What a University Tennis Coach Learns from his Players: Two Examples

By Robert Cox, Head Coach at the University of Arkansas (1987-2013)

What I learned from Blake Strode: Recruits like Blake do not come around very often. He was the complete package: smarts, natural talent, high Jr. rankings, speed, and a high tennis IQ. For four years, Blake played high in the line-up earning All American honors, leading his team to a top 15 ranking, reaching the Men’s singles NCAA semifinals. But from my perspective, his greatest accomplishment was teaching me about Black History in America and race relations. Blake had a set of Black History Flash cards that he would bring on team trips and he would quiz me in the team van. My knowledge of Black History in America was very limited and my stock answers to his quizzes were limited to two answers: Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Throughout Blake’s four years at Arkansas, he educated me about the struggles/injustices Blacks had in America against “The Man.” I am so grateful for Blake’s time here at Arkansas and all that he taught me. The view of the world that I now possess, thanks to Blake, is much more important to me than any win he gave me on the court. When I hear on the news or read an article about race relations/injustices/struggles in America, I look at it differently because I was lucky enough to coach Blake for four years. After playing on tour and graduating from Harvard Law School, Blake became the Executive Director of Arch City Defenders in St. Louis. My favorite quote from Blake is about attorneys serving people: “The vast majority of legal work is for high-paying corporations or high-net-worth individual clients. In my view, the need is greatest among low-income, working-class, poor and homeless individuals.”

Blake Strode

What I learned from Oskar Johansson:  Oskar arrived on campus with confidence. He had this inner self belief, but he was also “stubborn.” If Oskar did not believe in what I was coaching, there was almost no chance he would consider incorporating into his tennis personality. As a coach, I did not enjoy coaching Oskar for the first year and a half. He not only questioned my coaching, but he did so many times in front of the team. After three semesters, though, I realized that by having him on the team, he was making me a better coach. I had to make sure I could defend my coaching philosophy in all areas of the program. Oskar also slowly opened up to new ideas and thought processes over time. He began to look at tennis and life through a different lens and he realized he was equipped to play number 1 for a SEC top 20 team. He ascended up the national rankings, ultimately becoming Number 1 in the NCAA/ITA rankings.

My proudest moment with Oskar was on Senior Day. Oskar’s parents had traveled from Malmo, Sweden to Fayetteville for the first time in his four years as a student athlete to watch their son play in a Razorback uniform. Oskar quickly fell behind his opponent due to his tight play, playing as the number 1 ranked player in the country, playing on center court, and wanting to impress his parents. I felt badly for Oskar as I had grown to love this young man. Then out of nowhere a rainstorm quickly descended on the outdoor courts halting the dual match with Auburn in the lead 2-1 and in front of the remaining 4 matches. Due to this rainstorm, the match was moved to the intimate indoor courts of the Dills Center, awarding Oskar and his Razorback teammates a fresh start. Led by Oskar’s brilliant play, the Razorbacks turned the tables and stubbornly, confidently, and enthusiastically defeated the Tigers 4-2. During Oskar’s match, I would steal a look into the crowd and find Oskar’s dad smiling and clapping for his son, who was making him so proud in this courageous comeback. When Oskar’s teammate Aleksey Bubis clinched the match, I quickly scanned the facility and found Oskar– pointed my finger at him–locked eyes with him– and felt his acceptance. Oskar remains to this day, 20 years after that senior day, one of my closest friends.

Oskar Johansson and Coach Cox after Oskar won the ITA Championship
Oskar and his Beautiful Family

Coach Cox Bio (taken from TBP):

In his 26 years, he led Arkansas to nine NCAA Tournament appearances as a team, six regional finals and one Round of 16 appearance. He had 15 seasons with 12 or more victories, 11 teams ranked among the top 35 in the nation and produced 13 All-Americans.

His teams also were impressive in the classroom. Nearly every one of his student-athletes who completed their athletic eligibility earned their college diploma during his coaching tenure. In 2012, the Razorbacks became the first team in program history to be named to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s All-Academic List.

The squad also became the first men’s sport at Arkansas to garner a public recognition award for its perfect 1,000 multi-year Academic Progress Rate (APR). In 2009, Blake Strode was named the SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Strode was also a recipient of the Bodenhamer Fellowship at the University of Arkansas and was an NCAA singles semifinalist in 2009.

Under Cox’s guidance, Oskar Johansson became the most recent Arkansas player to capture a national title and earn a No. 1 ranking in 2001.

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