Dr. Allen Fox: A Historical Perspective of a Living Legend

Jason LampioneContributor IJuly 29, 2011

Dr. Allen Fox:  A Man that Became a Winning Lenged. (Photo Credit: Rich Neher).
Dr. Allen Fox: A Man that Became a Winning Lenged. (Photo Credit: Rich Neher).

The ultimate achiever in sport, business and life!  Dr. Allen Fox has accomplished what so many only dream of doing.  Born on June 25th, 1939, in Los Angeles, California, Allen had lived a life full of passion and purpose.  His monumental achievements go back as far as high school where he was Southern California junior champion, a member of the Junior Davis Cup team, and won the US National Junior Doubles at Kalamazoo.   

Thereafter, Dr. Fox had attended UCLA and was a three-time All-American, (1959-61) winning the NCAA national doubles title with partner Larry Naglar in 1960, and then, the singles title in 1961.  He has earned his B.A. in physics and continued his education to complete his Ph.D. studies in psychology.  Dr. Allen Fox was inducted into the UCLA Sports Hall of Fame, along with other mentionables that include the Pepperdine University Sports Hall of Fame, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Hall of Fame, the Southern California Tennis Hall of Fame, and the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.   

In addition, Dr. Allen Fox has coached the men’s team at Pepperdine University to a top-five ranking in Division I for 10 consecutive years, including six NCAA quarterfinals and two final berths. Among Fox’s team members were Brad Gilbert, Martin Laurendeau (Canadian Davis Cup Captain), Kelly Jones (coach of James Blake and former #1 ranking doubles player in the world), Glen Michibata (Princeton men’s coach, and former Canadian Davis Cupper and #1 ranking doubles player in the world), and Richard Gallien (women’s coach at USC).   

Dr. Allen Fox has also coached and consulted numerous world ranked players on both the ATP and WTA tours with great success.  Such players would include Dinara Safina, Sam Querrey, Dimitri Tursunov, Justin Gimelstob, Ashley Harkelrod, Scoville Jenkins (US national junior champion in 2003), and Mike McClune (US national junior champion, 2007).  He even worked with John McEnroe when he was playing on the professional circuit.  And, continues to consult players from around the world who seek his guidance and mentorship. Now, please welcome Dr. Allen Fox! 

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Welcome Allen, I am very happy to be here with you today!  Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share with us your personal and professional achievements over the course of your successful career.  I have received much feedback from our readers who are anticipating reading this wonderful interview that you will sharing with them. 

Without further delay, let us begin.

(JL) Allen, growing up as a young athlete how did you first become involved with the sport of tennis?  Can you recall a specific experience as a young player that you'd like to share with us?  How was parental support during those times growing up in Tuscon, Arizona? 

(AF) I actually started playing tennis while living in Tucson, Arizona when I was almost 14. I took a couple of lessons from a University of Arizona tennis team member and practiced against a backboard. Three months after starting I played in a city 15 and under tournament and lost to the winner in a close match, despite the fact that I hadn’t yet learned to serve (So I served underhanded.). There weren’t many players in Tucson in those days, so I could see that the top wasn’t very far away. That inspired me to practice. I had no parental support other than my mother taking me to the backboard daily and telling me to practice for an hour. I guess I was a pretty well-behaved kid, because she left me alone at the backboard and practiced for the required hour. 

(JL) When you left Tuscon, Arizona and relocated to Beverly Hills, California did you feel pressure to perform in high school?  You had mentioned during our conversation that you had transferred from Tuscon High School to Beverly Hills High School, how old were you entering into Beverly Hills High School?  Did you have any outside influences that gave you the desire to wanna be the best? 

(AF) I entered Beverly Hills High as a junior at the age of 16, having transferred from Tucson High, where I was the best player in the Southwestern United States in the 18 and under division. I didn’t feel the slightest pressure to perform from anybody other than myself at any time in my career, including high school, university, Davis Cup, or elsewhere. I wanted to win on a personal basis as powerfully as was humanly possible. No outside influence could have made me want it more or try harder.  

(JL) In 1960, you had attended the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and teamed up with Larry Naglar to capture the NCAA doubles title, can you tell us how it felt winning such a prestigous event?  What was the experience like during those days playing competitively in the National Collegiate Athletic Association at the division one level?  

