Playing and coaching tennis for more than 60 years has given Jim Mathis a great appreciation and knowledge of the game.

By RIMSIE MCCONIGA
rmcconiga@leavenworthtimes.com

Playing and coaching tennis for more than 60 years has given Jim Mathis a great appreciation and knowledge of the game.
So much so that last spring a couple of local tennis players suggested that Mathis write a book on the sport. Definitely not an idea that he had ever entertained, but the suggestion triggered an urge to share his experience and love for the sport.
The incremental steps toward his goal began with a rough outline and led to a thorough search of his records, and queries to Eddie Fenton, tennis coach at Lansing High School and former Immaculata High School coach, Manuel Hernandez asking if they would write about their programs for the book.
Mathis soon approached Curt Gilbert and Tim Grass at Advantage Printing and they agreed to work with him on the project.

Mathis’ love of tennis began when he was 15 and while he never dreamed of playing professionally, he has officiated professional tennis matches.
“I had no idea I would be doing something like this,” said Mathis. “I’m sure my college English teacher is rolling over in her grave with surprise.”
Famous names of players that excelled in the game would fill a tennis court, from King Henry VIII to Roger Federer. Mathis’ book celebrates the excellence of our home-grown tennis players.

After being the tennis coach at Leavenworth High School for 28 years and assisting the team for several years after knee problems and surgery forced him to give up coaching, Mathis has kept in touch with many of the players that he coached over the years. “I have been involved with high school tennis in some capacity for 50 years, including helping run regional and state tennis tournaments,” said Mathis.
While he loved playing singles, due to knee replacements, Mathis now only plays doubles. “I can’t move as well as I once did. and singles is much tougher on the knees.”

Mathis says local tennis talent has been abundant. “Jesse Sherer is one of the best, since he has won the most Leavenworth tournaments. After high school Jesse Sherer went on to Washburn University and played the number 1 position.  He was a three-time All-American at D-2 college level in singles and doubles.   His senior year he made it to the finals of the national doubles tournament in Memphis, Tennessee.  Today he holds the Washburn University record for most wins with an overall record of 154 wins, 49 losses.  
“Several other very good tennis players were Robby Kennedy, who went to Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, and his freshman year won the KCAC singles, doubles championship and was voted the MVP award and the sportsmanship award.   He then transferred to Baker University, and played as high as number 1 on the tennis ladder.  

“His junior year at Baker, the team was ranked NAIA level number 13 in the country, also Chris Chapman, Tim Nedwed and Bobby Miller were very good.
“On the professional level,  I would say Roger Federer might be called the best tennis player of all time. He has won 22 grand slam tournaments.”
One of Mathis’ favorite stories is of Bobby Miller, who as a freshman, was in Mathis’ typing class. “I could see his excellent athletic ability from basketball, and told him he could also be a good tennis player. I talked him into coming out for tennis and he started at the bottom of the tennis ladder. His senior year he was number 1 on the tennis ladder. He went on to play tennis at Johnson County Junior College.  
“After college he started playing more tennis, and became even better, developing a volatile serve, maybe the fastest serve of any player from Leavenworth.  
“Bobby has won many U.S.T.A.  tennis championships.”

Humorous tournament stories are included in the book, and one called Kangaroo Ball Cap sums up the good-time spirit of the events. “We had a player from Australia that had a neat looking blue ball cap and a picture of a kangaroo on the front. One of the local players asked him if he had brought the hat all the way from Australia. His answer was ‘No, I bought the ball cap at the Outback restaurant.’”
During his teaching years at LHS, Mathis saw many changes ushered in at the school.  Laura Harrison became one of the first girls to play on the boys’ team in 1975, and Mathis said that without a doubt, she was the strongest girl player.
There wasn’t a girls’ tennis team at the school until 1977.
In 1967, Mathis’ first year of teaching at the high school, the modern state of tennis began at LHS. “We were the only school in the Centennial League that didn’t have a tennis team. Lee Wastell, the principal, discussed with me the possibility of starting a team,” said Mathis. And from that point, Leavenworth High School tennis history was made.

The history of the Rabe Tennis Club is also featured in the new book.  
“Starting in 1954 at the Leavenworth Country Club, a group of players started playing tennis, and later moved to Dr. Melvin Rabe’s private tennis court,” said Mathis. “As the tennis group grew, they started playing at the new tennis courts built at David Brewer Park. Camaraderie was greatly enjoyed besides playing tennis.”

Mathis said attorney, Ethan Potter, who was the longtime president of the tennis club and the last surviving member of the original Rabe tennis group played until he was 78, when he began having knee problems.
But even then he continued to come and watch the other players.
There is a city championship tennis tournament each spring. The Annual Leavenworth Labor Day Open has been crowning champions for 45 years.
To become a great tennis player Mathis believes it’s not how hard you hit the ball, but where you hit it.

He knows that placement wins over power and that dedication, desire and determination are just as important as talent and practice.
His rewards from his years of playing and coaching are many, but the greatest joys have been keeping physically fit, seeing all his players develop their games and making lots of friends.
Anyone interested in the book can contact Jim Mathis at Jmathis3@kc.rr.com.