by Steve Fogleman, Special for Tennis Grandstand
When I arrived at the Tennis Center at College Park to speak with its CEO, Ray Benton, he was finishing up a lesson with former U.S. Congresswoman Jane Harman. He’d agreed to speak with me after the practice and he was still stretching when our conversation began. I admit that at first I was bemused by the notion of a crossroads of politics and tennis. You don’t see that every day. But for tennis statesman Ray Benton, it was business as usual. He’s as comfortable on court with children as he is in the halls of power in Washington. Legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to repeatedly insist that all “politics is local”. Witnessing the VIP lessons he’s giving and the expansive, state-of-the-art tennis training facility he’s managing (largely funded by the former Chairman of the US Export-Import Bank), you realize that Benton is the embodiment of O’Neill’s mantra. Benton’s career arc has taken him from local to national to international and now, to some degree, back to local tennis. With that breadth of experience, he brings with him the uncanny ability to cultivate a major-league presence even in the deepest of grassroots tennis.
His office substantially resembles the International Tennis Hall of Fame in miniature. The walls of his paper-piled workspace are adorned with posters and photos from tennis events from the last forty years. With all of his energy, it is difficult to believe he is 71. He still competes in senior tournaments “when my body’s working”, he said.
Benton is an Iowa native who moved to Washington in 1971. He started playing the game at 15 and “really took to it right away”. Later, he spent two years with the Iowa Hawkeye team in Big Ten play. While attending college, law school and a year of business school, he worked in the summer as the tennis pro at Dubuque Country Club in Dubuque, Iowa. He was brought in to start a tennis program at a “golf wacko club where tennis was a nuisance”. It had “two broken-down courts and 35 tennis playing club members”. He was up for the challenge, and within a few years, Benton had installed six lighted courts, attracted 500 players and even trained 20 state-ranked juniors there. “That’s when I figured out maybe I should be in the business”.
Even after he was drafted and sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama in 1966, he managed to stay active in the game, serving as head pro at the Gadsden and Anniston Country Clubs and varsity coach for Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He then spent a couple of years in Colorado running that state’s Youth Tennis Foundation and putting on professional events before Washington called. Then, Benton’s call to DC came to Denver. Through Dubuque.
“As I was finishing business school, a guy I knew from Dubuque had hit it big, Bob Lange. He invented the plastic ski boot. I went into business with him to develop the first plastic tennis racquet. We had a prototype and I suggested that we have a tournament in Denver. And in order to get any American players there, I had to talk to the Davis Cup captain named Donald Dell. We worked together and a year later, I moved here.”
Dell was looking for partners in a law firm that would eventually morph into sports management company ProServ years later. During his early days in Washington, he also served as the first National Executive Director of the National Junior Tennis League.
From DC, the firm represented big names in tennis like Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Tracy Austin. They also managed top athletes throughout the world of sport, including Michael Jordan, Boomer Esiason, Dave Winfield and Payne Stewart. Yet the firm’s focus stuck with tennis for an important reason.
Mark McCormick started IMG and based it around golf and Donald started ProServ around tennis. After all, he was the Davis Cup captain and Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe were on his team.
As a law firm, we couldn’t solicit clients. We could write a letter to a company saying ‘I’m writing on behalf of Arthur Ashe to see if you might have interest’. We couldn’t put out a promotional brochure for Arthur, so we started the company Proserv. It was an affiliated marketing company to the law firm. When our firm split in ’83, Donald and I kept the name ProServ and made it the major identity.
During the nineties, Benton founded the Worldwide Senior Tennis Circuit. He secured more than $35 million in corporate sponsorships at a time when interest in tennis had started to wane. He also saw the events as more than a tournament, but an “entertainment event” with theme nights, contests and celebrity matches.
After spending most of the last decade doing marketing consulting for clients like the ATP, the PGA, the Vic Braden Tennis Academy and national mentoring advocacy group MENTOR, he was hired as the CEO of the Tennis Center at College Park. Once again, politics and tennis intersected, as banker and Clinton Administration appointee Kenneth Brody needed someone to market the tennis facility he had built in College Park. And he went straight to Benton to market it.
So, now that this writer knows he’s talking to the right person for the question, is DC a tennis town?
It is, but it needs to regain the stature it once had, and not only Washington, but many other area of the country. Tennis is totally a bottom-up sport. The great majority of energy comes from the grassroots. And that’s what advances tournament play, pro play, collegiate play. Frankly, I think we got lazy in this sport. We had so much momentum, so much success and great stars and I think the leaders of tennis, everyone became deluded that tennis was driven by Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. And the fact of the matter is in the days of Connors, Borg and McEnroe, participation in tennis in the United States decreased. We didn’t develop the next generation of Nick Bollettieris, of Vic Bradens or Dennis Van Der Meer or Peter Burwash. Who are the biggest names of teaching pros these days? Still those guys. If I asked you that same question 35 years ago, you’d have the same answer.
Benton’s approach to bringing the game back is simple. “A kid should be introduced to tennis the same way they should be introduced to basketball, which is they should have fun, be on a team, and compete the first day. And then they get hooked on the fun. And when they improve, then you offer them instruction. How many kids would play basketball if they were required to take three weeks of dribbling lessons and two weeks of shooting lessons before they were allowed to play the game? You’d have a lot fewer basketball players, wouldn’t you?”
He’s already building JTCC for the future. “You need leadership from the bottom. We’re going into schools now. We have a program called “Game On”. We’re trying to spread this game as far and wide as we can. We’re working with Prince George’s County Parks. We’ll have five sites in the summer. I see a lot more highly-ranked kids. I see a lot more inner city stuff. Five years from now, I see a much larger percentage of our kids coming from the inner city. I see considerable expansion here. We can expand. We’ve got room.”
As far as accolades the Tennis Center and the Junior Tennis Champions Center have received recently, he’s not wasting any time basking in the glory. “Attention is fine, but substance is what counts. We were very under marketed when I got here. There’s no question about that. One of the main reasons to get your name out is to attract the best athletes and do fundraising, because we’re a non-profit. We depend on it.”
Benton is audibly proud of the hundreds of kids who have been a part of the program. When he talks about the JTCC talent, it’s as if he is the proud grandfather of all of them. You almost expect him to have a photograph of every one of them in his wallet. “Denis Kudla is #184 in the world right now. There are only one or two players younger than him who are ranked higher. Mitchell Frank is excelling at Virginia. Trice (Capra) is at Duke. Skylar Morton graduated from here in three years and is playing very well, #3 or 4 at UCLA. She should be a senior in high school.”
Then there’s the next class of Junior Champions. After we spoke about Riverdale’s FrancisTiafoe and Reisterstown’s Yancy Dennis, he was more than ready to talk up the local girls climbing the ladder. “We have a girl named Elizabeth Scotty, who’s 10 and 16th in the country in under 12s. We are really strong in the 14 girls, including three girls from Baltimore, NadiaGizdova (Columbia, MD), Raveena Kingsley (Parkton, MD) and Jada Robinson (Reisterstown, MD). And next week, we’ll have a girl that is as good as any of them. Usue Arcornada. She’s coming with (longtime JTCC Coach) Frank Salazar. She’s originally from Argentina, but grew up in Puerto Rico. And she is a tiger.”
Steve Fogleman is a Baltimore, MD-based attorney when not covering tennis. He manages the website Tennis Maryland and can be followed on twitter @TennisMaryland for further updates.