(AF) Winning the NCAA doubles in 1960 was not a thrill at all. I was interested in the singles. Once I lost in the singles event, I wanted to win the doubles, but it did not replace the disappointment of losing in the singles. As for competing at the Division I level in college, I was not overawed by the experience at any time. I was, in short order, one of top 5 players in Division I. In my years at UCLA I won every dual match at the number 1 and 2 positions except two, and these were against Rafael Osuna of USC (I also had a win over him) and Chuck McKinley of Trinity, both great players.  

I won the NCAA singles championship in 1961 in my senior year and that win also clinched the team title for UCLA that year. It was an exciting win for me, but I must admit that the draw opened up in such a way that I felt I could not lose. That year there were 3 players that threatened me. I was very consistent, and I felt that there were only three players in college tennis at the time that might beat me: Rafael Osuna (top 10 in the world), Larry Nagler (1960 NCAA singles champion), and Ramsey Earnheart (of USC, ranked #11 in the United States). All three of them were upset in the tournament, to my great satisfaction and relief, and I was never close to losing even a set in the tournament.

With those guys out, it was a cakewalk for me, although my coach, JD Morgan, wasn’t as relaxed about it as I was.  In those days the team event co-existed with the individual event, and each team got a point for each individual match its team members won. We were tied with USC going into the singles final, and my coach was worried about me losing to Ray Senkowski of Michigan, victor over Ramsey Earnheart in the semis. I said to JD, “Relax coach. There’s no way under the sun I can lose to this guy!” And I didn’t. But as a coach later myself, I understood JD’s concern. (More than once when I coached at Pepperdine I had cocky players guarantee me wins and lose.) 

(JL) What was your experience like attending UCLA?  How did your game develop in college as you progressed as a player on the UCLA team?   

(AF) My experience at UCLA, although painful in my junior year, was crucial in my development as a player. It gave me an opportunity to practice hard and play a lot of matches while getting an education. In my junior year I began a long string of losses to Larry Nagler, my team mate and doubles partner. I had ended my sophomore year as the number one player on the UCLA team, and it hurt to move down to number two the following year. Nagler was a great athlete (played first string basketball at UCLA as a freshman under John Wooden), and he beat me so many time that he got into my head.  

I was very consistent and reached the finals of every intercollegiate tournament in Southern California. (There were 3 big ones each year – Valley Hunt, Ojai, and the Pac 10 Championship) But in my junior year Nagler beat me in the finals of each of them and, in addition, at the National Clay Court Championships and Balboa. The only good part of this was that it pushed me to practice long and hard to try to overtake him, which I finally did at the Valley Hunt tournament in my senior year.  

(JL) When and how did you make the transition from good player to world-class player?  What were some of your accomplishments during this progression in your success? 

(AF) 1961-1962 was a pivotal time in my tennis career. It was then that I made a jump from quite a good player to a world-class player, and to this day I’m not quite sure what caused it. But that year I won singles titles at the NCAA Championships, Cincinnati, and Southhampton (a major event on the grass court circuit) and was named to the Davis Cup team. Suddenly, I was capable of beating anybody in the world on a given day. This initial phase extended into early 1962 when I won the US National Hardcourt Championship in La Jolla. After that I was an established player, and, although I was in graduate school in psychology at UCLA, I practiced with the UCLA team every afternoon, played tournaments every couple of weeks during the school year, and played internationally every summer. 

(JL) How did college tennis compare to tennis on the international tour and what was the tour like before the Open Era?  Did you get compensation for playing on the professional circuit?  If so, what was the experience like? 

(AF) For me the transition from intercollegiate tennis to the international tour was seamless. In those days the best players in the United States stayed in college, usually for their 4 years. So there was not a great jump to the international level. This was all before the ATP existed, the tournaments were nominally “amateur” but when you reached the higher levels you negotiated appearance money. The top players in the world got about $1,000 a week (Roy Emerson, Manuel Santana) and it scaled down from there. At my peak I was getting about $300 a week, which I thought was stealing. Imagine, I thought, getting paid to play tennis?? Heck, I would have happily paid my own way just to play (and did in the early days). The whole thing was exciting and fun! 

(JL) Did your coach at UCLA put pressure on you to win?  How many hours a day did you dedicate to the each practice session?     

