- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

Willis Thomas has done a lot to help change the face of tennis — just like his old junior doubles partner, the late Arthur Ashe.

Sure, Serena and Venus Williams virtually have conquered the WTA Tour and with it demolished the stereotype that tennis is a lily white sport for the country club set. The Ashes and Williamses of the world can get black youths interested in tennis, but it doesn’t do much good if those children don’t have a place to play.

That’s where Thomas comes in. The 60-year-old tennis director of the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation is the sport’s pied piper in the District. For more than 30 years, he has been introducing boys and girls to tennis and teaching them both on and off the court.

As he prowls the tennis courts during clinics at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Northwest, the soft-spoken Thomas preaches hard work, responsibility, goal setting, self esteem and teamwork. Although he was a professional coach, Thomas doesn’t do as much hands-on teaching anymore and seems to be more concerned with off-court progress than the development of a forehand or backhand.

Thomas first demonstrated his desire to help in the early 1970s, when he introduced a large group of children to the sport. Brothers Joe and Mike Ragland and Dennis and Tyrone Hollin, as well as Charlie Ridout, were a part of that group.

“Mr. Thomas took 15 of us under his wing,” said Joe Ragland, the director of tennis/head pro at Arrowhead Country Club in Glendale, Ariz. “He gave us rackets, balls, clothes and hope. He picked us up and took us to practice and tournaments all over the area.”

Ashe, who used to stay with Thomas when he visited the District, made a impact on those children when they met him.

“Meeting Arthur Ashe was inspirational and something that we will never forget,” Ragland said. “He created an environment for inner-city youth to pursue dreams. But without Willis Thomas, all of this may have never have been possible. He will always have our respect. They knocked down barriers and never gave up. Without them, we wouldn’t be in tennis today.”

The Raglands, Hollins and Ridout made up the Ballou High School team that earned acclaim around the area during 1976 and ‘77. The team, whose members were taught individually by Thomas in the Southeast neighborhood of Fort Stanton during the early 1970s, went 19-1 over those two seasons and beat teams from the District, Northern Virginia and Maryland.

The Ballou teams also helped spark a change in the Washington Tennis Foundation (a precursor to the WTEF).

“The foundation was the focal point,” Thomas said. “The program changed in large part due to the success of the Ballou men’s tennis team. The tennis programs were started by [then-WTF executive director] Dwight Moseley after the team’s success. Joe and Mike Ragland, Dennis and Tyrone Hollin and Charlie Ridout were responsible for that.”

Before the Fort Stanton group, the WTEF was just for promising junior tennis players; now it’s dedicated to at-risk children. The foundation since has added numerous activities like the Arthur Ashe Children’s Program, which serves approximately 500 students in Wards 5, 6, 7 and 8. The Tennis Center Programs offer free or low-cost tennis instructions and competition year-round.

The Tennis Center Community Outreach Program serves 12 public schools and nonprofit children’s organizations in Wards 1 and 4. The Center for Excellence offers highly acclaimed college counseling, which focuses on educational planning and college placement through weekly classroom sessions. And the WTEF Tennis Academy, an elite training and development program, brings together the most committed participants from the AACP and Tennis Center Programs. WTEF also has summer programs aimed at continuing the school-year programs.

Following the lead of Thomas, the Raglands, Hollins and Ridout have gone on to teach tennis. And thanks to the vision of Thomas and others who have a heart for children and tennis, many former students have a fairly new facility at which to teach — the tennis center on Missouri Avenue SE.

After several years of lobbying and planning by Thomas and others, the center was built in 2000. It has eight courts that are open air in the late spring, summer and early fall and covered by a bubble and still playable when the weather gets cold. The WTEF is in the planning stages of another center in Northeast.

“Most cities have a north side and west side tennis center,” he said. “I think we need one in Northeast. We have a number of programs there but no centers. Both the Northwest and Southeast tennis centers are too far [away] for the Northeast children. We are hoping to open up a site in Fort Dupont because there is a skating facility there and it gives the children something to do.”

Those well-maintained courts on Missouri Avenue are different than what Thomas grew up playing on in Southeast.

“We had to sweep the courts off because they had gun shells and [drug] needles on them,” Thomas said of those days in the late ‘50s. “Tennis was a way of keeping the low-income children out of trouble.”

Thomas was an accomplished junior player who befriended Ashe when the latter came north from his home in Richmond to play in local tournaments. The two competed in several tournaments together.

“Playing doubles with Arthur was one of my memorable moments,” Thomas said. “Arthur spoke up about the need to educate yourselves rather than focus on being just professional athletes. People like Arthur and Zina [Garrison] helped pave the way for players like Venus and Serena Williams. Those players are able to play the game the way they want to because Arthur and Zina couldn’t.”

One former WTEF student, Shenay Perry, has taken what she learned from Thomas’ clinics to become a fledgling tour player who will meet Amy Frazier in the first round of the U.S. Open this week. Perry, 19, who was awarded one of the wild-card spots, attended WTEF camps and clinics for six years before moving to Coconut Creek, Fla., seven years ago.

Perry has advanced more than 100 spots this year to 146th in ATP rankings. She won the USTA $50,000 Challengers at Los Gatos, Calif., and in St. Paul, Minn., earlier this year. She has earned more WTA Tour Ranking points on the USTA Pro Circuit than any other American since the 2002 U.S. Open.

Thomas is familiar with the professional ranks, having coached Garrison, the 1990 Wimbledon women’s finalist; Lori McNeil; and Rodney Harmon. He stopped coaching professionals in 1992 to take his current job with the WTEF.

“We try to help students get a college scholarship,” Thomas said. “That is the big part of our program. Once we help them achieve that, they come back and help somebody else.”

For example, Harmon, a 1982 U.S. Open quarterfinalist, is now director of men’s tennis for the U.S. Tennis Association. He is sharing the knowledge of the game and life taught to him by Thomas.

“He wants you to be a better person,” said Harmon, who took lessons from Thomas when he was 12. “He is very demanding but fair.”

Thomas wants to see more blacks in the main draw of the Grand Slam tournaments and feels that will happen soon.

“This year we had more black tennis players trying to qualify for the [Districts] Legg Mason,” Thomas said. “We had seven this year, but usually we have just two or three.”

He believes promotion of the game is the key to that improvement and that politics sometimes gets in the way of what is best for the game.

“USTA people want to get things done on their clock,” Thomas said. “It is not about getting people ranked; it is about introducing them to the game. When I left the Tour, I wanted to help children learn the game, and when they get older they can teach the game to their children.”

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