportunity to serve our sport. Tennis has given so much to me, and I see this as an opportunity to give back to a sport that I’ve not only had such a passion for, but also a sport that has made such a difference in my life. It’s a genuine privilege to be able to be an ambassador for tennis, both nationally and internationally.
How do you view the state of the sport and this association at this time?
I think both are doing well. We’ve had some excellent growth in the past decade and have accomplished a lot. Having said that, there is definitely room for improvement. And that is what drives us—we always are looking to improve. If we are to continue to grow as a sport and as an association, we have to make our sport more accessible and affordable to everyone, and we have to do a better job of reaching out to a more diverse population. Our mission does not have a finish line—we want to continue to grow the sport at every level, and that will be an ongoing challenge that we must address head-on.
Can you give us an idea of the plan of attack?
Sure. The USTA already has a compelling mission—to promote and develop the growth of tennis. But the opportunity lies before us not only to further that mission but also to transcend it; to put in place a plan that not only will help to grow the game, but also enhance the lives of those who play it. We must devote ourselves to promoting and developing the growth of people through tennis.
Imagine if we became known as the sport that is genuinely concerned about the lives of its constituents and a sport that is responsive to their needs. Imagine if we created pathways for youngsters from diverse backgrounds to easily pursue our sport in their communities, at their levels, on an affordable basis that would not require them to sacrifice educationally and would strengthen their personal growth. Imagine if we put in place a player development system that aims to create the conditions for developing both champions on the court and champions in life. Those are our challenges, and I am convinced that they are challenges we will do a better job of taking on when we do a better job of reaching out.
You mention the importance of “reaching out,” which is integral to your administration’s theme—“Tennis: The Sport of Opportunity.” Can you talk about the concept behind that theme?
All of us who have been involved in this great sport for a good part of our lives know the bounty of benefits that go hand in hand with tennis. We need to make more people aware of those benefits. Because when we share our sport, we extend to others a universal key that opens doors, minds and hearts. And when we develop people through tennis, we inevitably promote and develop the growth of tennis itself.
Tennis has opened so many doors for me and introduced me to so many people who have become great friends and important clients, and I think everyone involved in this sport could share countless stories of the way in which tennis has opened a door or enhanced a life. But I also recognize that, for far too long, tennis has been perceived by many as anything but a sport of opportunity. It has too often been viewed as elitist.
Do you think that still is a common perception of the sport?
We have made good progress in taking some of the air out of that myth. Particularly during this past decade, we have become a more inclusive sport that embraces all communities. Michelle Obama’s selection of tennis for her “Let’s Move” initiative implicitly recognizes this. Tennis is a sport that provides fitness and competition, but it goes beyond both. It also provides opportunities for education and character development that are the envy of other sports. Look at how USTA Serves, NJTL and First Serve make a difference every day in the lives of hundreds of thousands of youngsters. But we have not yet realized our full potential to be the sport of opportunity for all, and we need to increase our efforts in this regard.
The development of 10 and Under Tennis is a major priority for this association and for you personally. Can you address the importance of this initiative?
If we don’t get kids involved in tennis, especially at a young age, how are we going to grow and bring the best athletes into our sport? Right now, some of the best athletes never try tennis. We lose them to sports such as basketball, football, soccer and baseball. We’ve got to grow the base and attract more of these great athletes so that we—and they—have a better opportunity to grow.
Do you think we’re making inroads in this area?
Yes, but not nearly enough. Tennis has been the fastest-growing traditional sport for most of the past decade, but we are still failing to attract and retain new, frequent players—especially children 10 and under. Today, we have only about 20,000 youngsters playing 10-and-under competitive tennis or Jr. Team Tennis. In sharp contrast, soccer has approximately two million youngsters age 10 and under playing competitively. Compared to several European countries, we don’t have nearly as many juniors playing sanctioned tournaments. We have about 138,000 juniors 18-and-under playing competitive tennis. France, which is one-fifth the size of the U.S., has over 500,000. These are staggering differences that paint a picture of untapped potential that we need to examine.
How do you account for that remarkable disparity?
Part of the answer is that our national junior tournament structure is very expensive. If junior players want to pursue tennis seriously, their parents must spend enormous amounts of money and travel great distances to tournaments. Additionally, competitive juniors often have to shortchange their educations. Countries like France have thousands of tournaments where people can play and compete at their levels locally, inexpensively and regularly. And France has in place a tennis tournament and rating system that encourages and accelerates player development in local communities. It’s no wonder that France has eleven of the top 100 players on the ATP World Tour, while the US has just five. And Spain has 14.
Recruiting and holding on to young players is vitally important to our sport at every level, and that’s why promoting and enhancing the youth-collegiate continuum is so very important to me. We have to significantly expand the base of juniors 10 and under playing competitive tennis on courts using the QuickStart Tennis play format and Jr. Team Tennis. We have to make tennis fun and affordable, accessible and relevant to families and their kids and ensure that competitive tennis opportunities are available for all American juniors regardless of their economic circumstances and where they reside. And we have to make sure that those opportunities will not require them to sacrifice an education.
To my way of thinking, that formula gives us the best chance to generate more and better American junior players to fill the ranks of collegiate programs, and the best chance for the most outstanding of these players to become future professional champions.
You have created a number of new committees this term. One of them is a Sportsmanship Committee. Tell us about that.
As we bring more youngsters into our sport, we have a golden opportunity to educate and inspire them and their parents to develop and exhibit a high degree of sportsmanship and an attitude of fair play and mutual respect on and off the tennis court. We need to build character one call at a time. It is just as important that, as we seek to create an environment from which championship players will emerge, we also create one in which they can grow into championship human beings. After all, we have to recognize that 99.99 percent of our players will not make the top 100 in the world professionally. It is imperative that they receive positive lessons from tennis that will serve them for a lifetime.
Talk a bit about your background in the sport. How did you get involved?
I actually owe my start in tennis to a four-letter word: golf. When I was nine, my parents joined a local club so that they could play golf. They needed a place to park me, so they put me on the tennis court. That was the best thing they ever could have done for me. I fell in love with the sport and have been playing ever since.
What got you hooked—and what kept you involved?
I had a couple of pros and mentors who helped guide me and made it fun. That’s so important. Because it was fun, I kept coming back and eventually tennis was something I was able to excel at and have fun with. It’s a sport that builds character and fortitude and self-reliance.
I’ve met a lot of great people along the way, and it’s really been the people who have made tennis such a special part of my life.
And now your goal is to make tennis a special part of more people’s lives?
That should be the goal of everyone who loves this sport, because all of us involved in tennis know well the countless benefits and opportunities this sport brings with it. In order to reach our potential as a sport, we need to provide meaningful opportunities to people. We need to truly embrace diversity,so that the face of our sport more closely resembles the face of our country. And to do that, we need to be sure that tennis is accessible to all communities, regardless of their socio-economic background, and also make sure that committing to competitive tennis does not compromise one’s education.On the contrary, tennis should and will enhance educational opportunities.
Finally, we need to make sure that players can develop in their communities. Some may say that we cannot develop players locally. But many players, myself included, have had the opportunity to develop faster in our local communities by playing against older and frequently wiser opponents.
It is within our power to grow our sport to become completely inclusive. We can markedly expand the base of tennis players and create the environment for more American tennis champions. And we can ensure that both on and off the court, and in the classroom, we are developing champions for life from every point of the compass.