(AF) I felt no external pressure during this time, nor at any time afterward. All the pressure I felt came from myself. I wanted to win every time I walked on court, and I was able to put out 100% effort every time in every match. I took every match seriously, and if I was able to beat somebody 6-0. 6-0 I certainly tried to do it. I was a fanatic practice player, and I put in long hours of work on my game. My theory was that as soon as I left the practice court my game stopped improving. So I stayed on the court every moment I could. Six to eight hours on weekends and during the summer was normal for me. After tournament matches I would take a rest and come right back to the practice court for another hour or two. I liked the practice; I loved the winning; and I felt the more I practiced the better my chances were of winning. 

(JL) You seem to have had a number of jumps in performance. What caused these?   

(AF) As with everybody, confidence comes in cycles, and with confidence comes big improvements in performance. When I got hot, I could and did beat anybody. One of my biggest jumps started at the Canadian National Championship in 1966 in Vancouver, played on grass. I was down 2 sets to love in the semis, but came back to win in 5 sets. By the final, I was brimming with confidence and beat Alan Stone of Australia very easily. Two weeks later, at the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles, I remained hot, and beat the four best players in the world on four days without losing a set. These were Manuel Santana, Tony Roche, Fred Stolle, and Roy Emerson, each had won one of the Slam tournaments that year. Of these the most thrilling was beating Emerson in the finals. He was then and had been for several years, the best player in the world and was one of my idols. I never thought I could beat him, but that day on the center court of the LA Tennis Club in front of 4000 home court fans I just couldn’t miss.  

(JL) What was it like to play Davis Cup for the United States?  During those years, who were the top players?  What country did you have an opportunity to compete against?  What was that experience like for you? 

(AF) My experience as a Davis Cup member was as a secondary player. The top guys over the years were Chuck McKinley, Dennis Ralston, Arthur Ashe, and Cliff Richey. I played against Iran, a weak team, so there was no real pressure on me. I didn’t think there was any way I could lose, so the matches were a lot of fun. I met the Shah and played in front of 4,000 Iranians and basically put on a tennis exhibition. In this sense it was much like most of my intercollegiate matches when I was at UCLA. I felt no threat of losing, so the playing was a lot of fun. That was the kind of situation that made all the work worthwhile – playing pretty good but not very good players in a big situation in front of a hefty crowd with no risk of losing. Playing against very good and very dangerous players was never as much fun because of the risk of losing. Then there was pressure, not from the outside, but internally generated. I loved the winning, but the matches themselves were very stressful and required tremendous concentration. I looked forward to the tournaments, was excited with the prospects of winning them, but didn’t enjoy the process of fighting my way through tough competitive matches. 

(JL) How did your competitive experience as a player impact your coaching career?   

(AF) My competitive experiences gave me first-hand information on what it takes to win tennis matches. I was not a great athlete, so I had to work extraordinarily hard on my strokes, techniques, and strategies. I had to be very alert to my opponent’s weaknesses because I did not have the guns to blow my opponents out. Rather, I had to break down their weaknesses. I was also highly driven but risk averse, so choking was always a possibility for me against dangerous opponents. I had to learn how to control my nerves and function when my hands were getting shaky. All of this was very helpful when I became a coach at Pepperdine University.  

(JL) What did you learn about coaching that surprised you?  Can you describe how a collegiate coach becomes successful by sharing a few examples with us that you've learned from other coaches within the NCAA?   

(AF) I was somewhat surprised when I first started coaching as to what the job entailed. I had thought I would simply teach my players how to do the things I did on court, and they would become better tennis players. Little did I expect that 90% of my job would entail handling psychological and motivational issues. Most of us think that other people will think and behave somewhat as we would in a similar situation. (That is, until we live for awhile and get multiple experiences of reality.) As a player, I was goal oriented, highly motivated, rational, did as I was told, and did not need a great deal of hand-holding from my coach. I soon learned that most people are not like this. I learned that the most important job of the coach is not teaching the players how to play, rather it is to get control of the players. Only then can you teach them anything.  And every successful coach does this in his/her own unique way.

