After our September feature "Disappearing Black Tennis Players" we decided to interview more African American tennis professionals and community leaders. Here is our feature interview with Rodney Harmon, since July 2012 Head Women's Tennis Coach at Georgia Institute of Technology.
Immediate Past President, Professional Tennis Registry
(From the PTR website)
Rodney has been Head Women’s Tennis Coach at Georgia Tech since July 2012. He has more than 25 years in player development. Prior to leading the Yellow Jackets, Rodney had been the Director of Tennis at Deerwood Country Club and Head Men’s Tennis Coach for the University of Miami. He left the Hurricanes to join the USTA High Performance, where he advanced to Director of Men’s Tennis, and coached future pros including Todd Martin, MaliVai Washington, and Alex O'Brien. During his tenure at the USTA, Rodney served as the Head Coach of the US Men's Tennis Team at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. He was also Director of Multicultural Development for USTA Community Tennis and was responsible to develop strategies and implement initiatives to increase diversity in tennis. A former pro player, Rodney became the only African-American man besides Arthur Ashe to reach the quarterfinals at the US Open (1982). As Head Men’s Tennis Coach for the University of Miami, Rodney was named the Big East Men's Tennis Coach of the Year in 1996 and 1997, was named PTR Professional of the Year in 1988, and PTR Coach of the Year in 1994. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Rodney is in the ITA Hall of Fame.
Questions for Rodney Harmon
TCB: Rodney, how old were you when you started with tennis and who got you into it?
RH: started playing tennis at age nine. My motivation was my older brother who played on the NJTL team near our house in Richmond, VA.
TCB: How did your tennis career evolve as a junior through high school to college to the pro tour?
RH: My tennis career evolved with help from my coach, Willis Thomas Jr. and Nick Bollettieri and the coaches at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
TCB: Share your feelings when you reached the quarterfinals of the 1982 US Open and how do you feel today knowing you are only the third Black player together with Arthur Ashe and James Blake to come that far?
RH: The experience was surreal. I just tried to play my best in all my matches. I contracted food poisoning the night before my first match. I was unsure if I would be able to play. I started out slowly but managed to win that match in four sets. My Match in the round of 16 against Eliot Teltscher in the Grandstand was one of the best matches I ever played.
TCB: This year, we hear and read a lot about social injustice movements like Black Lives Matter. How do you see that as it relates to tennis? Can you share your experience today as opposed to growing up and during your active playing time?
RH: I am a child of the Civil Rights Era as I was born in 1961. There are more opportunities today than when I grew up. What is different is it feels as if there are fewer coaches of color training young players and taking them to tournaments.
TCB: In our September issue we pointed out weaknesses in the USTA's Diversity & Inclusion approach (Disappearing Black Tennis Players.) What would you do in order to make this approach more successful?
RH: I would focus my energy on training and developing more coaches of color. If the goal is to increase tennis activity in minority communities, trained coaches of color are an important aspect to drive growth. Where there are trained and dedicated coaches, you will find more players at all levels. Parents typically volunteer for activities their children are involved in so having more coaches of color will help nurture more parents willing to volunteer at the local, state, section and national level.
TCB: Is College Tennis doing enough when it comes to D&I?
RH: I am the Chairman of the PTR Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. We are working closely with the ITA to better publicize college coaching as a career and provide resources to assist them if they decide to pursue this career path. Tim Russell and Dave Mullins from the ITA are working closely with us in this venture.
TCB: If money were no object, what would you do to attract more African Americans to the sport of tennis?
RH: Provide more training for coaches and funding to offset travel and training costs for young players and their families.
TCB: What do we have to do to attract more Black coaches and tennis directors to our sport?
RH: We have to show tennis instruction as a viable career option with opportunities for upward mobility. We need to provide more opportunities for coaches of color to work at country clubs and private facilities. There are very few Tennis Directors of color at the top 100 country clubs in the US.
TCB: Are you still playing tennis? If yes, what's your racquet of choice?
RH: I hit with my team at Georgia Tech regularly. My racket of choice is the Head Prestige Pro.
TCB: Have you played pickleball? How do you like it?
RH: I love Pickleball When I was the President of the PTR, we initiated an arrangement with the US Pickleball Association. Because of this partnership, I and our board at the time attended the US Pickleball Championships at the Indian Wells Tennis facility I was blown away by the attendance at the event Also, the Pickleball crowd was so laid back and fun.
TCB: Thank you, Rodney Harmon.