Eugene Holliday plans to bring diversity to tennis and opportunity to your children

Eugene Holliday was recently named Courier’s Kids director at the St. Petersburg Tennis Center.

BY GABRIELLE SETTLES, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Since its founding nearly 100 years ago, the St. Petersburg Tennis Center (SPTC) is rich in community history. Located at Bartlett Park, its courts have hosted tennis greats such as Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, just to name a few.

But perhaps what’s most impressive is that the center’s staff welcomes everyone from the surrounding community to learn how to play tennis – and with its newest children’s program director and coach, Eugene Holliday, many children will get the chance to be out on the court.

Holliday knows his stuff when it comes to coaching kids in the sport. Growing up in Atlanta, his family played tennis, and they decided to put him in lessons to learn the sport at the age of eight. Holliday accelerated quickly.

“By the time I turned 10, nobody in my family could beat me,” Holliday said.

By the age of 16, Holliday won numerous tournaments, was one of the top junior players in the country’s southern district and ranked within the top 100 junior players of the entire nation. Holliday said playing tennis kept him on the right path.

“Honestly, it kept me off the streets back home. My old coach William Fulton believed in me and opened a lot of doors for me,” Holliday asserted. “It kept me busy, and I didn’t have time to worry about what other people thought because I knew I had a goal that I wanted to reach, and he made sure I stayed on track.”

That goal was to go pro. But once Holliday got into the professional circuit of tennis, he realized it cost a lot of money.

“At the time, my parents and the people who helped me didn’t have a lot of money like that. So, I said, ‘let me find a way to actually give back to the community and help other kids who started out like me,’ and I realized that coaching was the way to go.”

What solidified Holliday’s decision to become a coach was his own coach, William Fulton. He admired the way Fulton helped others.

“People always showed much respect for him. I wanted to be just like that. I wanted people to respect me like that, the same way they did with him, and I wanted to help people, kids and adults. I realized that I had a passion for it,” he explained.

Fulton showed Holliday the steps of coaching, and it’s been his career path for the last 20 years. In addition to coaching kids, Holliday became a hitting partner for Donald Young, an African-American professional player who ranked at number one as a junior player and 38th in the world as an adult.

Holliday traveled with Young worldwide to the Australian, Wimbledon, French Open, and US Open tournaments to help him prepare and strategize for matches, and they’ve remained good friends.

His background made him just the man that SPTC’s general manager and executive director, Jack Bailey, was looking for to fill the role of director of Courier’s Kids. The program is named after Jim Courier, a professional player who established the after-school program so kids could learn how to play at low costs or for free with scholarships, thanks to the generous donations of the center’s members and the Tennis Foundation of St. Petersburg.

Bailey said the goal is to affect the community positively and give many kids a safe haven and come out to play tennis and learn life skills.

“The kids in the neighborhood can come over and have no tennis equipment, and they can still learn how to play tennis,” Bailey said.

Holliday’s best friend heard about the children’s program director position and connected him to Bailey for an interview.

“After speaking with Gene, I had a great feeling about the guy,” Bailey stated. “We had a great discussion on the telephone, and when he finally came down for the face to face [meeting], it was an immediate connection.”

Bailey believes that Holliday is just what the Courier’s Kids program needs.

Holliday has been Courier’s Kids director for a little more than a month, and already he’s had a tremendous impact, Bailey said.

“He’s got a great way about him on the court, very knowledgeable, very experienced and he connects well with the children,” Bailey averred.

Bailey said COVID-19 had hampered their operations, but they’ve worked out a system: All patrons and kids must wear masks when they come through the gates, and the staff monitors the courts to make sure everyone stays socially distant. Washing hands and sanitizing at the end of each session is critical, as well as making sure common surfaces are cleaned and disinfected.

Once COVID-19 is over, Bailey said Courier’s Kids will partner with the local Boys and Girls Club, Police Athletic League and Academy Prep to bring in more kids.

Holliday’s goal as the director is to help shape how people see tennis — that it’s a diverse sport that can open up many opportunities, whether you become a professional player or not.

“People don’t think African Americans really play tennis, and I want to show them that they do, and the sky’s the limit,” Holliday said. “If you can follow directions, you can go to college for free. You can help your community by showing them it’s something different out there besides basketball and football. You can actually travel the world like I did.”

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