Tennis icon John Powless going strong at 83

John Powless, a UW-Madison tennis and basketball coach in the 1960s and 70s, has been playing tennis — and winning tournaments — since not long after he was big enough to pick up a racket in his hometown of Flora, Ill., population 4,000.

He’s still going strong at 83, running the tennis club that bears his name on the Madison’s West Side — where he continues to teach lessons and hold court. An inspiration to senior-level (and much younger) players, he’s currently ranked No. 1 in the world for men over age 80. In 2015, he competed in at least seven international competitions.

His tennis center — which has eight indoor and five outdoor courts and a dozen instructors — has won numerous awards, including Club of the Year for Wisconsin. It has won the same Midwest honor and was a national finalist within the past decade, getting edged out by a private club in Palm Springs. He said membership in his semi-private club, which is also open to the public, has remained relatively steady in recent years at several hundred members.

Nancy Massart, executive director of the Wisconsin Tennis Association (WTA), lauded Powless and said, “John’s love of the game is truly infectious.” The WTA has 11,000 members through the U.S. Tennis Association. It’s also made up of 175 Wisconsin indoor and outdoor clubs, including numerous parks and recreation departments, she noted.

“John is always contributing to the sport,” Massart said. “You can get a sense of his contagious spirit when he’s out there with young kids all the way up to older adults. For years, he’s done a lot more than what would have just been good for his club’s bottom line.”

Powless, who is 6’6” and currently recovering from Achilles surgery, played football, basketball and tennis through high school and continued with those sports at Murray State University in Kentucky, where he was one of the country’s top collegiate tennis players. He and his dad won numerous father-son tournaments, a tradition he continued with his son, Jason, who teaches at the Madison club.

Upon graduation, he coached at the high school level before moving on to Florida State, where he coached basketball and tennis. Next came the University of Cincinnati, where he helped coach the Bearcats basketball team to NCAA championships in 1960 and 1961 with victories in the finals over Ohio State both years.

Powless made the move to UW-Madison in 1963 and stayed for 13 years, coaching both the basketball and tennis teams. He took the basketball team to the NCAA tournament once. In 1976, his last year coaching the Badgers, Powless said he got a call from a developer who was creating a development on the East Side of Madison that would include the Cherokee Country Club and its tennis facilities. He ran it for three years before moving on to the West Side tennis club that he continues to operate.

For a number of years, he also worked as a television basketball and tennis analyst. He also coached the U.S. Davis Cup Team. One of his favorite players was Arthur Ashe, who won the singles title at Wimbledon twice, as well as the U.S. and Australian Opens in the 1970s.

Powless was a force in developing USTA tennis leagues, with the goal of keeping players in the game after they’d moved beyond the beginner level.

“A lot of people came through the doors in the 1970s who’d never played tennis,” he said in a slight drawl from his years in Kentucky and southern Illinois.

“I told the USTA that we needed to come up with something for intermediates and advanced players with lesson programs, drills and leagues to keep them coming back. I said we gotta have a competitive side for them. They said it would never fly in this country, but now it’s huge in the U.S,” added Powless, a member of the USTA/Midwest Tennis Hall of Fame who was named U.S. “Senior Tennis Player of the Millennium” in 1999.

With members at his club ranging in ages 7 to 100, Powless called tennis “the most beneficial sport there is from a combined physical, mental and social standpoint. Families can play together for decades. We have a number of players here who are in their 80s and going strong.”

Powless has had surgeries on his shoulders, knees and other joints after injuries during his career. But like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going.

“Fortunately, Rick Glad, who’s my orthopedist at Dean Health, says I’m not a candidate for hip replacement, so I don’t have to worry about that surgery,” he joked.

Powless said he figures that the average age at his tennis club is around 50, but it also has a strong youth program aimed at bringing kids into the game and developing them so they can play on their high school teams, if they choose.

“You need to gear your programs for all ages,” he said. “When parents see what a good time their kids are having, they often say, ‘Maybe I should get back into this.’ Families participating together is a pretty wonderful thing. That’s one of the best things about this sport.”

Though Powless has had numerous opportunities to run tennis clubs around the country and abroad, he said he’s never considered leaving Wisconsin.

“I also had other invitations to get back into basketball coaching,” he mused. “But I said 20 years was a great time. And I consider Madison, Wisconsin my hometown. The people here are great, and it’s always listed as one of the top places to live in the country for good reason. I know it’s cold in the winter, but if I want to go someplace warm, I can always hop on an airplane.”

— By Brian E. Clark,