June 6, 2016
This story originally appeared in the May issue of Buzz magazine. Read the entire issue online or subscribe to the magazine here.
By Matt Winkeljohn –
Contrary to recent sightings of Kevin King which may have left the impression that he’s a crippled farmer, one of the top tennis players in Georgia Tech history is still cultivating his game. You might also say he’s grooming crops of a sort.
As the men’s volunteer assistant coach, he worked with the current Yellow Jackets while on the mend, with the goal of returning to the pro tour.
His crutches were not permanent, and neither was that contraption strapped around his waist and running down his left leg. Two hip surgeries in a span of months will leave a guy with a different look for a while. And speaking of fashion, the over-sized straw hat he wears at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex is simply an apparatus to shield sun while he works for his former coach, Kenny Thorne.
Injuries, motive and opportunity merged to bring King back after December surgery on his right hip to Tech, where he played from 2008-12 and graduated with high honors.
The big lid is the source of an occasional joke. Coaching is serious business.
“The timing worked out well in terms of it being the end of the [pro] season when I had the [first] surgery done,” he explains. “I knew I was going to be out five or six months at least, and that would cover the whole spring season here. I knew I wanted to stay around tennis; the more I’m around it the better.
“I just came out and talked to Kenny and said I’ll probably be around, and if there’s anything I can do to help, I’m here. I didn’t know what that would lead to. He talked about the volunteer assistant position, and that’s worked out.”
Thorne, assistant Derek Schwandt and the Jackets have an uncommon resource in King. He fairly recently was in the same shoes as Tech’s current student-athletes. Add a few years of experiences as a touring professional, and King has a certain street credibility with the current Jackets.
He’s also able to occasionally read players with a unique angle.
“It’s been great,” Thorne says. “He’s been through it. I think the guys look at him and see that. It’s hard here. I know that, but Kevin’s a guy who’s been through and come out strong on the other side.
“Sometimes, he can kind of see something that maybe Derek and I might not. He might say, `You know, the guys are really tired,’ and we might dial it back. Or, he might say, `Nah, they’re fine. Work `em.’ “
If rehabilitation works out, King hopes to resume his pro playing career this fall.
Having traveled extensively for the better part of four professional seasons, including berths the doubles draws of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2014, that part of his resume carries weight with current players. So does his career on The Flats, where he finished among the top five in program history for wins in doubles (87-39) and singles (80-41).
When you have a three-time All-ACC player around, it’s easy to listen. Add the fact that King made ACC Academic Honor roll all four years, and he has even more cache. Graduating with a 3.8 in mechanical engineering makes the Peachtree City native something like E.F. Hutton.
“When he says, `You can do this, and you can get through it,’ you believe him because he just did it,” says sophomore Michael Kay. “He went through the same work load and tennis load that we’re going through right now.
“I don’t know how you could not believe in the things he’s telling you. He’s probably the best volunteer coach we could possibly have. There couldn’t be a better fit.”
With four-plus months of coaching under his belt, King says he could see himself being a coach for real in the future. First, though, he wants to play professionally again. He didn’t plan to be back at Tech. His hips decided for him.
The normal aches and pains that go with the all the matches played in the ATP Challenger Tour and ITF Futures Tour, where King has three career singles titles and nine doubles titles (including six with former Tech teammate Juan Spir and two with former teammate Dean O’Brien), caught up with him last fall.
He had to put on hold a career that includes a 65-51 pro singles record and a 103-53 mark in doubles.
“I was having some issues since the start of last year, whether it was lower back, or hip flexor or groin,” he explains. “It got to August or September where I started to get more of a sharp pain in the high groin area when I was bursting or changing directions.
“I went down to Mexico for a tournament in September and the physio there said the symptoms made it worth having [hips] looked at, getting an MRI because a lot of tennis players were dealing with the surgery now.”
After one more tournament, King visited a specialist. Separate exams revealed impingements in both hips.
“The thigh bone [femur] … where it fits in the [hip] socket, it’s almost supposed to look like a neck. [But] there was extra buildup like it was straight, so that any time I moved in an extended way, there wasn’t enough room, and it would pinch the labrum, which eventually caused a tear,” he says.
“In the surgery, they had to go in and fix the labrum and shave down the bone.”
April surgery on the left hip put him in crutches a second time, but King’s goals haven’t changed. He wants to play again.
“Hopefully, in the beginning of July I will be getting back on the court and start training,” he says. “I can do some light hitting where I’m not moving or sitting in a chair, but no intense training. Right now, we’re just going through a lot of range-of-motion stuff and isometrics to keep the muscles firing.
“Over the next couple weeks, we’ll start adding strengthening exercises and getting more flexibility. I’m shooting for around October [to return to the pro tour]. There’s a pretty good amount of tournaments at that time.”
In the meantime, King coaches.
He hoped to be off crutches by early May, at about the time the Jackets will likely be wrapping up their season in the NCAA Tournament.
His connections to college tennis, where he twice earned All-America honors, and to Tech are making the down time in his pro career less onerous.
“I think it definitely helps having gone through the same challenges that the school presents with tennis, all the time management issues. I can relate to that,” King says. “It’s been great learning how to teach something.
“You really have to understand what you’re teaching, especially to teach it to a full group where everyone learns a little differently. Learning how to teach that has helped me understand the game a little better.”
For a while, senior Casey Kay counseled King as he, too, went through hip impingement surgeries a couple years ago. Now, King wears the big hat.
“I think it’s really cool having him volunteer coach with us,” Kay says. “He was recently here at Tech so he knows how tough it is with school. He knows the coaches well and he’s been playing on the Tour so he knows the next level of tennis. He’s brought a lot of helpful things mentally and tactically.”
In his return to school, King has opened windows into the game, Tech’s current players and a possible coaching career — after his playing days are over.
“It’s definitely a possibility,” he says. “I’ve thought about it. This has been a great experience for me to see what college coaching is like. I’ve enjoyed working with the guys and helping the team out.”