Tennis is the type of game you can play forever. Once you learn the fundamentals of the sport, you can play for fun with friends; you can play in friendly leagues and make new friends, or you can play competitively on an amateur or a professional level, depending on your skill, mindset, and abilities. It is a sport that you can play most of your life and the friends and coaches you make over the years stay with you. In fact, tennis is a sport for everyone. John Wilkerson is living his life assignment, which is to coach, mentor and create legacies on the tennis courts from young kids to teens, all the while doing it with a love for the kids he teaches and the sport he has played since the age of 16.
The Life Assignment of John Wilkerson
John Wilkerson was born in San Antonio, and his parents were strong and supportive. He was one of three boys, and all were athletic, and when it came time for John to pick a sport, he knew he was going to play Baseball. He had spent hours listening to Gordon McClendon broadcasting all the baseball games on the radio, and he knew all the players, the fields and the game like the back of his hand. He was aware that this was the sport for him. And then one day John picked up a tennis racket at the age of 16.
Picking up a racket for the first time was like meeting your sweetheart you had waited for your entire life and finally met. That was like it was like for me the first time I held a racket in my hands when I was 16. Love at first sight.
John was a natural. He immediately joined the tennis team with no training and that year won the District and the State Championships in both singles and doubles. He had never played the sport before then. What he learned from tennis was more than just the love of the game, he learned discipline and respect from his coach and he learned how to interact with peers and adults alike.
John’s brothers went on to college, but John didn’t know what he was going to do after High School when he was approached by the Tennis Coach from Prairie View A&M University who offered him a full scholarship. After accepting it, he didn’t know what he was going to study, but he saw his brother was studying engineering and decided, why not? During that first year of college, John was the statistician for all the sports teams at Prairie View. He traveled with all the teams and played tennis, which left very little time for his tough class schedule. He realized this might not be the best place for him, so he went home to his supportive family and decided to join the army.
Thinking he would be in the field shooting guns, he ended up behind a desk pecking out on a typewriter in Germany, when he was approached by a Captain, who had heard that he played college tennis. He was asked to give lessons to him and his wife and when they saw how good he was, they asked him to play for the Army. After that, John spent the rest of his Army days playing tennis, putting together basketball leagues and even played for the German team. He spent 2.5 years playing on clay, which elevated his game until he returned home.
When he got home, he was determined to finish college, and when he couldn’t continue at Prairie View with his scholarship, he went to TSU, where they offered him a full scholarship. He finished college, playing tennis and graduated with honors while working with youths in the neighborhood to earn money to help the team travel. John coached college level tennis and moved around to various clubs. He qualified for the US Open without having a coach at the age of 26. He had won every single black tournament. But, he realized that tennis helped turn people around that his life assignment was coaching youths because he never truly had a coach.
Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil and MacGregor Park
John Wilkerson was head of the tennis program at MacGregor Park when he first met Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil. With his rules of always wearing a hat on the hottest days and no gum chewing on the court, he took both players to great heights in their tennis careers, and they each saw the beneficial ways of coaching that John had. The program he set up for his kids is one of success, and more importantly, it was inclusive, no matter what your background was, because, on the court, everyone is equal in John’s eyes, regardless of where they come from.
Zina Garrison began the Zina Garrison Academy, with John Wilkerson as one of the head coaches. The concept is simple. Anyone can play who wants to play. It’s free, all you have to do is bring your child out to play. They will provide the rackets if you don’t have one, the court time, the instruction and the love. John Wilkerson has never met a stranger. People are drawn to his personality and his charm. He is modest, kind and remembers everyone. He speaks to each child when they walk into the academy for class with a personal welcome. He doesn’t raise his voice, get angry, become frustrated or make kids play if they don’t want to play. He fosters a love of the sport in the kids as well as a competitive spirit, and his kids go on to receive college scholarships and win tournaments, and many come back to volunteer at the academy to teach the younger ones when they are back from college.
In 1979, John Wilkerson won the Eve Kraft USTA Community Service Award, which honors volunteer tennis leaders for significant contributions made to tennis development in their respective communities. He also won the Lloyd Sessions Educational Merit Award, which is given out in Texas for people who are building stronger junior tennis at all levels of skill and emphasizing education at the same time. John was inducted into the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame in 2002, and he was honored as a Team USA Coaching Legend at the second Team USA Coaching Awards reception, along with Jimmy Evert and Dennis Van Der Meer just last year.
Tennis is my life assignment. This is where I am meant to be. I am here not just to help these kids but put them on the right track. I love all of them and give them more than just skills; I give them hope, discipline, friendship, love, a shoulder to lean on and cry on, a mentor, a person they can count on. I never yell at the kids, and I make friends everywhere I go. To see these kids excel in life is why I do this. Tennis is the byproduct of that. I’m blessed to have found my life assignment.