JAMforKIDS, Atlanta, GA
High Perf. Director
Advanced Tennis Found.
South Fulton, GA
From February on:
Questions for Erik Graves
TCB: Erik, where were you born?
EG: I was born and raised until 13yo in Gary, Indiana. I was on a national traveling 6th-grade basketball team (as a 3rd grader), so basketball and becoming Michael Jordan was my dream. During my second grade year, Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson came to town to inaugurate our sports complex named Hudson-Campbell, which was created by America's first black mayor, Richard Hatcher. I went to the Emerson School of Visual and Performing Arts, where I studied dance and drama as apart of my middle school curriculum. I loved it, and I'm grateful to have been born in such a great town.
TCB: How old were you when you started with tennis and who got you into it?
EG: Even after the great Arthur Ashe himself handed me my first racket, I wasn't convinced tennis was more of my sort than basketball or boxing (my dad played football and basketball at Illinois State and won the Golden Gloves in Illinois as well. I wanted to "be like Mike" so basketball was it! But my dad knew that I loved shopping, so he bribed me. Here offered me $1/day to practice tennis. I figured after a month, I could buy a new Nintendo game, and more so, I picked up the racket and started my journey. That's when I met our local hero and my first coach, Clarence Walker. Clarence was the great Coach John Wooden's first All- American at Indiana State University and was the first black man to play in the NCAA tournament. He was also good at tennis, baseball, fishing, and pretty much life. My dad paid him $30 for one lesson a week. My only directive was that my dad did not want to hear Clarence repeat himself each lesson. I had to grasp the concept, work on it during the week, and show mastery or exponential improvement the following week. It worked! I played my first event only two wks after picking up a racket, and within two years, I was the youngest player participating in the boys' 14 Nationals as an 11yo. Clarence took me fishing instead of practice the first lesson.
The next two lessons we just talked. I was a bit of an emotional wreck. My parents were divorcing, and I just wanted to hit something hard a lot. So I lived on the wall at the racket ball court each day until my next lesson with Clarence. I fell in love with the solitude, and the notion that I could will and train myself to greatness. Clarence told me that I must remain humble, and I could get into any door in this world. I have often forgotten that lesson, but I am determined to follow it for the rest of my days. Clarence passed away a year after starting me, and I still miss him dearly. I know the impact of a great teacher or coach or mentor, and I have learned from the best! After Clarence, my dad and I met the best tennis coach in the world, Juan Farrow. Juan was Arthur Ashe's protege and was Dr. Walter Johnson's, coach of Althea Gibson and Ashe, greatest talent. Juan beat McEnroe and Connors while becoming the top 12 and 14yo in the world, winning the Orange Bowl World Championships twice before Dr. Johnson died in his arms after church when Juan was 14.
Juan still went on to win the NCAA championships three times at SIU Edwardsville and top 200 on the ATP rankings. He was in Chicago coaching at Hyde Park when we met him. My dad challenged him by saying that he didn't look like much, and Juan shot back that he was the world's best. Juan was going through a divorce and, lucky for me, moved into our home in Gary. Gary was the murder capital and one of the country's poorest cities after losing almost all of our steel mills. We were a Boilermakers and steelworkers town, so it went to crap when the mills closed. But I thought I was Richy Rich growing up in Gary. I had 22 acres in my backyard, a huge home, a barn, a horse, 2 basketball courts, a pond, and a 2-story clubhouse. I jumped horses, was a junior forest ranger, national spokesman for the No Dope Express Foundation out of Chicago, spell team, track team, basketball team, honor roll, and more so I lived a full childhood.
TCB: Did you play tennis in High School?
EG: After transferring to Morehouse College from NC State University, I set a school and conference record by going undefeated and defeating the #1 player on the #1 team in the nation. I always knew that I wanted to play pro tennis. I knew I wanted to turn pro after attending Martin Luther King's alma mater. And I knew that I wanted to coach and have my own academy in America and Africa one day. My dad made me keep a journal since 9yo and I've recently read my plans from 30 years ago. Although I've had a lot of pitfalls and shortcomings, I am following the plan I made as a young kid. I am about to start in February '20 as the tennis director of the city of Shreveport LA, which is the birthplace of Richard Williams. I'm excited!!
TCB: After NC State and Morehouse with an Economics degree, what made you decide on a career in tennis?
