Tim Wilkison, who toured professionally for over 25 years, lives in Charlotte, N.C. Ranked World No. 23 in September 1986, Tim is perhaps best known for his diving volleys at Wimbledon that earned him the nickname “Dr. Dirt”. He now coaches at all levels and works with many organizations to teach and promote the sport and benefits of tennis. Here are some highlights on playing, coaching, and living from his conversation with Sport Fuels Life.
Commitment matters. After Tim started playing tennis exclusively at age 12, he marked off the days on his calendar when he practiced at least two hours (usually longer). Since he didn’t have access to indoor courts, he spent rainy days hitting balls against the wall of an indoor gym. He practiced four years in a row without missing a day.
Not surprisingly then, he was the country’s number one ranked junior tennis player at age 16. At age 17, he turned pro. (In those days, turning pro immediately after high school was unusual). Like everyone else, he started at the lowest level but made it to the main draw within a year.
Now that he coaches a wide range of players, he says the difference between a good and great player is clear: “To be a great player, you have to have extreme physical ability and extreme mental abilities…really off the charts in both areas.”
He also noted that extreme physical ability doesn’t mean just running: “It means technique. The person who taught Roger Federer a forehand probably taught many others, but Roger had the ability to leverage something special.” Tim said it takes time to see if a player has the mental strength to come back from ups and downs that are part of competitive tennis (and life).
Coaches and parents can cultivate a championship environment by doing two things—emphasizing a love of the sport and developing good, overall athletic skills. Tim also said that it’s not enough to hit balls for four hours; movement, throwing, changing direction and more are required.
He acknowledges that coaching elite players is a different ball game; in addition to expertise, it requires organization, professionalism, and a passion for the sport. Tim says he doesn’t coach from the sidelines; he plays with his students because that’s his background, it’s a good way to teach, and he enjoys it. He also tries to share his lifelong holistic approach to athletics that includes a focus on mind, body, and spirit.
Tim noted that developing your strengths and knowing yourself helps players win matches: “Sometimes coaches will say that your backhand is not that great so we’re going to work on that. I can’t think of a time when someone has taken a weakness and made it into a strength. You don’t win matches with neutral shots. You win matches with strengths.”
Tim used his talents, strengths, and connectivity ten years ago to build a relationship with the Chinese government to coach tennis. Two of his students are almost at the highest competitive levels.
“Sometimes I go there. Sometimes students come here and live with me,” he said. “They get a more varied experience by playing in the U.S. There’s tremendous structure in their program but variety helps too. And at the end of the day, the players are all individuals and have to be treated as such.”
Tim’s life experience, overall optimism, and belief in humanity convince him that current, painful tensions from the pandemic and racial injustice can result in opportunity. “I believe we have to find all the answers to every problem. This is a great chance to build a better society,” he said, “because we’re all connected.”