By: Jon Cooper
Rick Davison always knew he’d find his calling on the court.
He just expected to find it on the basketball court, not the tennis court.
Over four-plus decades, the Miami, Fla., native followed a passion for tennis to become a two-time all-American at Florida International, a trailblazing coach at Georgia Tech, then a player-development guru throughout the South with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) of Georgia.
His thirst to master tennis came while playing basketball on a hot summer day at Miami’s Moore Park, inspired by his literal thirst.
[Davison’s daughter, Danielle, serves as his primary communicator after he experienced multiple strokes in 2016.] “When my dad was a teenager, he used to play basketball at Moore Park, and one day he wanted to go drink out of the water fountains,” said Danielle. “Bobby Curtis was the director at Moore Park, and he said, ‘If you want to drink from the water fountains, you have to be a tennis player.’ So my dad and his friends were like, ‘Okay, we’ll play tennis.’ So he started playing tennis and was pretty good at it.”
“At the time, he was more of a basketball player than he was a tennis player,” agreed Jean Desdunes, a former Georgia Tech men’s tennis head coach (1988-98) who’s been friends with Davison since both attended Miami’s Archbishop Curley High School.
Desdunes, currently an assistant coach for Princeton’s women’s tennis, continued, “he really fell in love with tennis and quickly got a lot better at tennis than he was at basketball, and he eventually decided to play tennis instead. He was very natural. He had a very live arm, and the ball just came off his racket from day one. He loved to hit it. He blasted.”
Through his association with the game and with Curtis, an influential figure on the Florida tennis scene, Davison met tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who taught clinics at Moore Park, and was offered a scholarship to Florida International, where he twice earned all-America honors.
In college he was ranked No. 5 in NCAA Division II doubles. After he played pro for 2.5 years, then eventually retired from pro tennis and moved to Atlanta, where he became an active tennis pro in the tennis community. In 1986, he got his big break as a coach, as Georgia Tech hired him to lead its women’s tennis program, making him the program’s third head coach, its first male coach, and first African-American head coach.
“At the time, to have a black, male head coach for a women’s sport – predominantly white women – was pretty shocking,” said Danielle.
The hiring also was somewhat surprising, as Davison became only Tech’s second African-American coach in ANY capacity in ANY sport, joining Bill McCullough, hired in 1975 as football’s strength and conditioning coach. Desdunes was hired as head coach to lead the men’s program in 1988.
Desdunes admitted recommending his friend to then-senior women’s administrator, Bernadette McGlade, but credits Davison for closing the deal.
“He got an interview and he won the position on his OWN merits,” said Desdunes. “He had a passion for the game and when you have that it translates into your coaching as well. He had a really big personality and great energy. He had an infectious laugh. You knew when he was in the room. All those factors are great for recruiting. The girls that he recruited enjoyed being around him and the team was very united. All the things that he brought to the table all added to his style of coaching.
“That personality helped him get some really good players,” he added. “He inherited some pretty good players, like Pam Haskins and a couple of other ladies, but then he recruited a couple of really good players, like Sybi Parker (coincidentally, the wife of 2010 Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame golfer Matt Kuchar), Erika Lewis, Lee Myers, Kim Tatum and then they just took off.”
In nine years, the Jackets program had grown from NAIA level, including a No. 1 finish in Georgia in 1981 (No. 15 in the country), to D-I in 1984 under Julie Wregge, but the program stalled, not winning an ACC match in either of its first two seasons. That changed in Davison’s first year, as the Jackets earned their first conference ‘W,’ topping Maryland, 5-4, on April 6, 1986.
After a difficult ‘87 season, they began making serious strides.
The Jackets won 15 matches in 1988 then set program-highs with 17 wins in 1989 and 1990 – a school record that lasted until 2005, the program’s first 20-win season, ACC Championship and Sweet 16 berth – going 4-3 and finishing fourth in ‘90, their best ACC finish and first winning season in conference play. Davison left after the 1988 season, leaving with a 79-88 record (a .473 win percentage).
Player success stories included Kim Tatum, who set a school single-season doubles win percentage record (.792, going 19-5 in 1987-88, still 12th-best in program history), and was co-ACC doubles champ in 1988 with Leigh Roberts, who was an all-ACC player in ‘88 and ‘89, and Kristy Kotich, 1989 ACC singles champ and all-ACC in ‘89 and’91. Davison’s teams also produced four ACC Honor Roll members: Camey Craig (1986), Cristy Guardado (‘89, ‘90), Erika Lewis (‘90-’92), and Roberts (‘89, ‘90).
“I was so happy for the women and it was very rewarding for me as a coach to see where they started and where they improved,” Coach Davison said.
