Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Mike Woody is out to make tennis a big deal in Wichita

The Wichita Eagle

Mike Woody arrived in Wichita five weeks ago with a mission – to make this a tennis town.

OK, stop laughing.

If you’re like me, you can’t name more than a few professional tennis stars. And are there any tennis towns in America?

It so happens than Woody comes from one. His professional legacy, so far, is turning Midland, Mich. (population 40,000), into a tennis hub. In 2009, the U.S. Tennis Association deemed Midland, where Woody served as executive director at Greater Midland Tennis Center, the “best tennis town” in America.

Wichita has certainly had its moments with tennis over the years. But can it be a tennis town?

Woody, the new director of tennis for seven Genesis Health Clubs in Kansas, thinks it can be. But maybe it’ll take a different approach to get there.

“With Genesis, I saw a company and an organization with a mission of truly changing people’s lives and making a difference,” Woody said. “My goal will be to use tennis as a vehicle to help accent people’s lives, whether they’re a 3-year-old just learning the game or a 90-plus year-old who still dreams about their next tennis match.”

That means finding ways for tennis’ appeal to grow, which could mean smaller courts and less-lively balls for beginners.

“We have to make the game easier for kids under 10 to learn,” Woody said. “I think one of the biggest keys is how well you program the game and how well you introduce it to people.”

Woody grew up in the Detroit area and was a high school tennis champion who played collegiately at Western Michigan. He’s still No. 8 on that school’s wins list, he said.

He raised a son and a daughter, both of whom won state tennis titles and played college tennis. He started in the tennis industry when he was 16. It was his destiny.

“I come from a divorced family and tennis was an outlet for me to learn a lot about myself,” Woody said. “It introduced me to a lot of great mentors and supporters along the way.”

He started out cleaning showers and taking care of courts, anything to be close to the game. He eventually started to teach some kids but didn’t realize he could make a living doing that until he tried a more conventional route in life by going to nursing school. After realizing that wasn’t what he wanted, he was hired by a tennis center in Grand Rapids, Mich., as director of junior competition.

It was in Midland, though, that Woody put together a 39-court complex that the USTA still ranks among the top tennis centers in the country.

“I ran the facility for 20 years,” he said. “We had a women’s professional tournament and we were touted as one of the crown jewels on the UTSA pro circuit. We had six grand slam champions come through and became a facility for rising stars.”

At 52, though, Woody decided it was time to leave. He’s been asked why a time or two.

“I wish I could say that when I was 8 years old and looking up to the stars, I realized that one day I was going to work in Wichita, Kan.,” Woody said. “But that didn’t happen.”

Woody did start to realize, though, there was nothing more to accomplish in Midland and that he was still too young to rest on laurels.

A man his age wants another challenge. He made the bold move to go someplace he’s never been and discover whether what worked so well in Michigan can work in Wichita.

He said he was also impressed with Genesis owner Rodney Steven during his job interview.

“He captured a vision of what I was feeling,” Woody said. “What does Mike Woody do next? What can he do?”

It came to Woody that instead of limiting himself to teaching tennis, he wanted to help improve the health and fitness of the tennis players at Genesis.

“I’m looking at the game of tennis as a health vehicle,” Woody said.

And what about the game’s popularity? Well, it isn’t the 1980s.

Woody believes the game needs to be repackaged. He’s going to sell prospective tennis players on the improved health and fitness the sport brings and watch as they fall in love with playing the game. That’s how it’s supposed to happen, anyway.

He’ll encourage racquetball. He’ll encourage pickle ball, a racquet sport picking up popularly especially with older players. He wants to get a racquet into people’s hands and expects tennis will benefit.

Meanwhile, he expects the ebb and flow of tennis’ popularity in America to rise again soon.

“I would put money that we’ll have more champions from here in the near future,” Woody said. “When? I can’t say next year, but I would think in the next five to 10 years there will be another American champion.”

In the meantime, Woody will keep teaching and thinking of new ways to spread the joy of the game he loves. Perhaps the next champion is right under his nose.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.