There’s a certain artistic elegance and civility in tennis that no other sport can lay claim to.
Where, for example, does one see an otherwise aggressive player raise his or her palm in contrition over a ball that may have come too close to their opponent? Or, which other sport would tolerate the unabashed audacity of opponents applauding each other’s winning shots? And, which sport would even think about using the word “love” to keep score?
Moreover, the back and forth of a finely played tennis match can be compared to a beautifully choreographed pas de duex, a dance in which a graceful forehand and a stylish backhand are reminiscent of the charm, style and fluidity of a master toreador, waving his cape at the charging bull and gently stepping out of harm’s way at the last possible moment.
The tennis player must exact overwhelming control over every muscle, and just as importantly, over every emotion. The accomplished tennis player displays an astounding ability to sharpen his or her focus, shun loud distractions and execute a shot with the balance, poise and control of a gymnast.
Tennis courts can be found virtually anywhere on the globe, and the sport is said to be the world’s second most played. It’s defined by its self-reliant nature, where hard work, repetition and a commitment to constant improvement, often against a wall, are essential for success.
And, amid the splendor and exquisiteness of a match well-played, there’s a striking economy of movement that seems to disregard the strength and power inherent in the game.
To win, a tennis player must possess an incredible forcefulness of mind, an unbridled control of body and an unflinching firmness of heart.
To win consistently, those traits must be hard-wired into the very soul of the player, and the coach.
Such is the case of Jon Stein, tennis coach at McKinney North High School.
“I have a strong love affair for tennis. It has been with me through the good times and the bad times in my life so I have a strong commitment to honor it,” he said.
In true Stein fashion he attributes those heady accomplishments to others.
“We’ve gotten there because of a lot of hard-working kids and a great assistant coach,” he said.
Josh Greenwood is Stein’s assistant and coach of the junior varsity, essentially the program’s farm club and pipeline. The two constantly collaborate, sharing coaching duties. During matches and practices, they stand side by side, discussing players’ strengths, and strategizing on how to groom up-and-coming players.
While recruiting at the high school level is not allowed, the North program benefits from the rigorous programs at the feeder middle schools, especially Cockrill Middle School, McKinney ISD’s newest. Additionally, since North is an open enrollment campus, parents and students can choose to enroll there, and having a top-flight, state-ranked, no-nonsense tennis program can sometimes tip the scales.
On top of that, Stein is on the staff at Stonebridge Ranch’s Select Tennis Academy run by Dave Wiest, known professionally as Tennis Coach Dave, and Luis Herrera. Stein’s work with the Academy gives him a rare chance to see players develop, as he helps them perfect every aspect of their game.
Wiest is not at all surprised at Stein’s success. “Jon is very knowledgeable and an extremely dedicated coach,” said Wiest.
Normally, Stein’s tennis savvy would be enough to help him elevate his win totals, but Wiest says Stein has something more. “He is truly is a player's coach,” he added, paying Stein perhaps the ultimate compliment one coach can give another.
And, while racking up tennis wins at an astonishing pace is personally satisfying, Stein makes it clear to his student-athletes that they are indeed students first and athletes second. The students are often reminded that their commitment to McKinney North, to each other and to themselves take top billing.
“I think we have earned a lot of respect at North for our success. I have a big personality and so do many of our athletes, so it draws attention to us. But in the end, I expect my athletes to be leaders in the school and classroom. I expect them to be excellent in all they do,” he said.
His players understand that, since many are in either the gifted and talented program or are taking advanced placement courses, preparing them for college and beyond. And their smarts apparently translate to the courts as the program has produced state champion Jordan Hart, state finalist Brandon Florez and no less than five state qualifiers. Any high school program would beam with pride at those numbers, but it’s especially significant for a school in a small community that has only been in existence since 2001.
He takes on the proud tone of mentor when describing the successes of his protégés. “We’ve had numerous athletes go on to play NCAA and College Club tennis; we’ve had some go on to be doctors, accountants, lawyers and other professionals. Success in our program also translates to success in the real world,” he said.
And in a show of "do as I do," Stein boasts undergraduate and graduate degrees from nearby Austin College in Sherman.
He’s reluctant to make comparisons, but says that his program is often mentioned in the same breath as Highland Park’s, the tony, upscale district in far North Dallas that ranks far above others in terms of per capita income, a reliable indicator of dominance in sports and other extracurricular activities.
Knowing that some within his parent group may not have the resources that match those in Highland Park, he still counts on them as partners. “Parents play a major role in understanding our high expectations. It’s also important that they understand the time, financial, and training commitments it takes to be good tennis players,” he said.
Mike Fecci, Athletic Coordinator at North, summed up the feelings on campus.
“We’re happy for Coach Stein and the McKinney North Tennis program. Reaching the 300-win milestone is tremendous and something to be very proud of. He’s always just stayed the course here at North and has seen it all,” said Fecci, also North’s head football coach. “What an honor for him. We’re lucky to have him.”
Stein makes it a habit to gather the team together at the end of practice and impart some of his personal philosophy on his players. His chats have that unmistakable sound that comes from championship coaches.
“Excellence never takes a day off. Every day is a chance to get better. If you aren’t getting better you’re getting worse. Put the team before yourself. Excuses get us nowhere in life. Mediocrity is our enemy; be happy but never satisfied.”
He often calls tennis a “gift” that his father bestowed on him, and one he wants to share with others.
The gift, apparently, is still giving.
About the author: Celso Martinez is president of Municipal Voice, a Collin County communications company.