Students, widow remember local tennis pro’s love for tennis and students
Jun 22, 2017 05:16PM ● Published by Travis Barton
John poses with his racket on the tennis court in February of 2004. (Valerie Leavitt)
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John Bennett was an expert tennis player, a gifted teacher, Sugar House resident, and a fixture in Salt Lake’s tennis community.
Though June 19 marked the fourth anniversary since Bennett passed away after a three-year battle with cancer; family, friends and tennis students fondly remember the tennis legend and his journey.
Bennett played tennis at Hoover High where he finished first in California and fifth in the nation in doubles, according to byucougars.com.
“He was recruited by a lot of different schools for college and his plan was to play his freshman year and then go on the pro tour,” said John’s wife, Debbie.
Bennett chose Brigham Young University even though he wasn’t a member of the LDS Church because they had a perennial top 15 tennis program and were relatively close to home.
Each year Bennett was at BYU, the team finished in the top ten and he and his doubles partner Steve Whitehead lost in the NCAA semifinals according to byucougars.com.
At BYU, Bennett joined the LDS Church, then decided to serve a mission. He was called to Brazil.
While in Brazil, he would play tennis on preparation days and was even recruited by the Brazilian military to play tennis for them but declined to continue his missionary service.
“After he graduated from BYU, he played the pro tour for about a year,” said Debbie. “In Europe he won two, smaller tournaments I think one was in Birmingham (England) and I think one was in Belgium.”
Though Bennett loved the game of tennis he didn’t enjoy life on the road so he quit the pro circuit.
After returning from the tour, Bennett was a tennis teaching pro. This experience included teaching at Liberty Park, training actor and director Robert Redford and coaching at Boise State (head coach) and BYU (assistant).
“He worked a lot helping kids,” Debbie said. “He had a lot of kids that were really loyal to him that really appreciated his help. He had a lot that even up until he died wanted him to give them a lesson.”
“He took a lot of interest in his students and they all really loved him.”
Diane Blackburn was one of Bennett’s adult students at Liberty Park who he taught for several years.
At one point during the years when Bennett taught Blackburn her son was diagnosed with diabetes and her father passed away.
“I could go to tennis, and I could just forget all that and just be in the moment, and John made it so much fun,” Blackburn said. “He was kind, interested in you but also he really wanted you to be a better player. He pushed you always.”
Bennett had a gift for helping students improve their weaknesses.
“I’ve never run across anybody who was as adept at picking out what it was that you needed to do to get to the next level,” Blackburn said. “He always noticed it and he’d always call it out.”
Bennett would often tease his students with jokes to remind them what they needed to improve.
“Instead of telling me to move my feet he would say, ‘twinkletoes,’ or something like that instead of saying ‘give me a hard serve,’ he’d say, ‘give me a wheaty serve,’” said Sophia Nielsen who took lessons from John as child and teen.
Bennett was so good at tennis that other pros in the area would watch him and marvel at his flawless technique.
Though he was kind, Bennett was very competitive.
“He was also competitive so he didn’t let you win,” Nielsen said. “He never let you win when you played games against him.”
His wife remembers one student who Bennett taught who played at USU returning from a summer of hard tennis playing.
The young man challenged Bennett to a match and demanded that if he won he didn’t have to pay Bennett for the session.
“So, they played and John absolutely annihilated the guy,” Debbie recalled. “He didn’t get a single point on him.”
“John was like 52 and he was a 19 or a 20-year-old college tennis player. And the kid left pretty discouraged because he was like, ‘Oh, I guess I have a long way to go.’”
After the match, Debbie chastised her husband for his merciless play.
“I said to him, ‘You shouldn’t have done that to him that wasn’t very nice,’ and he said, ‘Well, he needs to know where he is and he’s not as good as he thinks he is,’” Debbie said.
Blackburn said that she didn’t realize how competitive Bennett was but that looking back she can tell he was teaching her to compete.
“You could tell that he was an amazing player but he didn’t hold it over you he was just always like your mentor; he was your coach and you could always feel like he was trying to help you,” Blackburn said.
At age 35 John went on the 35 and up tour where he ended up ranking 17th nationally.
Tennis was more than a game to Bennett. Neither of his parents had college degrees and he saw tennis as a major factor in helping him get his degree.
“He loved to compete, and he played all over the country and in Europe so he got to see a lot of the world that way,” Debbie said.
In addition to being a great tennis player and a nurturing coach, John was a first-class human being.
“He would win sportsmanship trophies in practically every event he entered,” Debbie said. “Most of the time he was like a super gentleman to people and a lot of his students talked about that.”
Bennett was flawlessly honest, meticulously careful and a devoted father and husband.
“His beliefs meant a lot to him. He was very spiritual and he cared a lot about being a good person and trying to be good to people and treat them well,” Debbie said.
As cancer began to take hold of his body, John continued to teach his students even though he couldn’t play with them anymore.
“As time went on, his body got weaker and weaker and he couldn’t necessarily get out there and play with them as much as he used to so he had to do more coaching from the sidelines,” Debbie said.
Blackburn said that John’s passeing left a void in the Liberty Park Tennis program.
On the side of a small building near the main tennis courts at Liberty Park there is a bronze plaque with John’s likeness etched on it dedicated to his service to the tennis community.
“He was a gift in my life,” Blackburn said. “He was a gift in a few people’s lives.”