By Sigurd Neubauer
“Helping and mentoring people is part of my roots,” says Ray Benton, the chief executive of the Junior Tennis Champions Center, referring to how both his parents were professors and educators at the University of Iowa.
Benton, 81, who pursued a career in business and sports management, has spent a lifetime promoting tennis for all, including through expanding opportunities for children from America’s inner cities to making the sport accessible for wheelchair users. The JTCC even has a Special Olympics Tennis program.
“This is the best job I have ever had,” Benton exclaims as he takes me around the JTCC’s sprawling campus at College Park, Maryland.
One of the first people we meet is Frances Tiafoe, currently ranked as 31 in the world, who casually eats his lunch while watching the tennis channel at the JTCC lounge. Tiafoe, a JTCC student, has been with the organization since he was about four years old where his father was the maintenance director.
Although Benton is a life-long tennis enthusiast, who learned the game at the relative “late” age of 15, he never envisioned that it would become his career.
Two years later he began teaching tennis at public parks and country clubs before eventually making it onto the University of Iowa tennis team where he met Donald Douglas Klotz who would become an early mentor.
JTCC has an active and competitive wheelchair tennis program
Klotz, explains Benton, “was extremely innovative as he both invented an underground watering system for clay courts and the ‘volley method’ for teaching tennis.” But it was at a local country club where Benton developed his knack for selling tennis. “When I started, the club had 35 tennis players by the time I left in 1966, it had over 500.”
While pursuing his law degree at the University of Iowa in 1966 and later at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business where he started his MBA program that very same fall, Benton taught tennis on the side.
But the draft and the Vietnam war would soon catch up with him.
Instead of being deployed to Vietnam, however, Benton was transferred to army’s legal office at Fort McClellan, Alabama from 1967-68.
A young man in a hurry, Benton did not waste any time during his military service where he rose early so that he could get off in time to teach tennis in the afternoon.
It was during his time in the army, Benton says with a laugh, that Donald Trump attended Wharton but the two would never meet or cross paths.
Fast forward, in 1971 Benton established a professional relationship with legendary tennis champion Arthur Ashe by joining his foundation, the National Junior Tennis League where he began teaching the game to children from the inner cities.
“Ashe is one of the most important Americans in history,” Benton tells me. Ashe, born and raised in segregated Richmond, VA, became the first African American player selected to the US Davis Cup team who later went on to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. King, who became a feminist icon in 1973 after she won the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs, was ultimately awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Barack Obama in 2009.
While helping to set up Ashe’s foundation, which ultimately expanded from four to fifty cities across the nation, Benton established a law practice in Washington, D.C which in 1975 evolved into sports management company ProServe.
In addition to Ashe and King as clients, ProServe promoted some of America’s top athletes, such as tennis champions Stan Smith, Tracy Austin, Jimmy Connors Pam Shriver and Ivan Lendl. Some of his other superstar clients included basketball legends Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, golfer Payne Stewart and baseball’s Dave Winfield, among others.
Meanwhile, Benton’s office walls are graced with images of Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Michael Jordan, Tracy Austin and Gabriela Sabatini along with a black tennis racket made of plastic. The racket, Benton explains, was invented by Bob Lange, who had previously invented the plastic ski boot.
“We developed a prototype racket that was tested by a number of pros and seemed to have promise. However, the company had warranty issues with the ski boot and there simply wasn’t enough funding left to do a major research and development project with the tennis racket,” Benton tells me while adding that “he’s a capitalist but a proud liberal”.
He also laughing recalls a weekend in 2012 spent discussing tennis and politics with Fox News personality Sean Hannity, who Benton describes as warm, gregarious and funny. “I really enjoyed our exchange.”
Benton believes in business to help advance the causes he cares about, including the JTCC.
“We have a solid business operation with a positive cash flow, which enables us to provide space to people can’t afford it,” says Benton when asked what his biggest accomplishment at JTCC has been.
He quickly attributes the center’s success to its founder, Ken Brody, a former investment banker who also happens to be his neighbor.
“Brody created a training center where hardworking young people from all demographic backgrounds could gain the skills to earn their own college tennis scholarships. Without his vision and generosity, there is no chance that an organization like JTCC would ever be created in the Washington DC area,” Benton says.
As a testimony to the JTCC’s commitment to making tennis accessible to all people, it has developed a program for wheelchair users as well as a general program for adult beginners.
In 2018, JTCC wheelchair athletes Eddie Daniello, Michael Heup, Bijan Bagheri and Mark Salewski won medals at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, WA.
Commenting on how the wheelchair program fits into the JTCC community, Brenda Gilmore, one of the top wheelchair tennis coaches in the nation, says: “People who have disabilities often don’t have the opportunity to play sports due to lack of access. JTCC provides the wheelchair community access to social and physical development and it really makes a difference in our lives.”
She adds: “They have wrapped their welcoming arms around the wheelchair players and I know it has helped both communities grow tremendously.”
But tennis is also about paying it forward.
Benton concludes our interview by emphasizing that every JTCC graduate must give back once they reach champions’ level by teaching tennis at the inner cities and to wheelchair users.