Success In Store For Women's Tennis Team

Aug. 5, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

THE FLATS – While kicking back on Sunday, it was hard not to think back to Beijing, and what felt like magic.

Yesterday, Roger Federer was — finally — in position to complete the “Career Golden Slam.” That’s the title somebody came up with, and it’s pretty good, for a tennis player who has won all four Grand Slam tournaments and an Olympic gold medal to boot.

Even though he is the most accomplished Slam player of all-time among men, the Swiss superstar entered the gold medal match not only gold-less in three previous Olympic tries, but altogether medal-less in singles at the Games.

Rodney Harmon has something to do with this.

In case you’re not sure who Rodney is, or perhaps his name is ringing a bell but . . . we’re talking about Georgia Tech’s new women’s tennis coach.

The man has a tough yoke to take and pull. He is, after all, replacing the only coach in Tech history to lead a team to an NCAA national title. Bryan Shelton and the Yellow Jackets pulled that off in 2007, and no, football titles don’t count. That is the only sport in which the NCAA does not mete out national titles (think BCS, AP, UPI, etc.)

Harmon’s been in the middle of tough fetes before.

Federer’s backhand flopped Sunday in the gold medal match against Great Britain’s Andy Murray, and he may never join the group of players who’ve won titles at the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and an Olympic gold medal. For a while yet, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams (who completed the quintet Saturday) will comprise the short list.

Roger took silver Sunday after failing to win a singles medal in any of his first three Olympiads, and Harmon was there for strike three.

Harmon was coach of the U.S. men’s team in 2008 at Beijing. One of his men, James Blake, strafed Roger in the quarterfinals.

“James . . . lost to him like 13 times in a row,” Harmon said. “We got to talking, and I said, ‘You’ve got to change your tendencies because the tendencies that you’re playing to are not working. You’re trying to get to his backhand. Well, go wide to his forehand [first] so he has to run to his backhand. Once he gets a forehand, it’s curtains.”

That and other strategies worked. Blake won, although he lost the bronze medal match.

Somewhat like his predecessor, Harmon is keen on strategy and such. Like Shelton, who took the men’s head coaching position at Florida a couple months ago, he’s worked previously — extensively in Harmon’s case — at the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in development.

And, like Shelton, he’s African-American.

That by itself is not a big deal, but there’s context around this that intrigues.

Harmon grew up in the shadow of a tremendously famous professional tennis player in the very same city as Tech men’s coach Kenny Thorne.

He was an athlete as a child, but the combinations of the facts that, “I grew up about four houses from the tennis courts. I always had to pass the tennis courts to get to something else, the baseball field, the basketball court,” and a certain cop at those tennis courts was the father of Arthur Ashe helped lead him to the nets.

Later, the late Mr. Ashe — the greatest African-American tennis player of all time — was central. 

“He helped me a lot . . . helped me with my college visits, we talked on the phone,” Harmon said. “His father was a policeman at the park where I grew up. It was a program that Arthur helped start.”

Like Shelton, Harmon is big on development, and as you might ascertain from that Blake-Federer match in Beijing, he shares a fondness for in-match strategizing.

There’s more linkage here. Like Shelton, Harmon went pro after his careers at Tennessee and SMU (as a collegian, he made the U.S. Open quarterfinals only to lose to Jimmy Connor) and once made some noise at Wimbledon.

Shelton put together the best recruiting class in program history before he left a couple months ago, and although the top recruit — Catherine Harrison — transferred to UCLA in the wake of Shelton’s departure, the Jackets are poised to push their way back to the top of the ACC

The former coach handed off in more than one way.

“When Bryan got the job at Florida, I communicated to him to tell him congratulations, and he said, ‘Would you have any interest [in the Tech job]?’ and I said, ‘Of course,’ and that’s kind of how it got started,” Harmon said. “I was working privately at a country club in Jacksonville, Fla., at the time.

“He said, ‘You’re going to have to come down and watch us, root for us. I said, ‘Well, that’s going to be difficult, because I worked for the University of Miami [as men’s coach in the mid-1990s].’ But since you’re there, that one time I’ll do the [Gator chop]. We talked, and things happened to work out.”

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Bryan Shelton and Kenny Thorne. First impression of Harmon: excessively positive, and that’s not a small deal given the concept of replacing a legend. Yes, legend.

Harmon was so excited when I talked to him the other day because the steel had just gone up that morning for two walls of the Byers Tennis Complex, which Tech plans to open in January. Upon his telling, Harmon literally rubbed his hands together and leaned toward them while smiling. You know the gesture.

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