I was 10 years old when I experienced my first exposure to the game of tennis. My good friend, John Wortham, invited me to hit some tennis balls with him and his father, Dr. John Wortham, who was chairman of the Economics Department at TCU, in Forest Park. They had to bring their own net to string across the court.
To say that I was immediately hooked would be an understatement. Within a year, I had given up soccer, baseball and football to feed my addiction to tennis. The reason was this pied piper named Tut Bartzen, head tennis pro at Colonial Country Club.
When Tut first became tennis pro at Colonial, I remember hearing that one of his good friends, then top-ranked player Rod Laver, stopped by to visit Tut and they played a couple sets – which Tut won!
Before he became a hall of fame tennis coach who led TCU to consistent national prominence, Tut was among the world’s very best – collegiate champion, undefeated in Davis Cup singles play, and he won the U.S. Clay Courts so many times – four – that the tournament gave him the trophy to keep!
My game of tennis, advanced under Tut, led me to bring my best friend, Ned James, into the game, and we were doubles partners through Paschal and TCU. Tut’s instruction allowed each of us – as well as dozens of others of his proteges – to attend college on full tennis scholarships. I definitely thank Tut for that gift.
Tut would play against Ned and me in a two-vs.-one format called California doubles, where he taught us teamwork concepts and then played points to show us how each of the strategies worked in action. He sharpened our skills and our confidence.
Even more, I thank Tut for the lessons that he taught me about life and business while on the court.
Tut had two kinds of lessons: Instruction and playing. Instruction lessons taught the fundamentals and then more advanced applications of groundstrokes, serving, volleying, etc. They helped us recognize that repetition created positive habits through these drills.
The great reward was in reaching the level for playing lessons, where I would play points against Tut, who was still an amazing talent. After each point, he would evaluate what I had done well and then mention other decisions and possible shots that I should have made. The playing lessons taught each of us strategy that went well beyond the fundamentals. The playing lessons helped us master finer nuances such as drop shots and offensive lobs.
Such are the lessons that a business mentor teaches a rookie who is new to a company. Define the fundamentals, observe the protégé in action and then evaluate to help the rookie learn what was done well and what needs improvement.
By the way, Tut would have come to TCU sooner except for one reason: Me. In Tut’s words, “Bubba, I could never straighten out your screwy forehand, so when you graduate, I’ll take the job.” And he did!
Tut taught us more than the above-described mentor lesson. Some of my favorites were:
1. Control your emotions. I once saw a photo of Tut in a tennis magazine describing him as “The imperturbable Tut Bartzen.” I had to look “imperturbable” up because I had never seen or heard it. The definition is “unable to be upset or excited; calm.” That was classic Tut Bartzen. He was the guy who stayed calm when others would have lost their composure. He might lose to someone who was better that day, but he taught us that we should NEVER lose because we lost control of our emotions.
2. Make your parents proud. He didn’t necessarily mean that we had to win every match, but he did intend for us to represent our parents proudly in competition and always give our absolute best effort. He asked us to imagine that Mom and Dad were watching that match and he queried, “How proud would they be of how you handled yourself on that court?” The other term for this is “Sportsmanship” – playing for the love of the game and being fair.
3. Be honest under pressure. I played locally against a guy whose mantra – this is absolutely true, and he never denied it – was “If in doubt, call it out. And I’m ALWAYS in doubt!” We all knew that any close call on a critical point would go against us when we played this guy. Tut taught us that victories earned by cheating are shallow and meaningless. Those victories also prevent us from reaching deep within ourselves and finding that extra gear to perform at a higher level. Cheating your opponent ends up cheating yourself.
4. Commitment and dedication make a defining difference. In a close match, if skills are approximately equal, the player who has worked harder and is better conditioned will prevail because of putting the time in as an investment in future success. Friends who played for Tut at TCU talked about getting up early to run, even in freezing rain, because conditioning was so critical.
5. Quality relationships deliver results. When Tut decided that Colonial should host a tennis tournament, he first brought in the top amateurs in the world – winners from Wimbledon and all the Grand Slam tournaments – because they wanted to play in Fort Worth for him. His next step was to bring in the pros – the best of the VERY elite – Rod Laver, Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe. Dennis Ralston, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle, Manuel Santana and more. From all over the world, they came to Fort Worth because they so revered Tut Bartzen and the person that he was, both on and off the court.
I once sat down with Tut for a couple hours for a project I was writing. I asked how accurately he could predict the future success of some of his tennis players in life, and he smiled.
Tut told me that the way an athlete handles adversity, is willing to be disciplined in training, manages emotions in competition and plays honestly by the rules – particularly on the most crucial points of the match – is an outstanding predictor of that person’s future success in life and business.
I already miss you, Tut!
John Fletcher is the CEO of Fletcher Consulting, a local marketing and public relations firm.
To read Bartzen’s obituary, click here.