Former New Zealand ace Tony James competes and takes his game seriously


Tony James made the transition from New Zealand for tennis a big hit.

James, 37, has excelled on the court for the last 20 years, competing in regional and state tournaments. He came to the United States in 1974 to play tennis at the University of Maryland on scholarship after competing in Europe for six months on the professional satellite circuit.

He has been the head pro at the Big Vanilla Racquet Club in Arnold since it opened in the fall of 1978, teaching more than 5,000 people about the sport.

"My main focus with tennis is coaching and teaching," the Baltimore resident said. "But I also like to compete on the regional level. Being a competitive player allows me to transfer that knowledge to my students."

James won the Maryland State Indoor 35-and-over Championships in May, defeating Naval Academy's John Officer at the Big Vanilla. Earlier that month, James lost in the semifinals of the Middle Atlantic hard court championships in Cabin John.

"It's [indoor championships] a significant title for my level of tennis," James said. "My goal in competitive tennis is to win state and regional tournaments."

Although James currently is not ranked in the region or state for men's 35 singles, he expects to garner both honors after playing in a tournament this fall. He is considering about six tournaments.

"My teaching schedule doesn't allow me to play in a large amount of tournaments," James said. "I try to fit them in when I can."

To be ranked in either category, a player must participate in jTC three tournaments a year -- two state tourneys and a state championship. And to be ranked in the region by the Middle States Tennis Association, a player must compete in two regional tournaments and a MATA championship tournament.

James had been ranked No. 2 in Maryland for men's open singles in 1979 and No. 1 in the state for doubles (1979-1981) with another New Zealand native, Claude England, a college teammate. This past weekend, England and James competed as a doubles team in the Howard County Open.

During the 1980s, James cut back on playing in singles tournaments to concentrate on his job as head pro at the club.

But qualifying for men's 35 singles in 1990 spurred James back into competitive tennis. In 1990, the Maryland Tennis Association ranked James No. 2 in state for men's singles while MATA ranked him No. 5 in the region.

"He [James] is a top-quality Middle Atlantic region player," England said. "He wouldn't win tournaments at the national level, but he would win matches. In most regional and state tournaments, he is usually in the quarterfinals. He was sort of reborn in the new level."

At the club, James said he teaches the game to about 500 people a year, including senior citizen classes. His junior tennis academy for youth ages 4 to 18 at the Big Vanilla serves about 200 youngsters a year and is the club's biggest year-round instructional event.

"He is a great asset to the tennis community," England said.

The academy helps players learn basic skills and allows tournament-level players to improve their game. James not only stresses basic skills but conditioning, sportsmanship and the mental approach to the game.

"I am starting to teach some of the children of people I taught in 1978," James said. "I try to help people with their weaknesses. The overriding thing in all of the lessons is to make it fun . . .."

In New Zealand, James was chosen from among a select group of eight players for special coaching and training. He participated in the program from 1970-1973.

"All of them either played pro tennis or got scholarships to come to America," James said.

One of the eight players, Chris Lewis, lost to John McEnroe in the finals of Wimbledon in 1983.

James played tennis at College Park for four years (1975-1978), earning all-ACC honors during his freshman and junior campaigns. He competed on the same squad as former NBA all-star John Lucas for two seasons (1975-1976).

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad