Busy summer ahead for tennis standout Kennan Johnson

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Kennan Johnson returns a shot during practice in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Kennan Johnson returns a shot during practice in Baton Rouge.

Senior-to-be Kennan Johnson has plenty planned, from camps to national events

Kennan Johnson is set to spend time on tennis courts in Mobile, Ala.; Memphis, Tenn.; San Diego and, if things go her way, the National Tennis Center in New York.

A senior-to-be at Ascension Christian who won the Division V, Class 1A and below girls state championship in May, Johnson is the second-ranked girl in Louisiana in the 18s division.

“This summer is the busiest I’ve ever had personally, with all the tournaments I’m playing and helping (my mother, Natalie, with six) summer camps,” she said. “I really have to prioritize my time.”

Johnson’s summer season begins with the Southern Closed Championships that begin Saturday in Mobile and continues with USTA Clay Court Nationals in Memphis (July 14-20); the regional round of Family Tennis, a mother-daughter competition in Kansas City, Mo., two weeks later; the USTA Hard Court Nationals in San Diego (Aug. 4-11); and potentially the Family Tennis national finals at the U.S. Tennis Center in New York the week before the U.S. Open.

The mother-daughter tournament is a logical extension of Johnson’s family connections.

Her mother and grandmother — local teaching pro and tennis personality Lynda Johnson — played in the tournament nearly 25 years ago.

“My mom and I did it when I was 15,” Natalie recalled. “It was called the Equitable Family Challenge then. We got to go to New York, where we saw (Steffi) Graf and (Jennifer) Capriati and (Gabriela) Sabatini in the locker rooms. It was awesome.”

Natalie began playing tennis at age 5 and played for five years at Parkview Baptist School. She teamed with sister Angie Johnson (Hartsburg) to win a doubles championship her sophomore year, then won the singles championship as a senior.

“I could never beat Ashley Stowe of Episcopal, but she was a year ahead of me, so after she graduated, I finally won my senior year (of 1991),” she said.

Natalie played college tennis at Memphis and LSU. Angie played at Northwestern State, and their brother, Craig, played for Faulkner State Community College in Alabama.

Kennan is a four-star recruit ranked 94th nationally by TennisRecruiting.net. She looks at colleges with an eye toward programs that could help her play professionally and/or get a law degree.

LSU, Navy, Michigan State and Alabama-Birmingham are at the top of her list.

“I’d like to stay in the South, but I’ve heard a lot about Michigan State,” she said. “Navy is Navy, and their coach is awesome. I have two friends at UAB, and their coach (Lisa Jackson) used to be an assistant coach at LSU.”

Traveling the tennis circuit has been a lesson in economics.

“It’s not cheap,” Natalie noted. “Last year, our trip to San Diego cost about $4,700. Airfare out of New Orleans. Flying in a day early to get used to the weather and the courts. Balls even bounce differently there. Rental cars and food and other expenses. We do a lot of fundraising.”

Last year, the Johnsons conducted a raffle with cash prizes and held their most successful fundraiser, a spaghetti dinner that they prepared and delivered to individuals and offices around the area.

“We have the ideas, but an awful lot of people volunteered to help with the preparation and delivery,” Natalie Johnson said. “We sold 320 lunches, and we’ll probably do it again this year.”

The Highland Park Tennis Association and Greater Baton Rouge Community Tennis Association also have chipped in: Each group donated $500.

“When I became aware that Kennan was raising funds to play in (the 2012 San Diego) tournament, I asked our membership to provide a grant of $250,” said Rusty Jabour, past president of the HPTA and president of the GBRCTA. “Two our members, Gilbert Faulk and Joycelyn LeBlanc, recommended we increase that to $500, and our members approved it unanimously.

“We look on Kennan almost like an adopted daughter since she’s a product of the BREC park system and her mom and grandmother teach lessons and camps at Highland Road Park. I told her we won’t forget her when she’s successful, and we want her to remember some of the people who may have helped her along the way.”

Kennan is preparing for the summer tournaments with Johnny Wahlborg, longtime teaching pro and program director of John Wahlborg Total Tennis at the Oaks at Sherwood.

“Kennan’s game is a work in progress, but she is one of the hardest-working students I’ve ever had,” Wahlborg said. “She has a high intensity level, and she loves to practice. She understands that she needs to work on the mental side of her game, on controlling her emotions and having a plan for what to do when things don’t go just right.

“She has a ways to go to get where she wants to be but, hey, I watched her (in practice) hitting serves that even guys her age don’t hit.”

Kennan said she is a fan of rising pro star Sloane Stephens, with whom she once played in an exhibition match in Hammond.

“She’s a great player, and she’s really hilarious,” she said.

That light-hearted approach explains Johnson’s attitude toward tennis, which she expressed when talking about working with children at her mother’s camps.

“I love helping, especially with the little kids,” she said. “It’s not all, ‘That’s not good enough, and you have to run.’ It has to be fun. I love tennis — and I get to be silly, which I also love.”