As a government worker in the early 1970s, Willis Thomas, Jr. saw teaching tennis as a way to make some extra money as a second job. He had grown up playing the game and was quite good as a junior, good enough to play alongside tennis legend Arthur Ashe as his doubles partner.
Thomas began teaching in 1974, and through his experience interacting with kids, especially in the more underprivileged areas of Washington, D.C., he found something much more fulfilling than simply improving a young child’s backhand.
Thomas began to see what tennis as a sport could do for those who needed direction. After seeing the impact it had on young kids, he “got stuck” as he says. It was an activity that provided structure and discipline, perhaps even more so than sports more popular in the inner cities like basketball and football.
“Tennis, being an individual sport, requires a lot of toughness and individual values that you just don't get from team sports,” he said. “What you need when you're taking a test or whatever, you're out there on the tennis court by yourself. You have to make decisions by yourself. It's the same thing if you're taking a test. That's the way we've found that tennis also helps the academics.”
Thomas later switched to teaching tennis full time and has since produced many good tennis players over the years, but his most important goal in helping children is improving their performance in school. At the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, Thomas works with others to combine teaching tennis with after school programs to help develop children into student athletes and well-rounded individuals.
The WTEF opened a new facility in November in Ward 7, a groundbreaking tennis center in the Southeast part of the city. Thomas says it has helped the WTEF impact children in need more directly as they now don’t have to bus them to their Northwest complex. It also allows them to keep the kids involved throughout the year, an important element for their education according to Thomas.
“If you really want kids to try to do well, you have to give them the facilities to do it,” he said. “If you don't have indoor courts, then you're relegated to just the warmer months of the year and you lose them during the winter time. We do education too, so we can't lose them. We can't have just a four or five month program, because we won't see them again until the summer.”
Thomas has seen much of Washington, D.C. change considerably over the last few decades. Just having an indoor tennis center East of the Anacostia River seemed like a far-fetched dream for most of his life. In an area plagued by gang violence and drugs, Thomas sees reaching out to children as the most effective way for long-term change in the community.
“We're situated in Ward 7, so we're really trying to change the dynamic in that ward through the kids,” he said. “I've always said, ‘the kid of today is the Thurgood [Marshall] of tomorrow.’ If you can help them, then there's less thugs out there on the streets and the neighborhood changes.”
In Ward 7 kids show up to play tennis at the WTEF center, often times without the proper equipment. The program provides them racquets and shoes, much of which has been given by generous people in the D.C. area. The WTEF is always accepting donations and even an old wooden racquet can provide a child the opportunity to learn the game.
“They play with used racquets,” he said. “It doesn't matter to them, they just want a racquet.”
Thomas and his colleagues at the WTEF have brought the gift to tennis to many young children who would otherwise never have the opportunity to play. It is a sport that requires more money to participate than basketball, for instance, which only takes a ball and a hoop. Many D.C. neighborhoods already have basketball courts and basketballs are much cheaper than what’s required to play tennis.
Thomas says seeing young kids play the game in Ward 7 has brought quite the contrast with the streets surrounding them. And just because tennis wasn’t something you saw around the WTEF center before it was built, doesn’t mean it hasn’t caught on with those living in the area.
“If you can play tennis you get respect in the neighborhood because they can't do it,” he said. “There have been instances where the thugs see these little kids playing and just like they might do on the basketball court, they say 'come here shorty let me take this racquet, let me do it.' And they can't do it.
“Then you'll find them sitting on the other side of the fence just watching these little kids play and say, 'dang I can't even do that.' They get a lot of respect from being able to play this game, it's a tough game.”
Thomas travels to schools in the D.C. area to tell young students about his program and how it can help them develop as people. He said he always asks the kids the question of what tennis players they know, and the answer is almost invariably the same: Venus and Serena Williams.
The Williams sisters and their story have resonated through the inner cities, especially with young African-American children, providing an example of how tennis can take you places.
“Venus and Serena is the number one answer. Venus and Serena are a lot like the kids, coming from the same type of area in Compton. These kids, even those who don't play tennis, know about Venus and Serena,” he said.
In discussing the famous tennis pros, however, Thomas cautions that what they’ve accomplished isn’t realistic for every young player trying to learn the game. They have heart and toughness that you can’t necessarily teach, he says. But he does enjoy pointing to their story to show the kids that people from backgrounds just like them can use the game to advance in life.
Thomas was inducted into the WTEF Hall of Fame on Wednesday at the H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center in a ceremony at the Citi Open. He has accomplished much in his life as a tennis teacher and mentor to young kids, but is still looking towards the future and how he can improve it. For now, he says, the goal is to strengthen tennis programs at local high schools as that is the final development stage before kids enter the real world.
“Give me five years and we'll be putting kids in those high schools and I think that will up the game,” he said.
For more information on how you can donate to the WTEF or sign up as a volunteer, visit the foundation’s website.