In the year since Joe Prather took over as director at Samuell-Grand Tennis Center, what once was a slew of empty tennis courts has become an active public facility teaming with programs for players of all ages and abilities.

Prather, who seldom plays competitively any more, spends about 35 hours per week on the court – teaching, coordinating leagues and, most recently, starting a National Junior Tennis League team at the facility.

This unique program is open to the public, runs to the regional rally on July 23, and provides complimentary racquets and coaching along with weekly competition.

The 31-year-old Prather, who resembles a pumped-up version of Greg Brady from “The Brady Brunch”, credits head pro Troy Cole and Diane Gary for much of the success at Samell-Grand.

But tennis is in Prather’s blood.

The eldest son of a tennis-oriented family from Shreveport, La., Prather recalls his first taste of big-time tennis in 1980. In a spirited, mixed-doubles exhibition match, the high school senior teamed with touring pro Wendy Turnbull to face the legendary Billie Jean King and another local junior star.

“It was a great match,” Prather says. “It was a little intimidating playing in front of all those people, but I held my own. We ended up losing 7-6, but right after the match, the Centenary College coach walked up to me and offered me a scholarship. I’ll never forget that day.”

The 6-foot, 1-inch player redefined his skills at the small Shreveport college (1,200 enrollment), which despite its size, competes against the best teams in the country.

Prather was named all-conference for his first two years and all-American his junior and senior years, thanks in large part to his huge serve (still among the best in Dallas).

Although he managed to pick up a geology degree, which presumably assists him in analyzing the soil content around his East Dallas courts, he also received some valuable lessons during the same period from well-known teaching pro Harry Hopman.

During summers from 1982-1985, Prather would head to Bardmoor, Fla., for the green clay courts and humidity of Hopman Tennis Center to train with the likes of Pat Cash, Peter McNamara, Paul McNamee and countless other international racquet wizards.

Preather credits Hopman for teaching him the fundamentals of instruction and people management that he still uses today.

“Harry had that stare that would just pierce you.” he says. “Mr. Hopman commanded respect on and off the court. He knew how to control kids, and he would treat you real well if you gave 100 percent.”

While living in Florida, Prather also showed his wares on the state’s highly-regarded regional circuit. His game continued to improve under Hopman’s tutelage.

Prather trained an aspiring Puerto Rican junior after graduation from Centenary before landing a teaching job at Trail Valley Tennis and Swim Club in Garland. A few years later, he moved to the Spring Park Health and Racquet Club for two years as the head tennis pro, working with Cole and Gary along the way.

A little more than a year ago, Prather sat down with Patsy Gulley, the Dallas Tennis Association executive director, and he realized that Samuell-Grand is where he wanted to be.

“This is a very challenging position,” says Prather as he surveys his domain of 20 courts from the colorful pro shop lobby, filled with racquets and clothes.

“In a public setting, you have to earn the respect of the people you come in contact with, or they’ll play somewhere else.

“The potential here is overwhelming. I feel that my niche is working with kids, whether they be seven or 17. Here at Samuell-Grand, my job is not to teach lessons for 50 hours per week.

“My job is to increase tennis involvement in the community and reach out to people who want to learn to play the sport.”

His plan seems to be working. Court use is up to 20 percent during the past year. The facility, owned by the City, is run by the Dallas Tennis Association and is the site of many tournaments throughout the year.

“We have more public courts than anywhere else in the City, and our rates ($2 per 1 ½ hours before prime time, $4 per hour thereafter) are also the lowest around Prather says.

“There’s no reason that Dallas can’t produce a star from the public court system like Zina Garrison in Houston.”

If there’s one thing for which Prather is known, it’s his trademark enthusiasm and energy.

“People generally know when I’m on the court,” he says, laughing.

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