TENNIS ACROSS AMERICA
July 1, 2018 | View PDF
One afternoon in June my telephone rang and it was an old Auburn buddy, Bill Marks. Bill and I went to Lanier together where he played on the tennis team. Bill went on to play for Sewanee University. We had talked many times, mostly about Auburn. But, that was not the purpose of his call. He reminded me of what a great tennis background that a mutual friend of ours had. Coach John McWilliams is the individual that he was talking about.
I have known “Coach” for probably twenty years. We both are old-timers when it comes to sports. Many cups of coffee we have drank at Chappy’s Deli. John had never mentioned his amazing career in tennis. Being a successful tennis coach at Huntingdon College was known by everybody in sports here in Montgomery. But, as I looked into the background of John McWilliams, it was obvious that we have had quite a legend walking among us in anonymity. I am indebted to my friend Bill for leading me to this story.
John was born in Birmingham, but soon moved with his family to Huntsville. His daddy had played a little tennis in Pine Apple and Oak Hill where he grew up. At an early age, John was exposed to his daddy’s interest in tennis. When John’s parents moved to Selma he was in the sixth grade. Tennis courts were more available there. John participated in all sports throughout junior high school. But, the real lure of
tennis got stronger as he read about all the tennis greats and saw pictures of them in action magazines. By the time John was in high school he was the best player in Selma. He organized and captained the tennis team at Parrish High School.
When John qualified for the National Junior Championships while playing for Parrish High School in Selma, he was excited. So, he went to talk to his father about going to the tournament. He said, “Dad, I really would like to go to this tournament.” His Dad looked at him with a not so favorable look and said, “Boy you’ve got to work in the store on Saturday.” That was the end of that. John worked in the store that Saturday.
From 1952 to 1957, John played on the University of Alabama Tennis Team. He was the number one player and captain for three years. After graduation he got his first taste of national competition by competing in the Southern Men’s Circuit and
National Clay Court Championships with partner Ray Senowski. They took one of the best doubles teams in the country to three sets. In 1957 and 1958, he was on the winning team of the Chicago Pro Doubles two years in a row. In 1964, he and
Nadine Netter won the Eastern Mixed Doubles Tournament.
John’s career is so hard to comprehend that I think it is best understood in chronological outline form. My most interesting story was when John was the tennis pro at The River Club in New York City from 1964 to 1967. It was there that he taught private playing lessons to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, Senator Robert Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Dina Merrill, Cliff Robertson, Mildred Natwick, Huntington Hartford and James Van Allen. How about that!
It would take three columns to due justice to the tennis exploits of John McWilliams so we decided to show what we could in pictures, and list some of his many accomplishments:
• Called service line during the U.S. Open for four years.
• Called service line when Rod Laver won his first Grant Slam in 1962.
• Officiated and umpired matches on the Jack Krammer Pro Tour, The
Pan American Games and the National Clay Court Championships.
• Conducted clinics in Chicago with Althea Gibson at Comenski Park.
• Narrated a history of tennis at the Worlds Fair in New York.
• Director of Tennis Sales and Promotion for Wilson Sporting Goods in New York
• Tennis Sales Director for Bancroft Sporting Goods – 1970-1972
• Member of the Alabama Tennis Hall of Fame.
• Member of the Huntingdon College Sports Hall of Fame.
Tennis Pro at the following locations:
• Charleston Tennis Club, Charleston, West Virginia
• The River Club, New York City
• Houston Racket Club, Houston, Texas
• Selma Country Club
In 1972 John came back to Selma to begin a new venture in tennis. He began a coaching career that has never really ended.
He was hired at Marion Military Institute in 1980 where he coached the college and the high school teams. His high school team won the State Private School Tournament in 1987 and his college team qualified for the National Junior College Tournament 1988 and 1989. While at Marion, he founded the Alabama Tennis Academy, which attracts young people from all over the southeast.
The last stop on this extraordinary journey brought John McWilliams to Montgomery as the head coach of the men’s and women’s tennis teams at Huntingdon College. John was never just a head coach even as much as that entails. He held camps and clinics all over the state. Ever the promoter , John was able to bring the great Rod Laver to Huntingdon for an exhibition and clinic on the Huntingdon Campus in 1994. Rod is the only player in tennis history to win two Grand Slams.
Today, John is content to occasionally “coach” his granddaughter, Anna and her daddy John IV. It is my belief that John enjoyed teaching the young children more than any of his accomplishments. He has devoted the later part of his life developing young tennis players. His “Tennis Across Montgomery” has involved thousands of young tennis hopefuls just like he was when he got started in Selma over seventy-five years ago. At the age of 84 John McWilliams, “Coach” John McWilliams, can talk tennis as long as you can listen. But, he can’t play very well anymore. He has earned the right to rest for a while!