Twenty years ago, Willis Thomas Jr. and another black youngster named Arthur Ashe were regarded as two of the best up-and-coming tennis players. They played doubles together for nearly six years before Ashe went off on his own to become one of the finest players in the world.
"Yeah, he sort of took off and left me," said Thomas with a laugh, "I guess the time wasn't right for me."
Thomas, an aggressive, hard-driving individual, would be the first to admit his attitude could have been a stumbling block during his younger days.
Now 34, Thomas has mellowed considerably and cast aside the bitterness built up while struggling to gain acceptance in the virtually all-white world of tennis in the '50s.
A district government employee for 12 years, Thomas quite to concentrate his efforts on teaching the District's more promising black youths the finer points of tennis.
"If they have the potential, I'll work with them," said Thomas, a native Washingtonian who received his early instructions from his father, Willis Sr., and the late Dr. Robert Johnson. "Tennis is basically a game for the well-to-do. Most of the kids I work with have no money and are hungrier. They work harder at learning the game."
Thomas makes sure his charges, including his 15 year old son Willis III and 14-year old daughter La Shaun, work hard.
"Sure, I'm hard on them. Sometimes I know they want to kill me," said Thomas, speaking in a gruff voice, "But I bet most of them can beat the majority of man in the area."
"I deal with their mental approach to the game, then their attitude and character," he continued. "The game is not won by strokes alone. Blacks in particularly, are not texbook oriented in learning skills. Just like any other sport, blacks like to develop their own style. I try to refine their skills and deal with their head thing."
La Shaun, a ninth-grader at Rabeau Junior High in Northwest Washington, is ranked as the top player in her age group in the city. Even she feels her father is overbearing at time.
"He's too hard, sometimes. But I love the game and I know he's just trying to keep me on top of my game," she said. She recently competed in the Seventeen Magazine girl's tournament in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Thomas has worked with virtually every D.C. younster presently ranked in the Middle Atlantic Lawn Tennis Association or highly regarded on the city courts. All of the members of the undefeated Ballou High team have been tutored by Thomas. His prize student and one of the top players in the entire metropolitan area is senior Joe Ragland.
"If it wasn't for Wills, I'd either be in reform school or still trying to be a great basketball player," said Ragland, who along with his brother Mike, a junior, led the Knights to their third consecutive Interhigh tennis title. "He hard on you but he really straightens out your problems."
The Raglands, junior Charlie Rideout, Dennis Holland and sophomore Tim Parker have lost only four matches in three years. Ballou coach Lamar Pearson, very much aware of the talent on his team, has tried to upgrade his schedule and gainmore exposure.
"We've beaten some of the wellknown tennis teams in this area and the kids have received no credit," said Pearson. "That bothers me. no one around here can beat Joe and yet the college coaches don't seemto be interested. It's like we're still in the dark ages and the white coaches aren't tuned in to black tennis yet."
Obviously some area businessmen felt the Raglands have both the skills and the charisma necessary to join the tennis circuit. Both have sponsors and have been travelling to top outofarea youth tournaments.
"The travelling and the competition has definitely helped us," said Mike Ragland. Since we got involved in tennis, we play year round. But we knew in order to become a very good player, we had to give up the other sports and concentrate on tennis. And we did."
All of the Ballou players, along with Mark Williams (No. 1 at Howard), Bobby and JulianJohnson (Wilson), Bobby Calhoun (McKinley) and Willis Thomas III (Theodore Roosevelt) are products of the national Junior Tennis League which was started here in 1970.
"We started with 12 sites and about 200 curious kids," said Sylvia Groomes, a D.C. public school teacher and the vice president of the area chapter of the NLJTL. "Now we have 39 sites and almost 3,000 kids! All of the top players in the high schools in the city started in our program."
The NJTL offers a unique format of instant competition. The youths are handed a racket, a ball and within a week are competing in a tournament. The feeling is that once the youngsters start playing and become interested, they are ready for the instruction.
Thomas worked three years with the NJTL but quit to work with the advanced youths because he felt there was no one around to keep them interested.
"Slowly, blacks are beginning to break down the barriers that still exist," said Thomas. "But, it's hard. You have to have someone behind you who has money. If not, after trying to play a few years, you have to quit and go to work. And blacks can't work and concentrate on being a pro tennis player. Actually, no one can."
Thomas has sold dinners and candy and asked for donations to send his students to major tournaments in Houston, San Diego and New Orleans to gain experience.
"They flew, I had to drive," he said with a laugh. "You know, we used to get beat in the opening round and be on our way home after one day. But, not any more."