By Mark Ambrogi
As the Pearson Automotive Tennis Club’s March 4 grand opening nears, Rick Witsken can sense a heavy, or perhaps heavenly, presence.
Rick views the new Zionsville indoor tennis facility as home for Team Witsken and a tribute to his brother, Todd, a former ATP Tour player who died at age 34 in 1998 after a battle with brain cancer. Todd, a Carmel High School graduate, made his home in Zionsville after retiring from the tour and becoming director of the now-closed Indianapolis Tennis Center.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Todd Witsken is working his magic,” said Rick, who began his teaching career alongside his older brother at the Tennis Center.
Fittingly, Rick’s Team Witsken staff includes Todd’s oldest son, Tyler, and P.A. Nilhagen, who was a personal coach for Todd, Rick and Tyler. Team Witsken offers tennis lessons, clinics and other services.
“You can’t write a better story than this,” said Rick, a two-time IHSAA state singles champion from CHS who played collegiately at Alabama. “I’m living a dream now.”
Tyler, 25, is sharing that dream.
“I feel like (my father) had a hand in this,” Tyler said. “I feel he’s definitely watching over us, and he’s going to be a big part of this place’s success.”
Tyler, a former CHS player, was burned out on tennis after graduating high school in 2010. But he began joining his uncle as an instructor and the passion returned. Tyler is an assistant coach of the Zionsville Middle School boys team under head coach Derek Mandel, one of the center’s board members. Tyler will be the head coach of the Zionsville West Middle School girls team this spring. Rick, 46, is head coach of ZMS girls team.
“This felt like where I needed to be, especially with it involving my dad so much, honoring what he did for tennis,” Tyler said. “People don’t know how good a player he was and how much he did for the sport. We all want to educate the public on how awesome he was. He’s the best player to ever come out of Indiana. I’m proud of that, obviously.”
For Nilhagen, 68, it just seemed the proper fit
“When Rick offered me the opportunity to come back, I thought it was a huge step for me, because the Witksens to a certain degree put me on the map,” said Nilhagen, who has been coaching for 44 years. “I started working with Todd when he was 10. A lot of my success was due to my relationship with him.”
Nilhagen said working with Rick and Tyler is an honor.
“To me, it’s a full circle, absolutely,” Nilhagen said. “Am I proud to be what I’m doing now to try to raise the next generation? Absolutely. I also think we have a team that is going to be very united as coaches.”
Rick said Nilhagen was a great addition to the staff. Nilhagen coached for many years in the Washington Township program and at Indianapolis Racquet Club.
“How can you not respect a guy who put his heart and soul into the tennis court 60 hours a week, not to mention a guy who helped prop my game up and Todd Witsken’s personal coach?” Rick said. “I felt the twilight of his career could be appreciated in the nicest facility in the city and the first one built in 25 years and being part of Todd’s vision for Team Witsken.”
Rick said Nilhagen has humbly accepted Rick leading the coaching staff. The staff includes Stephanie (Reece) Hunn, a former state champion from North Central High School who Nilhagen coached. Hunn, an Indiana University All-American player, also played professionally.
Team Witsken has been using Zionsville outdoor courts since 2001. However, the program had only two indoor courts at The Retreat Northwest apartment complex in Indianapolis.
Rick Witsken had seen his hopes for an indoor facility fall apart before in the past 15-plus years.
With the help of David Hunt, Derek Mandel, Michael Marine and Brent Claymon, this time was different. Having auto dealer John Pearson on board as a title sponsor was a boost as well.
“It really helped having a driver like Dave Hunt,” Rick said. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept pushing forward when honestly the outlook looked bleak. Brent Claymon, another board member, was huge in getting us a loan accepted from a bank for a not-for-profit facility that has yet to prove itself. We’re grateful for all the board members, but Dave was absolutely the leader of the ship.”
Rick said the $3.5 million center is not only for Zionsville residents.
“We want everyone in the surrounding counties and communities to enjoy it, too,” Rick said.
The center is a 501(c)(7) social club that is granted nonprofit status by the IRS. The board of directors contracted Team Witsken to manage the facility.
Rick and Nelson Nguyen, who joined Team Witsken in 2001 at its inception, have been coaching in Zionsville schools for 17 years.
The eight-court center provides access to players of all
ages and skill levels. There will be youth and adult lessons and league play for tennis and pickleball, a growing sport, which combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong and can be played on a tennis court.
The air-conditioned center will be open in the summer as well.
The center, 4560 S. County Rd. 875 East, is near the Zionsville Community High School tennis courts. The grand opening is set from 1 to 5 p.m. March 4.
For more, visit pearsontennis.com