Tennis Anyone

By Bill • April 9, 2014

My Story - Bill Davis

I grew up in Harlem, which was an unlikely place to find a private Black tennis club. In 1940 at the age of ten, while walking past the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club at 149th street and Convent Avenue, a voice in the doorway said, "Hey kid, want to run balls for this match?". My answer was an immediate "Yes", for I had always wanted to see what was on the other side of that fence. It so happens that the American Tennis Association (ATA) was conducting their annual National Championships at the club. Once inside, it was like Alice In Wonderland to me. They had a club house, five red clay courts and a junior program. That's the day I fell in love with the world of tennis, which as I would later find out guided my life.

As I ran around the court picking up the balls, I noticed that the players would shake hands at the end of the match, even though they had been fierce competitors a moment before. I understood later that good competition and sportsmanship was not just about who won and who lost, but also had to do with the quality and determination of how each played the game. Did they give it their all and play near their full potential? Were their calls honest, even on important points? Did they learn something about themselves, as well as, their game? This would be only the first of many lessons tennis, and it’s environment would teach me. Finding the answers to these questions would be an invaluable lesson in the years to come.

My eagerness and desire to learn the game eventually earned me a membership in the club. As I got to know the members, many of whom I considered the Black middle-class of the day, and listened in on their conversations, their words and stories, indicated that there were no short cuts to success, either in tennis or in life. They talked of the importance of getting a good education if you wanted a job with a career. They said that tennis was a game for honest people because you had to continually execute the basic techniques of the game, such as watching the ball on contact, or making sure you completed your follow-through on your ground strokes. Respect for those who came before you also was essential, they said, because they had both seniority and experience over you. I over-heard them say that discipline came from hard work and diligence, and that with each act you perform you are putting your own signature on it. As I look back now, I realize that a blueprint for living was beginning to take shape in my mind.

As my game improved I became aware that tennis was not only a game of sets and matches, but in reality a game of points, with each point having it's own scenario and meaning. Although speed and strength may have its own merits, competitive tennis is at least 50% mental. Fortunately, for me many of my matches were to be won on my ability to concentrate for the entire time it took for the match. A fire-cracker could go off next to the courts and it wouldn't bother me. But my biggest mental weapon however, was my determination to win. Being down a set just made me more determined to hang in. Later on I would find this attitude indispensable in the world of business for too many people limit their challenges instead of challenging their limits .

As a result of my accomplishments in tennis I got a scholarship to Tennessee State University, where I had to manage the dual roles of athlete and student. Remembering the sage words of getting a good education in order to get a meaningful job, I managed to graduate with a 3.5 average, and in 1955 get selected to "Who's Who In American Colleges and Universities". The experience of traveling, both for the team and on my own after graduation, gave me a special kind of enrichment.

Fortunately, tennis took me all over the world. From the ATA Championships in Wilberforce, Ohio where I was fortunate to win it’s Championships a grand total of 11 times, to the US Grass Court Championships at Forest Hills, the All Bermuda Tournament, Wimbledon, the British Hard Court Championships in England, the German Nationals in Wolfsberg Germany where incidentally they make the Volkswagon car. Tennis became my love and passion, and opened up the whole world to me. There's no experience like seeing different lands and meeting people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. Tennis taught me never to change a winning game, and experiencing people of diverse backgrounds taught me what a great value there is in respecting each other's differences. After all, where would the world be if we all thought or acted alike?

The long arms of tennis once again caressed me when a tennis contact of mine arranged a job interview for me with IBM. I would stay with them for the next 27 years as a systems engineer and education producer. After an early retirement from IBM, I was fortunate enough to be appointed an Assistant Commissioner in the NYC Parks Department during the Dinkins administration. As you can see so many of the lessons and contacts that I received from tennis transcended into the world of business. The matches I won because I refused to give up, or the patience to focus for an entire match had all prepared me for this other competitive world. Patricia, my beautiful and loving wife, who I had met earlier in my tennis days at a tournament in New Haven, but didn’t meet again for some 30 plus years, was another wonderful blessing of tennis. That's why I feel so strongly that the many experiences, lessons, and contacts we encounter in sports can go a long way in filling out that blueprint called life. It goes to show you that experience is not necessarily what happens to a person, but what they do with what happens to them.


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