Mint Hill Tennis — Connecting the Dots

It’s 3 am, and like many nights when I woke to answer nature’s call, I saw James E’s bedroom light still on. There was no question in my mind why he was up so late as he found his best time to make connections was in the wee hours of the morning. And while the rest of the world slept, that’s just what he did.

This was my forever friend and brother, 2 years older than myself, who lived and loved his whole life with Down Syndrome. Once he met you, you were his life-long friend – the recipient of birthday cards, get-well cards, general letters – whatever in your life necessitated his attention. There were many lessons he taught me, but the greatest of them was the importance of reaching out to people – and always in creative, ingenious ways. Letters, phone calls, newspaper articles – he might write 10 letters and make 5 phone calls just to get one person’s address. He showed persistence because he loved and cared. Ultimately, his main objective was to show you how to connect and then keep you connected to his Main Friend, Jesus, and he accomplished this in ways we all found absolutely amazing. I can still see the sparkle in his beautiful blue eyes when his efforts proved successful. “Wondrous works!” he would say.

It was through his chain of letters from Pilot Mountain, NC, to our family (then living in Frankfort, KY) that eventually brought Tim’s Tennis USA & the Miller Family to Charlotte. As he realized his mind was failing with the early stages of dementia, he wrote me letters begging us to come back. When we did not return right away he then wrote candidly to my husband, pleading “Something’s not right with my mind and I need my sister Florene to help take care of me.” Tim called him to say that they all needed to pray, and if a job opened up in NC we would move back. In just 3 weeks Tim had an interview lined up in Charlotte. We moved a month later, on Christmas Day, 2012. James lived with us for 6 months until his Alzheimers necessitated a move to an assisted living home with memory care. In June 2016, he left this realm to be forever connected to his Main Friend.

From 2008-2010, during a period of extended, unfortunate unemployment from his lifetime career as a Wire EDM Programmer Operator, Tim was very fortunate to meet an amazing Tennis Pro, George Kriek, in his home town of Mt. Airy, NC. George, the baby of a tennis family, started at an early age, riding in the back of a pickup truck on the dirt roads of Pongola, South Africa, to the tennis courts with his brothers, Johan, Pieter, and his sister, Thea, who still lives in South Africa. Johan, won two Australian Open titles and reached the semifinals at the French Open and US Open, as well as the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. He won 14 professional singles and eight doubles titles, reaching a career-high singles ranking of world No. 7.  George followed him to America in the ‘80s to start his career as a Tennis Pro in Florida.  He later moved to Mt. Airy where a mutual friend introduced Tim to George.  A friendship blossomed during Tim’s mentorship at the Cross Creek Country Club where he conducted summer camps and tennis lessons year-round.  Our daughters, Jenna and Lydia, started going to the courts with Tim every day, and a love of the sport was soon born in them!

In 2010, Tim found a Wire EDM job in Frankfort, KY, so we made the move to get back on our feet, financially.  That summer, the girls started playing in USTA Jr. Team Tennis and at the time we made some great connections in the community that allowed us to launch Tim’s Tennis USA.  Tim would come home from his machine shop job, grabbed a bite to eat, quickly change, and go off to the courts at Kentucky State University.  It was very tiring for him, but he was living a life-long dream.  He went through the Professional Tennis Registry program in Hilton Head, SC, and there received his certification.

As a young man growing up in rural Mayberry, the home of Andy Griffith, Tim sat on the porch swing with his dad one day and told him someday he’d love to have a job where he could be a coach.  It didn’t matter what kind of coach.  My husband is just one of those natural-born athletes. As long as there’s a ball, he can play the game!  Though only just over 5’3”, he played quarterback for the Mt. Airy Bears. He received an All-Conference Award playing this position, and when he walked to the stage to receive it, guest speaker Lou Holtz was floored to be greeted by a “Little Midget.”  During these years, Tim also played basketball, baseball, golf, volleyball and softball. In his 20s he picked up a tennis racquet and decided that was going to be his sport.  He coached at the Rod Laver Tennis Resort in Hilton Head in his early 30s.  To this day he remembers his father’s words to him that warm summer afternoon in 1975. “You have to keep pursuing it, and someday, if it’s the Lord’s will, it will happen.”  Thirty-five years later, the dream has become a reality.  

Moving back to NC to care for James and start a new chapter of our lives happened very suddenly and unexpectedly.  Our daughter, Jenna, was a senior in high school, finishing her last 6 months at Rocky River High School.  Lydia finished up at Albemarle Middle School.  That fall, she chose to attend the charter school, Queens Grant High School. They did not have a tennis program, so Tim and I started the Women’s Team in the fall of 2013 and the Men’s Team in Spring 2014.

