Person of the Year: Virgil Christian
If you look back through our “Person of the Year” winners for the last dozen years, you may notice most aren’t what you’d typically call “flashy.” On the contrary, they tend to do their jobs or volunteer quietly, passionately, with great dedication to tennis, and to growing this game.
Our Person of the Year for 2013, Virgil Christian, fits this mold to a “T” (for “tennis,” of course).
Christian is the USTA’s director of market development and collegiate tennis, but that doesn’t begin to describe the influence he’s had, and continues to have, on the development of recreational tennis in this country since he joined the USTA national office in 2005.
“When we began to focus on 10 and Under Tennis in 2008,” says Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive of Community Tennis, “we recognized we needed to make the game easier for kids. So we went with modified equipment and smaller courts, but it was Virgil who really dug into the facility side. He said, ‘If this is going to grow, we have to figure out how to innovate around the challenge of the courts. How do we make this work for existing facilities? Do we really think teaching pros will put down lines and create smaller courts?’ The whole concept of blended lines painted on courts — Virgil was the architect of that.”
Now, blended lines are on more than 15,000 courts. “Basically, with Virgil’s guidance, we’ve re-created the modern-day tennis court with blended lines,” says Kamperman (who also adds that the 15,000 courts “are the ones we know about and helped — there probably are thousands of others who have added the lines that we aren’t aware of”).
But Christian’s influence goes beyond the push for blended lines — he oversees the whole facilities effort from USTA national, including providing technical and grant assistance. “We’ve helped design or renovate over 30,000 courts in the last six years, and about 5,000 facilities have reached out to us for help in some way,” notes Kamperman.
David Lasota, the owner of a tennis facility and design firm and a national technical consultant to USTA Community Tennis Facilities & Development, says Christian’s work has “reshaped the court construction business.”
“Originally, as a technical consultant, I got together with a group from the USTA a few times a year to look at funding applications,” Lasota says. “But Virgil saw that a lot of our clients needed more than just money; they needed technical assistance, to best help grow the sport. His leadership really changed the direction of this group. It’s put us at the cutting edge in the industry, and in the long run, it will provide so much more exposure for tennis.”
What Christian brings to tennis on a national scale — and what may frequently get overlooked in the leap to find tennis industry “game-changers” — is experience at the grassroots level. “I’ve been fortunate to be in some pretty unique spots in my career,” he says.
Christian grew up in Pittsburgh and went to Penn State, where he played on the tennis team and was captain for two years. He received a master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary near Philadelphia. “My background is on the court, and after grad school I was recruited to go to Peachtree City outside of Atlanta,” he says. At the time, Peachtree City wanted to build a world-class tennis center. “I worked with an economic development group — people who were the top of their industry.”
Christian helped design the facility, oversaw the construction of hard courts, then clay courts, then covered courts, then an office building with a restaurant. Being in Atlanta, “It was a pretty dynamic tennis environment,” he notes. “We had no community courts, then suddenly five years later we had 2,000 people playing. I was given basically a blank slate, and the trust to make it work.” His experience also includes running a tennis retail store, running tournaments, and running a pro circuit event.
He then moved to Cary, N.C., which also wanted to create one of the world’s finest tennis facilities. “It’s now one of the most active public facilities,” he says, “and it’s just beautiful.”
When Christian joined the USTA, the organization was mostly concentrating on CTA’s and parks. Changing and expanding the focus, though, was a team effort, he says, crediting a great working relationship with veteran court construction industry executive Peggy Beard, who was the longtime volunteer chairperson of the USTA’s Technical Committee. “She really helped lead the way,” Christian says. “Then, you hire one of the best guys in the country, David Lasota, and everyone looks good. We’re giving people the best advice possible.”
While Christian continues to oversee the facility development side of things — and continues to help elevate the court design and construction industry — he’s also taken on other responsibilities within the USTA, including overseeing collegiate tennis for the USTA.
One of his projects is “College MatchDay,” a series of top men’s and women’s college tennis team matches that are televised and include organized activities and local events. “There is so much great competition in college tennis,” he says. “We’re able to spotlight some of the game’s finest teams, players and coaches” with the College MatchDay format. Last year there were three College MatchDay events; in 2014 Christian is planning on 20.
But promoting tennis on 36- and 60-foot courts in all ways, and helping to build, renovate and update tennis facilities of all sizes throughout the country, remain top priorities. Christian says the USTA’s facilities department continues to receive three or four inquiries a day for help and assistance, from huge facilities to much smaller projects.
“We’re now seeing more people starting to spend more on tennis and building venues where people can sit and watch the sport,” he says. “We go to city council meetings all the time, and we simply tell them where tennis is going. You do tennis right, and you recover revenue. People need places to play; we have to guide them to it.
“I don’t think anyone could have imagined that we’d look at the landscape of tennis in the U.S. and see blended lines on courts, and adults playing on these courts,” he adds. “We’re only three or four years into this, and we have permanent courts all over the place, too. I’d be hard-pressed to find any other sport that has been as successful as tennis in kid-sizing. And that’s going to continue. How often can you literally change the playing field?” — Peter Francesconi
Tips For Success
- Be inspired by the people around you. Key leaders have the skills and abilities to inspire those they lead. Take the cue from the leaders you work with.
- Stay “reality based.” For Christian, he’ll often work with the staff at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to make sure programming, tennis teaching pros, consumers, and facility developments all work together effectively.
- People need places to play, and we have to guide them, Christian says. “We can’t hope they magically come forward.” Show municipalities and tennis facilities how the sport can return revenue.
See all articles by Peter Francesconi
About the Author
Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.