MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Historically, there has been a dearth of minority — specifically Black — head coaches and players in successful programs in the Chattanooga area's high school tennis scene.
That's not an indictment on the Scenic City as much as a reality that there is a shortage of young Black athletes who want to play tennis.
Jerry Pate built a successful program at Arts & Sciences, but he retired in 2012 after 23 seasons. There had been individual success stories for CSAS, such as two of Pate's players — twin sisters Ahmee and Kayla Kelly — pairing to win back-to-back doubles state championships in Class A/AA, which is now known as Division I Small Class.
John Mitchell, now the head coach at Signal Mountain, played at Central and advanced to the region championship match a couple of times. He was coached in high school by his father Jack, but that program fizzled once John graduated. The same could be said for Brainerd, which had a flash in the pan in 2014 when Alphonso Canty coached the Lady Panthers to a district team title and his daughters, twins Brianna and Brittney, to a district doubles championship.
Opportunities have existed everywhere, to the point that not having the means to be successful isn't an excuse.
Maybe that has started to shift.
During TSSAA Spring Fling competition this week at the Adams Tennis Complex in Murfreesboro, the team state title for Small Class girls was won by CSAS. The Lady Patriots were coached to that championship on Wednesday by Earl Finnell, whose daughter Sunshine was a senior and their No. 1 singles player. She also qualified for state in singles, and although she lost in the quarterfinals Thursday, she reached the finals as a sophomore in 2019. (Sunshine was among the thousands of Tennessee high school athletes who lost an entire season when the TSSAA called off spring sports in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Also this week, Mitchell's Signal Mountain boys' team advanced to the Small Class state finals for the second straight season in their fourth consecutive trip to the Spring Fling.
"Hopefully this just sets a great example to hopefully try to break down some barriers and maybe just some perceptions of the sport," Mitchell said earlier in the week. "I've been around the sport my whole life, and still to this day there's times where I maybe feel out of place or feel like I don't belong in some sections, but it's gotten to the point where I just get used to it and make myself comfortable with it. But hopefully, with people like myself and other great coaches and players and instructors we have not only locally but around the state, hopefully other people in my shoes won't have to deal with that because that perception has changed, and that's how things change.
"You have role models to look up to, to aspire to be like, and hopefully with myself and Earl and Sunshine, we're making great examples for the people to look up to and hopefully want to pick up a racket, or for people that are players to be more comfortable in their own skin a little bit more."
One thing Mitchell noted was the need for more black role models in the sport at its highest levels, where none currently exist on the men's side.
"It's why other sports, like basketball and football, are so popular in the United States, because people like me have those role models to look up to. People that look like them, people that talk like them, people that have the same backgrounds as them," he said.
Mitchell recalls what it was like to be a Black tennis player competing on the junior circuit.
"I'd be going to tournaments, and I'd go to matches and I'd be the only one, and it's definitely changing. It's slow, but it's definitely changing, and that makes me feel more comfortable and makes me want to be a role model and want to handle myself better to set a great example," he said.
The biggest challenge for the area is what to do to close the gap.
It's not about accessibility — tennis courts exist everywhere from Ooltewah to Warner Park — and it's not a lack of training. Earl Finnell wasn't sure why he started learning the sport of tennis at the age of 5, but it became more evident over time as he later became a private instructor and has added state championship coach to his résumé. Regardless of skin color, those opportunities are there, and players such as Serena Williams or Naomi Osaka have now given younger players someone to aspire to be — if they want it.
"It's really good that my dad and Coach John (Mitchell) are out here representing the black community," Sunshine said. "It's really important because mostly the tennis community is just white people. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's good to fight and have some diversity."
But as is the case in so many things in life, iron sharpens iron. That's why so many aspiring tennis players in the area choose to attend private schools such as Baylor, GPS and McCallie, where the instruction is happening year-round rather than only during the high school season.
Still, a week like this one, when people saw schools such as Signal Mountain and CSAS in the championship hunt, can make a difference. Those programs contending for and winning titles shows promising tennis players — or even those curious about playing — and aspiring coaches who happen to be Black that there can be multiple avenues for success.
"What I teach my players and my daughter is that you can't measure heart," Coach Finnell said. "You can measure money, but you can't measure heart. You get an opportunity to play, you play your best. You don't worry about buildings, facilities — as long as there's a hard surface with some paint and some lines on it, you play with all your heart. You don't worry about the money part, the facilities part, or whatever, you don't get intimidated by that."
One more title
When McCallie's Gabe Getz and Will Leathers took the court for the Division II-AA doubles final, they represented the last Chattanooga-area athletes in contention in any sport at this year's Spring Fling, and the only ones competing Friday.
They didn't disappoint.
Getz, a freshman, and Leathers, a junior, produced one final championship for the area in 2020-21 with a 6-3, 4-4 win against Memphis University School's Luke Donovan and Roberto Ferrer. That followed back-to-back straight-sets wins Thursday, and Getz and Leathers were also part of the Blue Tornado's success Wednesday, when McCallie cruised to a 4-0 victory against Montgomery Bell Academy for the 10th TSSAA team state championship in program history.
Getz and Leathers also produced the 10th TSSAA doubles state championship in program history.