2015 Hall of Fame!
2015 Hall of Fame
Robert Russell and Asa Atkinson
The Tennis Foundation of Mississippi is pleased to announce that Robert Russell of Jackson and Asa Atkinson of Shaw are the 2015 inductees into the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame. Both men have long been associated with tennis in the state and through their play, support, and instruction, have left an unmistakable imprint on Mississippi tennis.
Robert Russell was born in Nebraska but grew up in Gulfport. At Gulfport High School, he played basketball for the legendary coach Bert Jenkins. He received basketball scholarships to both Gulf Coast Junior College and Mississippi State University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree. Robert came to tennis almost by accident. When he returned to the Coast after college, he lived across the street from a tennis court, and he and his wife started playing a little with racquets she bought with Green Stamps. He soon realized that this was a game he wanted to master, so he drove to Mobile for lessons from Ernie Cox and later from Eph Walker. His passion for the sport grew as he started playing in local tournaments and even in some satellite pro tennis tournaments. Eventually he and his dad opened a small tennis club on the Coast, but his friend Eph encouraged him to become a tennis professional and helped him get his first job at Point Clear (AL) Tennis Club, where he became fully acquainted with all aspects of being a club pro. From Point Clear, he moved to the Laurel Country Club, and eight years later, he went to Birmingham’s Brook Highland Racquet Club. In 1994, he became the head tennis professional and director of instruction at the Country Club of Jackson. He is currently the teaching pro at the Club at the Township in Ridgeland. In the last forty years, he has coached over 400 high school, national, sectional, and state ranked juniors. Robert claims that most of his accomplishments are through his students. He coached two ATP players ranked in the top 100—Derek Tarr and Dave Randall—and worked as a Davis Cup coach for a while. Russell was named the MTA Tennis Pro of the year in 1994. You may not know that he is also a member of the Senior Olympics Hall of Fame in basketball. His successes and accomplishments in his long career are too many to enumerate here, but his induction into the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame is indicative of the respect and admiration he has earned from his peers. He and his wife Bry are the parents of three children and grandparents of ten grandchildren.
Asa Atkinson from Shaw first started playing tennis at the age of twenty because he wanted to see if he could beat his brother, who was on the high school tennis team. Apparently, he was a quick study because a year later, he played seven matches for MSU and Coach Tom Sawyer. The only lesson he ever had was a one hour lesson on the backhand from Bobby Brien, also a Hall of Fame member. Since then, his tennis has been self-taught through conventions and watching and studying professional players. After graduating from Mississippi State, he returned to the Delta and completed a Master’s degree in guidance and counseling at Delta State. He and his brother Sharp were contacted by a school superintendent from California who was looking for tennis coaches, so both of them moved to California. Asa stayed there for eight years before moving back to Shaw. He was the guidance counselor at Shaw High School for 22 years before he retired in 1996. In 1974, he became a USPTA Certified Professional, and he began a 32 year relationship with the Cleveland Country Club. For a time, he was the only tennis pro in the Mississippi Delta. He travelled all over the Delta teaching tennis in small towns and country clubs, even going as far as Batesville, while running the tennis program at the Cleveland Country Club and performing his duties at Shaw High School. One of the first things Asa did when he moved back to Shaw was to build a tennis court in his backyard. Many of his weekends were spent teaching juniors on this home court all day on Saturdays. In 1989 he became the women’s tennis coach at DSU, and a few years later, he took over the men’s team as well, and has been doing both for twenty-seven years. In 2001 he was elected the USPTA Southern Division Coach of the Year; in 2009, he was named Gulf South Conference Women’s Tennis Coach of the year; and in 2013, he was inducted into the Cleveland Country Club Hall of Fame. He has coached two female and one male All-Americans and has 10-12 former players and students serving as tennis professionals around the United States and the world. In fact, there are four USTPA tennis professionals in his immediate family. Asa says that his only regret is that he did not start playing tennis earlier in life. His highest NTRP rating was a 5.0, but we have to remember that he was finding time to play in addition to all the teaching he was doing while working a full time job. And by the way, he says that he was never able to beat his brother with any consistency—he was either too lucky or too good. Atkinson has been a driving force in the growth of tennis in the Mississippi Delta for almost fifty years as a player, teacher, and coach. Asa and his wife Nancy have two children, Asa II and Betsy, and five grandchildren.
Russell and Atkinson will be inducted into the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame at a banquet to be held in their honor at the Country Club of Jackson on Saturday, January 9, 2016. For ticket information, call the MTA office at 601-981-4421 or 1-800-349-1683.