Bridging the gap. That’s what tennis does—at least how Antwan Graves explains it. As a young, unemployed kid in his early 20s, Antwan was hitting balls at Oak Park Tennis Center when court space cost $3 (it’s $6-10 for a court today) and he was playing alongside some of the community’s most elite members—doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and other prominent leaders in Stockton. Tennis, however, provided a connection. And, Antwan—a former high school basketball player who first picked up a racket at age 17—was soon turning his newfound hobby into a lasting career with an affluent clientele. It started with a job stringing rackets and teaching lessons to kids. Then, jobs as an assistant director and eventually tennis pro, all without formal training or team experience. Today, his journey has come full circle as he’s back at the very place where it all started, still teaching lessons and stringing rackets as the facility manager and director of tennis at Oak Park.
Antwan’s introduction to tennis came at 17 years old when his stepdad put a racket in his hand and told him to give it a swing. Without a promising next step to basketball, Antwan was up for taking on a new activity. “The movements are similar in basketball,” Antwan says. “I had the hand-eye coordination, I had the footwork.” And he took to it fast. “I got hooked on it. Tennis is just easily addicting,” he says. “Like golf, you never really perfect it… I just couldn’t put it down.”
At Sacramento City College, Antwan took a tennis class and spent his free time working on moves with a player from the women’s team. After moving back to Stockton, Antwan started hanging around Oak Park to play basketball. But the tennis courts were right behind him, and he felt himself drawn back to the courts, jumping in to play whenever he got an invitation. The director at the time, Eric Stockman, asked if Antwan wanted to learn the game. “It changed my environment because it put me around people who were successful,” Antwan recalls of the people he was playing tennis with. “It put you around people who were affluent.” But the age and income gap didn’t matter, because they had tennis in common. He continued to learn the sport while working at the tennis club until a new owner came in in 1996 and told Antwan he’d have to leave. The new director (who was only there for a few years) was going to bring in players from University of the Pacific to work instead.
Antwan moved to the Stockton Athletic Club, which is now In Shape West Lane where he become an assistant to Bob Chiene (a.k.a. Chino), the head coach at St. Mary’s High School and a former player at Oregon University. “I learned how to teach the game through his mechanics,” Antwan says. He was eventually sent to In Shape Tracy to act as the head tennis pro, a position Antwan never thought he’d hold considering he was self-taught and started late. He was there for 11 years before moving to Diamond Hills Sports Club & Spa in Brentwood as the junior coordinator for seven years.
In 2018, Antwan got the call he never expected. Peter Juarez, who had been in charge for the last 21 years, asked Antwan to take over after his retirement. “I couldn’t believe he picked me,” Antwan says. “I’ve made a big circle.”
Now Antwan is back at Oak Park teaching lessons and managing the facility. Every day of the week there are lessons as well as team practices and games. Antwan’s goal is finding a place for anyone who wants to play with a free evaluation. “It’s been a safe haven,” Antwan says of tennis at Oak Park. The sport is socially distanced, outside, and has been able to run since May 1 despite many other facility shutdowns due to COVID-19.
And as for coming full circle, Antwan is seeing his love of tennis passed through the generations. His 16-year-old son, Isaac Graves, is the number one player at St. Mary’s High School, and his 14-year-old daughter, Eboni Graves, will try out at Lincoln High School this fall.
Learn to play:
Oak Park Tennis Center
3514 N. Sutter St., Stockton