At the time, we had another business, Indoor Pollution Solutions, where I was an Indoor Air Quality Specialist, selling air purifiers and conducting mold inspections.  It was quite challenging, simultaneously running 2 businesses that were so different in nature.  In March 2015, Tim, now working as a machinist, again found himself unemployed.  At that point, we decided on another big move – sell the mold business to my brother and take on tennis full-time.  To supplement our tennis income I substitute taught at QGHS, and babysat 2 cute little kids that now attend Queens Grant Community School in Mint Hill.

Through a great connection at Town Hall in May that year, we met with JJ Snyder, then President of the Mint Hill Athletic Association, and were commissioned to teach tennis to the youth of the Mint Hill Communities at the MH Veterans Memorial Park.  Later, we moved to Wilgrove Park.  In 2016, I received my Tennis Coaching Certification from PTR, and later that year was offered the Head Coach position at Queens Grant Middle School, where I continue to coach a co-ed team in the spring each year.  In 2017, I accepted the Head Coach position for the Butler Women’s Tennis Team. 

One sunny afternoon, while coaching the QG Middle School Team, a young gentleman approached me about our court usage.  During the course of the conversation, I learned that he was also a tennis coach, aspiring to help kids learn and develop a love of this sport.  Over the next year, we realized that Zach was giving lessons at the Veterans park…as Mint Hill Tennis.  It was one of those situations where a little sleep was lost, but I came to realize that there are babies born every day who will grow up wanting to play tennis. And I cannot coach them all.  When Covid19 shut us all down in March this year, I had time to sit back and dream about what our tennis business might look like for the rest of 2020 and an uncertain future.  I also took some time to look over Zach’s website and decided to explore the opportunity to work with him to reach the common goals we have.  We started having phone conversations which led to Zoom calls, eventually leading us to meet in person at a local MH Coffee House. From here we began meeting up at the courts, realizing together that the timing was right for us to partner!  

Zach is a USTA Elite Certified Teaching Professional, Creator of the Grow Tennis Development Kit, and has coached thousands of kids over the past 19 years.  Being a second-generation tennis coach (both of his parents are tennis coaches), he was practically born with a racquet in his hand! The game of tennis has allowed him the opportunity to compete in tournaments throughout the country and meet incredible people from all over the world.  Some of his career highlights include:

2 Time All American for NAIA Men’s College
Tennis National College Doubles Ranking #3
National College Singles Ranking in the Top 20
 3 Time Louisiana State High School Singles Champion
Former #1 Player in the Southern USA and a Top 10 Junior Player (national ranking) 

Sharing this mutual passion for the sport, it is our joint mission to grow the game of tennis in Mint Hill by providing fun, easy, and affordable ways to get more people on court & feeling good about their tennis experience.   We have all witnessed this game positively impact people’s lives – whether young, middle-aged or old – by providing an incredible outlet to socialize with friends, lose weight, get active, stay healthy, manage excess energy, and relieve stress. 

Our first Mint Hill Athletic Association joint venture with Zach will be our MHAA December Tennis Program, for Youth ages 5-18, which begins December 8 and ends December 17.  This will be offered at Wilgrove Park.  As my brother, James, would say, “Wondrous works!”  This is how we feel about our connection with Zach, and we are very excited about the possibilities in the future!   Register at for this program, or for private lessons, adult leagues, summer camps, and UTR Verified Events.

Edited by Leanne Whiffen

The Ugly House

A few weeks ago while jogging on a familiar street in our neighborhood, my head turned suddenly to catch sight of an ugly Double-wide mobile home, plopped caddy-corner on the lot. There was no siding on the house, and a flapping blue tarp was on the roof. Where, just days before there was a wooded lot, the trees were now pushed up into a heap behind the house. Since we had been getting rain here in North Carolina for months, the front yard was a big red muddy mess. “What an eyesore for the neighborhood”, went through my mind as I kept on running.

We’re all a Work in Progress! On or off the tennis courts.

Several days later I noticed the blue tarp was gone and a freshly shingled roof was in place. It was then I realized that somewhere, someone was looking at this lot and home very differently than I was the first time I traipsed by. No doubt they envision a plush green lawn, with flowers set in place; maybe some cedar shake siding and a sprawling wrap around porch. Another thought occurred to me later — perhaps inside this currently unattractive structure, is set up an immaculate home decorated with the latest and the greatest!

As tennis coaches we sometimes have players show up for lessons or join our school teams and we find ourselves viewing them as “an ugly house”. Perhaps they have very little athletic ability and struggle just to make contact with the ball. So often their focus is definitely not on the tennis court.