But Davison didn’t just develop players. He also developed coaches. Bryan Shelton, one of the school’s most successful men’s tennis players (four times all-ACC, all-American and ACC singles and doubles champion), served as a student assistant coach under Davison. It was an influential season for him.
“Rick Davison has had a huge impact on me and I am so thankful that I spent so much quality time with him at a critical stage in my development as a young man and tennis player, working alongside Rick and learning the art of coaching,” said Shelton, who’d become one of Georgia Tech women’s tennis’ most decorated coaches, leading the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA Tournament all 13 years as head coach (2000-12), five Sweet 16 appearances, an Elite 8 and a National Championship (2007), as well as four ACC Tournament Championships and a regular-season championship.
“I began to realize that his style of coaching was much different to what I was accustomed to seeing,” continued Shelton. “More time was spent on dealing with the emotional side of the game and helping the players find a balance with how they saw life and their tennis. I learned that the job required more personal development than anything else.
“I really enjoyed seeing how Rick always injected funny things into his practice and allowed his players to laugh and really enjoy their tennis,” he added. “He was very competitive but was also able to have fun. Anyone who knows Rick or played for him will always talk about his smile and laugh. It is always present. Rick really understands the art of keeping things in perspective and diffusing the pressure the athletes put on themselves. Watching Rick really showed me the way I could make that happen while still pushing hard and having success. I added some of his style to my own coaching as I realized there is much more to coaching than just technique and tactics.”
After leaving Georgia Tech after the ’91 season, he joined Jerry Baskin tennis academy where he worked with high performance players such as Robby Ginepri and Kelly Baskin. After two years, Davison moved to Sugar Creek Tennis Center as the director of tennis before transitioning to at the Peachtree City Tennis Center under the leadership of Virgil Christian.
At Peachtree Tennis Center he was actively involved with several USTA committees and coached the USTA Southern Cup teams. At Peachtree he coached greats like Jamea Jackson, the current Princeton women’s tennis head coach, Kevin King, current Georgia Tech men’s tennis assistant coach, and Natalie Pluskota.
After leaving Peachtree City Tennis Center, Davison was hired on full-time with the USTA of Georgia as the director of competition. Not surprisingly, Davison’s unique style made an impact on USTA Georgia.
“Rick’s ‘People-First’ mantra and philosophy will never be exceeded. You only hope it to be equaled,” said current Executive Director of USTA Georgia Darren Potkey. “To honor Rick’s contributions to Georgia tennis, we established the ‘Rick Davison MVP Award’, which goes annually to a Georgia player on our Ozaki Southern Junior Cup team. It’s based on attitude, teamwork, enthusiasm, sportsmanship and performance at the event to help contribute to Team Georgia’s success.”
That success saw Team Georgia win the junior championship 23 straight years – as long as he was with the program.
Desdunes may have paid Davison the ultimate compliment, comparing him to the man who started it all for him, bringing things full-circle.
“What Bobby Curtis did in Florida, a lot of those same things that Bobby instilled in us, translated into some of the things that Rick did in Georgia,” he said. “He had a hand in helping grow the sport and keeping the players in the state focused on getting better. His legacy will live on.”
The run, and Davison’s participation with Team Georgia came to an abrupt end in 2016, when his health took an unfortunate turn, as he suffered those strokes.
But with the help of Danielle and son, Derrick, who played at Georgia Southern and is a junior-level coach, and the strength of his bond with wife of 37 years, Shelita, he’s working to get back. It’s a slow, sometimes frustrating process, but there’ll be no stopping his efforts.
“Initially, he couldn’t speak at all, but he continues to see improvements in his speech,” said Danielle. “He spends a lot of time at speech therapy and doing things to care for his body and mind. He’s thankful that he can drive and live a pretty independent life despite all he’s been through.”
His years in tennis are a justifiable mark of pride and help keep his spirits up.
His face shone brightest when asked about helping pave the way not only for Shelton but for current Tech women’s tennis coach Rodney Harmon, who has continued to uphold the lofty standards that have become the program’s norm during his 11 seasons on The Flats.
“I feel like I helped open the door for Bryan Shelton and Rodney Harmon,” Coach Davison said, smiling widely.
While physically he’s facing adversity, the spirit is still there, as is that smile and laugh and positive attitude. They’ve always worked for him and keep him working now.
“It was hard for all of us,” said Desdunes, who is still close with the family and is godfather to Derrick.
“But his positiveness – he never says ‘No.’ He’ll say, ‘I’m GOING TO speak again.’ I know he’s going to continue to work and keep getting better every day. That will to succeed has always been one of his strong points.”
It’s the passion that comes with something you love and absolutely nothing will take that away. He still lights up when reminiscing about that hot summer day in Moore Park and what might have been had he not been so thirsty.
“I can’t say,” he said, but thought for a second, smiled then shared his signature big laugh.
That laugh and the spirit that inspires it say it all.