EG: After NC State and Morehouse, where I went undefeated and beat the #1 player on the top team at the NCAA Champs, I wanted to play professionally. I didn't have a sponsor or anything, so I got a job at Collins Hill Athletic Club with my best friend, roommate at NC State, and practice partner, Eric Jackson. I also worked under one of my mentors, Greg Amerson, who would often have me work with his top players- Grace Min and Andie Daniel. But I wasn't satisfied, so I moved to Florida to train my first WTA player Heidi El Tabakh(CAN), and her younger brother, who attended Ole Miss. I figured if I could work and train top players, I could keep my game sharp enough to eventually go on tour myself.
I met a boxer a year or so later that was impressed by my game and offered to sponsor me on tour for a few months. I did ok. I learned a lot about myself and my passion. I got to the semis of a couple of national events and even won a few prize money events. But I knew that I was circling. I knew that I was in a rich sport without riches. So I decided to be an underground legend. I would train players at public parks, high schools, and subdivisions. I would bet and challenge whomever I could and kept my serve and fitness strong, which I knew were in my control. At 24yo, my dad asked me to visit a "phenom" that had just moved to town from Chicago. I knew he must have been good because I had taken lessons from his dad when I was 9yo. So I met Donald Young, and his parents hired me. I went with him to his first Junior French Open and Wimbledon. I thought his parents were awesome coaches that were unsung in the global tennis community. We split after four months, and I moved to Europe for a while in order to play on the English and Spanish prize money circuit. After returning home, I worked with players in Florida, New Jersey, and India as well as here. I am still on the court and immensely involved with the game I love. I help whoever asks, including a multitude of players that have earned college scholarships.
TCB: You must be pretty busy at ReCreation Tennis, Advanced Tennis Foundation, The Bald Head Island Club, and for JAMforKids. What do you enjoy the most?
EG: Great question! A couple of years ago I started watching a tv show called the Profit. It's about a guy that helps businesses, mainly restaurants, reach their potential. Then I noticed how many corporate consultants exist in other industries and how few in tennis. So I started reaching out to colleagues offering my assistance with high performance, overall programming, techniques, and profit increases. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with each of those organizations. I am extremely excited about my next venture as tennis director of the Bill Cockrell Tennis Center in Shreveport, LA. I've recently met with the community, and I feel immensely blessed that they have chosen me as their director. I have twin 4yo boys that will absolutely love my new tennis home. The center has everything a coach could ask for: great courts, playground, pool, clubhouse, activity center, and a wonderfully thriving community tennis association. I'm excited, to say the least!!
TCB: What are the biggest challenges in your work?
EG: My biggest challenge in work has been dealing with weather and scheduling and just having a temperature-controlled to train.
TCB: Where do you ultimately want to take your organizations and foundations? What are your goals?
EG: I have a goal and vision for Bill Cockrell Tennis Center for filling all courts with 8 players each for the most fun cardio tennis class ever. I have a goal for the children in our community to have so much fun that they beg their parents to play tennis alongside their other sport or activity. I have written a cardio tennis program/drill book that can be tailored for any age group or level. My focus is on group doubles drills because not only is that where we will find the most fun for everyone, it's also the key to getting our high-performance players to play more vertically, which is the new wave. My goal is to excite the Shreveport community to the point where their enthusiasm makes waves throughout the south and nation. My goal this year is to build a thriving daycare program, have my new children's book(almost done) in the hands of every child in the city and have our group mixers. I would also like to get more involved with the USTA, PTR, USPTA, WTA, ATP, and ITF. I envision every fence surrounding our courts to be full of banners advertising businesses in our local community. Lastly, I plan to install a Video Gaming/Coding Center in the space that would have been used for our pro shop. We will sell stringing services and racket accessories. Since we will not sell clothing and bags at the center, we will have space for the people to squeeze in more fun. Hopefully, we will one day be recognized as innovators in reinvigorating our sport and community.
TCB: Do you still play tennis yourself?
EG: Yes, I haven't had a chance to play much since my 4yo twin sons came into my life. I have now started to better intertwine parenting and business. This year I will play more again. I plan to host some prize money events this year that I may play. I'm excited!
TCB: Have you played pickleball? If yes, do you like it and are you teaching it?
EG: Yes, I've played Pickleball, and I am happy that people have found another reason to play outside. It is the fastest-growing sport in America. I know my numbers. I would be an idiot to ignore the Pickleball community. We have a few courts and church gymnasiums around the city where Pickleball play is promoted. Although our main focus is still growing tennis, pickleball players will have space to have their fun and some programs geared especially for them.
TCB: Thank you, Erik Graves.