What does it take to flip the switch in our own mind’s eye to envision this player at a match, serving, placing balls where they want them to go and totally enjoying the sport? At what point do we disconnect our focus from perfecting their strokes, to helping them get the glimpse of what “the beautiful home” is going to look like and feel like?

“Mon, I’m ready for tennis!” Kate, Age 2

Our tennis players may show up to practice or lessons, and compare themselves to better players on the team or in the clinic, viewing themselves as the “ugly house”. I’ll never forget a doubles match I was playing in with some ladies that were much more experienced than I was myself. I came onto the court with this apprehension all bundled up inside me, comparing my shots to their’s, worrying about what they were going to think or say about my level of play. After we lost the first game, due to my errors, I just asked myself the question, “Why am I comparing myself to them? They get up and put their panties on just like I do. Just hit your shots, Flo.” No more games were lost in the match, due to my errors, and we won!

All it takes is a snap-shot view, with a little imagination. Each time I run by the Ugly House now, I can see this home, no longer on wheels, but with a solid brick foundation, an award winning yard and kids romping in the grass. Coaches, let’s take time to get a glimpse and share the vision!

Connecting the Dots With Phoebe

Phoebe, who is 8 years old, walked onto the court last Saturday for the first time and her body language said to me, “I do not want to be here today. But they made me come. I don’t plan to participate or have fun. I’m only here because they signed me up.” Her twin sister, Faith, who is a bubbly, energetic little girl, came last week for the first time by herself and left with the tennis fever! She walked on the courts today with confidence and a big smile.

Faith helped Phoebe through the warmup session, kindly showing her how to do the Weave first, then the Hop, the Shuffle and lastly the 5 Step Drop with a Split Stop. Her gentle helpfulness carried on into the introduction of the forehand shot. I soon realized that all week long, Faith had been practicing at home. I wasn’t sure how much she had tried to share with Phoebe, but I heard enough to know that some work had been done to get Phoebe on the courts today.

Phoebe’s head continued to hang as she attempted to make connection with the ball, but with little success. When it was Faith’s turn, she stepped up with a readiness to learn. She was having remarkable success, considering this was only her second time on the courts! It was a rather hot afternoon, and Faith asked to take a water break. Phoebe stepped up for her turn again to attempt her forehand shot. Before she swung, she looked at me and said, “Do you know who’s the number one tennis player in the world?” I hesitated to answer, wondering if I should ask did she mean, male or female. I decided just to go for it, and we both said at the same time, “Serena Williams!”

This really sat me down in my chair!  This girl, who I thought didn’t have one bit of interest in tennis, knows who Serena Williams is!  Amazing!  My next question to her is, “Do you watch Serena play?” Her eyes have lit up and there’s a big smile on her face. She commences to tell me that she is her favorite player and she loves to watch her play.  She tells me quite a few things about Serena, one being that she was born in Michigan, but she got hung up on what city it was. “I actually wrote a book about Serena” she said. Well, Blow Me Down, I thought!  Let’s just use some imagination here and see what happens.

“That’s really awesome, Phoebe. Let’s pretend we’re Serena. Watch this shot really closely. Look at how I do this,” I said to her. In slow motion, I showed her a forehand shot, smoothly sending the ball over the net with about 6 inches clearance, landing in the singles, cross-court. Up to this point, if any of Phoebe’s shots went over the net, they were definitely moon balls and most didn’t land in the green court on the other side.

I reminded her again how to hold her racquet with a 20 degree angle, to step with her left foot, draw the C, and follow through over her shoulder. And then I said, “remember what that shot looked like I just showed you and try to make it look like that.” The first 3 shots were not successful. But the 4th shot she hit smoothly, sailing it over the net with 6-8 inches clearance, and into the singles, cross-court!  I turned and looked back at her. She had amazement written all over her face. Something had just happened in this little girl. Through the use of imagination and concentration she did what she didn’t believe she had the ability to do!

During this entire event, Faith was getting a drink of water and socializing with what was happening on the other court. When she returned, I sensed that Phoebe wanted so badly to share with Faith what had just happened.  I wished I could push the replay button for her on a video. However, I saw a marked change in her confidence and self-esteem from that point on. When asked at the end of the lesson, “Did you like it?” I saw a big smile and heard a hearty, “YES!” The next question was, “Do you want to come back next week?” Another big, “YES!” She too has caught the Tennis Fever.  And I have discovered it’s all about CONNECTING THE DOTS with kids.  This makes my heart happy today!