Dick Gould at Stanford did it by being very smart and people oriented. He wasn’t a disciplinarian. His practices were loose and not terribly long. He handled each player differently. He knew which player to kick in the butt (and when) and which player needed a pat on the back and an understanding ear. Glenn Bassett, the great coach at UCLA, did it with firm but fair rules, hard, long, repetitive practices and great personal devotion to the team. And I did it differently from both of them. I led from the inside, almost as a “leader of the pack” kind of coach. In my early years I could play as well as any of my players (for a set, anyway) and I had been a better player than most of them. I also had a sharp wit and knew more about a lot of things than they did. (I even tutored some of them in their studies on trips.) So they did what I said for a combination of reasons. They respected me and didn’t want to become the object of my wit in front of the team. I mentally dominated the team, but did not do it with strict rules or punishments.

They just didn’t want to mess with me.  My playing career was a great help with my coaching, and I did enjoy the competitive aspect of recruiting and training a strong team and then sicking them on opposing teams. Winning was fun, losing wasn’t, but none of it was as much fun as when I was playing myself. On the other hand, I couldn’t play at high levels any more myself, and coaching was a lot more fun than not playing at all. It had many but not all of the aspects of tennis competition that I knew and loved throughout most of my adult life. The one part of college coaching that I hadn’t expected but that was extremely important was motivating the players and teaching them to control their emotions. This was far more difficult than I realized before I began coaching. 

(JL) Expanding from our previous question.  Was there another aspect of coaching that you didn't become aware of during your career that you now enjoy?  How has the personal relationships you've forged with your players (past and present) affected you as a person and coach?  What lessons do you think your players have learned most and do you stay in touch with them? 

(AF) One other aspect of coaching that I was not aware of beforehand but that I have greatly enjoyed has been my personal relationship with my players and ex-players. I recognize (and always have recognized) that tennis is just a game, played essentially for fun. (Of course much of the fun comes from winning.) But as seriously as I have always been in competition, I’ve always realized that it’s just a game. But beyond that, this particular game is a great analog for the competitive and achievement aspects of life itself, and it has been personally satisfying to mentor my players in their off-court lives.  

Through tennis they have learned the lessons of how hard work, emotional discipline, staying alert to what’s working and what isn’t, assuming all problems have solutions, and taking personal responsibility for performance help in becoming successful in whatever area of achievement they find themselves. I stay in touch with many of them and, as with my children, I am happy when they are happy and doing well. It is rewarding when they tell me I have had a positive influence on how they are handling their lives now that their playing careers are over.  

(JL) To date, who have you been coaching on the professional circuit?  During your coaching sessions with your player, what do you normally discuss in your conversation?  Do you work with your player on the court or converse over the telephone?   

(AF) I have been coaching Igor Kunitsyn (#62 ATP) for the last few years, and it is more like what I originally thought college coaching would be like. Igor is 29 and very logical. Of course he is emotional too, as we all are, but he is very reachable with logic. I don’t have to motivate Igor, and I don’t try to control him. He has a wife and child and plenty of reasons to be practical and want to win. I work with him in an unusual way – mostly by telephone. I go to a few tournaments each year with him and identify weaknesses that I think he can strengthen.  

We discuss appropriate drills and how to do them, and he disciplines himself when I’m not there. We also discuss mental and emotional approaches that will help him against certain opponents and game plans. When I make suggestions, Igor wants to know why it is so. He has to be convinced that there is a good reason for something before he will do it. Once convinced, however, he doesn’t need me standing over him pushing him to do things. He takes care of himself, much as I did in my playing days.  

(JL) In what ways have you made Igor Kunitsyn a better player?  Can you describe Igor's playing style and how his playing approach hindered his ranking?  What have been other major influences you have had over Igor during the time you've worked with him?   

(AF) The main physical adjustment I’ve worked on with Igor has been to give him more tools for aggression. Previously, he was a body-punching baseliner. However, he didn’t have quite enough power to hit winners consistently with his groundstrokes. This left him vulnerable to players who were either more consistent than he was, or to players who had a big shot and who could eventually blow him out. These issues kept his ranking at about 100 to 120 ATP. To counter this, Igor spent a great deal of time doing volley drills and becoming proficient at the net.

Now he can hurt opponents by getting control of the point off the ground and transitioning into the net for the finish. He’s now using his exceptional speed of foot for offense (with quick movements forward) rather than strictly for defense, chasing balls down on the baseline.  The other influences I’ve had over Igor concern, as one might expect knowing my background, his mental game. He is very smart and reasonable, and he understands immediately the effects of emotion on performance. He’s become more emotionally disciplined and resilient to the many ebbs and flows of good and bad fortune in tennis matches. He gotten tougher and is competing better.

