In the mid-eighties I began writing a coaching manual. Maybe I’ll add the next twenty years experience to that in a “tennis coaching book” later. If I do, one person will be responsible. Coach Jim Leighton of Wake Forest University.
North Carolina had, for years, featured the East-West High School All-Star Games. The state added more sports, then girl’s all-stars, and the games progressed. My team had just won a trip to the NAIA Nationals. Hell, we finished fifteenth in the nation. The first tennis clinic being held in Greensboro was an afterthought. Coach Norfolk was going to the Basketball Game and I figured I’d pile in with him. My running buddy, Jack Hussey, was at the clinic, as always, and we were off. We were all over Guilford County, and Greensboro as well. Norfolk was in the bed when I sneaked in the shared motel room, very late. The tennis clinic was the next morning. I knew Norfolk was awake because he smoked 11 “Viceroys” before taking a morning leak.
I drug my ass out of bed just in time to make the 9:00 clinic at Latham Park in Greensboro. There were four coaches there including me. Coach Leighton rolled up with racquets & balls. He wore traditional white and it matched his hair. He looked just like “Colonel Sanders”. After pleasantries and introductions he began speaking in a new language. Two puzzled coaches left in ten minutes. The other at noon.
Coach Leighton was a master teacher, and my first introduction to someone that knowledgeable about the game. I was fascinated. One of his players, Paul Caldwell, was with him. When the other guy left, leaving only me, I was embarrassed, both by how much Leighton knew, and my own misjudgment about my greatness. I offered to abandon the afternoon session. I was delighted, and impressed, as Coach responded, “Tom, we’ve agreed to stay until 4:00. I can tell you are interested in learning. As long as you’ll stay, we’ll stay.”
Our college offered two hundred dollars per year for “professional growth” at convention trips. I never again spent mine on anything but my new mentor, Coach Jim Leighton . He would try to refuse my money, but I’d have paid triple. I was in his home, at his club, at his varsity practices, watching tapes on everything from his current players to sequential pictures of Ellsworth Vines. He had just completed “Inside Tennis: Techniques of Winning.” This book, much of the information by Leighton himself, also included contributions by Dennis Van Der Meer, Welby Van Horn, Chet and Bill Murphy, Wayne Sabin, Pauline Betz Addie and others. I loved Leighton and the book. I had so many questions. I’d book time in his Buena Vista Road home in Winston-Salem. We’d talk about the book, and with explanations by Coach Leighton, I felt like Moses on the Mount.
The USTA held our annual Teacher’s Convention just prior to the US Open in Flushing Meadow. One year Jim and I made almost every session. Every coach seemed to want to use his session to further his tennis standing. At one session Leighton’s bullshit detector kicked in. A coach was trying to sell a lame idea as the end of all tennis instruction; Leighton politely questioned the man’s premise. The clinician sloughed off this old white-haired guy’s puzzlement. Again coach queried, “I want to make sure I’m understanding what you’re saying.” An abrupt, “Am I not speaking plainly enough?” was his answer. Selling the same lame premise, the clinician was startled when Leighton rose and stated, “Sir, you are addressing the tennis teachers of America and beyond. Never have I heard such a crock of baloney.” He turned to me and said “Get up Tom, we’re getting out here!” I followed beside him.
One day at the New York host hotel he asked, “Do you want to hear someone who knows tennis?” My immediate response was “Sure!” Coach said,“Meet me in the lobby at 6:30 AM for breakfast.” I joined Coach and Chet Murphy in a downtown café. Chet and Bill Murphy were Californians who knew the biomechanics of tennis. I’d heard Chet Murphy as a clinician. He seemed nervous, my having heard so much about him, but once the first technical question was asked, he was off and running. This morning Leighton did something I’d never seen him do. He deferred to Murphy, asking questions the way I’d asked of him. And while there was great mutual respect, I’ve got to say Murphy was impressive. I was all ears . This was a time when all kinds of research was being done in tennis. I was pleased with the next question asked by Coach Leighton, “Chet, how do you feel about what we’ve done?” (Meaning the old time proponents of “classic” tennis instruction.) Chet thought a moment and said, “We should have let them hit more western grip forehands. Other than that everything was right.”
Coach Leighton was buried the day the “Jimmy Powell Tennis Center” was dedicated at Elon in 1988. It was in Wait Chapel on the campus that had named their stadium after this fine man, coach and friend. People say you don’t have to play to be a coach. Or that you don’t have to have much other than good players (“You can’t make chicken salad, ‘till you get the chicken.”) My feeling is I became a much better coach after meeting my mentor. I know it made me money. I taught everyone in Wilson and the surrounding area for years. I took Leighton’s advice and sought out private sessions with Dennis Van Der Meer and Welby Van Horn. They couldn’t have been nicer to me.