This is probably due, at least partially, to having more weapons in his game and more options in his game plans. But it’s also due to understanding what emotional reactions he and the rest of the players are likely to have in various situations and being prepared with a plan to counter his own difficulties and take advantage of those of his opponents. The mistake most players make is to simply let nature take its course emotionally, without mental preparation or plan. 

(JL) Over the years you’ve written several well-received books, “If I’m the Better Player, Why Can’t I Win?” “Think to Win,” and “The Winner’s Mind, a Competitor’s Guide to Sports and Business Success.” What have you written most recently? 

(AF) For the last many years, in addition to my consulting and coaching, I have been writing a book that uses all the information on the mental game that I’ve garnered in my playing career, my coaching (17 years at Pepperdine), and my consulting with players, including pros like Dinara Safina, Dimitri Tursunov, Igor Kunitsyn, and even John McEnroe (many years ago) as well as college players and recreational players. It turns out that everybody has the same problems, varying only in degree. Getting angry, frustrated, discouraged, choking, losing confidence with losses – these are all natural and normal responses to the emotions generated in competitive tennis matches. In my book I discuss these and other emotional issues and suggest techniques to counter them. Having been through these problems again and again with players of all levels I’ve learned, through experience, what works in most cases.  

The response to the finished product, “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match,” has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been endorsed by Jose Higueras and Jay Berger (the heads of men’s tennis and coaching for the USTA), Brad Gilbert, and Tracy Austin. A number of pros on the tour are using it as well as university tennis teams and individuals. The reviews and responses have been heartwarming. The book is available on Amazon, Kindle, Ibooks, Tennis Warehouse, and on my web site, allenfoxtennis.net. (You can see some of the responses by looking up the book on Amazon and checking out the customer reviews, of which there are five).  

(JL) In addition to your book, what else has been keeping you busy?  You had mentioned that you travel quite often around the United States, can you tell us where you have visited and the services you've been providing? 

(AF) I’ve also been doing speeches, seminars, and book signings for the last six months. I spent a month in Hawaii speaking at 9 clubs, a week in Northern California doing a specialty course for the USPTA and speaking at 4 clubs; 3 weeks in Florida, speaking at all the major academies (Saddlebrook, Macci’s, Evert’s, Solomon’s, Bollittieri’s, etc.) and 12 clubs; as well as Southern California, where I was the keynote speaker at the So. Cal. USPTA annual convention, and talks at clubs from Los Angeles to San Diego. In short, I’ve been keeping busy. 

(JL) How can players at the recreational and collegiate levels contact you for a consultation?  Do you provide services for other organizations and/or companies?  If so, can you give us a few examples? 

(AF) If players at the recreational level or higher want to employ my consulting services they need only go to my web site, allenfoxtennis.net, sign up for an hour’s consulting, and then we will, by email, set up a convenient appointment time to speak by telephone. It turns out that consulting on mental issues by telephone is almost better than doing it face to face.

It’s quite easy to talk this way, and the information passed back and forth is the key to competitive improvement, not looking at my aging face. The site also has articles on various tennis topics and describes and makes available for purchase all of my books, including “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.”  In addition, pros, tennis academies, tennis groups, and tennis clubs can inquire on my site about having me visit their facility and provide them with talks/seminars or clinics.  

(JL) Do you have snippets of advice for parents and players that you can provide as we conclude our interview? 

(AF) 1. Try to remember that tennis is just a game played for fun.

2. Part of the fun is looking at it as a project upon which you work over time to improve your skills. It’s more like building a model airplane than it is a life and death struggle for superiority.

3. My Golden Rule of Competition: “Don’t do anything on court that does not help you win.” (This works off the court as well.)

4. You must control your emotions rather than the other way around. (Uncontrolled emotions are the usual cause of forgetting the “Golden Rule.”)

5. Buy a copy of “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match,” and read it carefully.

Thank you Allen for a beautiful segment, it was truly and honor and a privilege to have spoken with you today for our  interview.  I am certain that many people will be enjoying this excellent piece that you have shared with us, and would like to wish you the very best in all that you do.  May you be blessed with continued success, health and happiness.