I had the pleasure of recently meeting Jon Vegosen at a networking event in Chicago. You know how those events go, you’re introduced to someone and the introducer does his or her best to give a phrase to hope to connect you on some common ground. Well, when the phrase is “you’re both Northwestern guys”, you can imagine the conversation usually turns out quite well (or I badger the fellow Wildcat to the point where he is using the “I need a drink” exit strategy). I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” or getting to know several Northwestern tennis related folks including Todd Martin and Katrina Adams, through both this blog and my day job. Those names proved to be my “in” with Jon, and we had a very nice conversation.
Tennis often emits a scent of privilege. It tends to be viewed, right or wrong, as a country club sport and it happens to be a sport, particularly women’s tennis these days, that Northwestern excels at. Jon’s journey was atypical in that sense, as the New Jersey native had parents who didn’t go to college, but were wise enough to insist that he did and Jon shined at an early age in both academics and tennis. Vegosen was a two-year captain of the men’s tennis team and earned All-Big Ten honors in 1973. He attended Northwestern law school and began an incredible j0urney that included a dual life. He started the Chicago-based law firm in 1981 – Funkhouser Vegosen Liebman and Dunn Ltd. (FVLD) which has a client base including publicly held companies, owner-managed businesses, media companies, wealthy families and individuals, and celebrities.
Jon managed to keep tennis in his life, both recreationally and professionally. While building out a law firm, he somehow found the time to climb the ladder in the US Tennis world starting with the Chicago District Tennis Association and eventually rising the ranks of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), where he has served on the board of directors for six years. He became USTA Chairman of the Board and President in January, 2011. What most impressed me about Jon, though, was his incredible level of non-profit work, marrying his “day job” with his passion in ways that are too long and too decorated to list. I invite you to check out his bio in this regard by clicking here. Let’s get a little Wildcat with Mr. Vegosen.
LTP: You’ve had quite the career journey, especially in your passion, tennis. You went from a Northwestern men’s tennis player to Chairman of the Board and President of the USTA, the highest ranking position in the sport in the country. Share your favorite specific memory of your days on the courts in Evanston. How much has it changed since you played?
JV: My favorite memory is the day I first stepped on to the courts at Northwestern to try out for the varsity tennis team – as a walk-on. The “straw” I drew was to play Doug Conant, whose place on the team was well assured as a top-recruited junior player. Little did I know that this try-out would lead to a life-long friendship with Doug.
Doug competed with grace and determination. During the warm-up, he asked if I had taken enough volleys and overheads. (Of course, little did Doug know that I prefer to have a root canal than to venture to the net.) When I hit a good shot during the match, Doug would immediately compliment me.
Early on, I hit some balls close to the line. Doug invariably played them as “good.” He quickly earned my complete trust.
In addition to Doug’s courtesy and integrity, he was a smart and tenacious competitor. He quickly realized that my forehand was my strong suit, and I found myself hitting countless backhands. Moreover, despite our playing on clay, he would often follow his penetrating shots to the net to finish off the point. On those occasions when we would have long rallies, he was patient.
Doug won the first set handily – 6-2. But there was not a hint of cockiness or condescension from him.
In the second set, I changed my strategy. I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but I wound up winning the second set 8-6. There wasn’t time to play the third set.
For many teenagers on scholarship, I could imagine that losing the second set to a walk-on could be a blow. But not to Doug. No scowls. No thrown rackets. Instead, with utter authenticity, Doug said, “Nice match, Jon. You really played well.”
In that moment, I could see that Doug Conant not only had his ego in check but also he had perspective, vision, and imagination. He recognized the importance of teamwork. Instead of viewing my taking a set off of him as a threat, Doug regarded it as an asset. He saw me as an ally, as someone who could help strengthen our team. That really impressed me.
As for the courts, they are in the same place, but Northwestern now has purple hard courts rather than clay courts.
LTP: Great story! Share the key fork in the road markers on your ascent to becoming USTA Chairman of the Board and President of the USTA. What role did the Northwestern connection play (if any)?
JV: I started volunteering for the Chicago District Tennis Association in 1994. In the early 2000’s, I started getting involved with the USTA/Midwest Section and then nationally. I’m not sure what the key road marker was. I suppose working hard and passionately for tennis, people appreciating my efforts, and good luck all played a part. My experience playing varsity tennis as a student-athlete at Northwestern was very positive and, was, therefore, an influence. It, along with the community-mindedness of my parents, instilled in me a desire to give back to a sport that has been so good to me. Being a member of the varsity tennis team at Northwestern provided me with some tremendous opportunities:
1. an outstanding education;
2. the acquisition of time-management skills by having to balance academic and athletic responsibilities;
3. an appreciation for the importance of strong leadership skills when I was elected team captain my junior and senior years;
4. the ability to travel to about 30 states – which vastly broadened my horizons;
5. a coach – Clare Riessen – who cared about me not just as a player but also in terms of my development as a person; and
6. wonderful friendships with my teammates – some of whom are friends to this day.
LTP: There are definitely some Northwestern connections in the tennis world. Both Todd Martin and Katrina Adams come to mind. How have you connected with the former Wildcat standouts over the years in your extensive work with various tennis entities? What other connections are there in the tennis world?
JV: I’m very pleased to share with you that I have had the privilege of serving on the USTA Board of Directors with Katrina Adams for the past 6 years and Todd Martin for a little over the last year. I also worked closely with Todd on a US Open Sportsmanship Award that we instituted this year. For the 2013-2014 term, the three of us will again be serving together on the USTA Board, which means Northwestern alumni comprise 20% of the USTA Board. I really enjoy working with Katrina and Todd. They are terrific individuals with great insights.
By the way, the first Northwestern University graduate (and first female) to become Chairman of the Board and President of the USTA was Judy Levering. I am the second Wildcat.
Finally, Doug Conant and I serve on the Board of the International Tennis Hall of Fame together.
LTP: That’s a great tie back to your first story. Pretty amazing, actually. I also love giving a nod to my home state – Rhode Island – the home of said International Tennis Hall of Fame (it’s in Newport, a gorgeous seaside town). Obviously, the sports media landscape has been revolutionized over the past 20 or so years. How has tennis in the U.S. adapted and where do you see things going for the sport?
JV: I’m not sure that tennis has so much adapted but benefited from changes in the sports media landscape. Tennis Channel, the web, and streaming video on the web have vastly improved the coverage of and information about tennis in the U.S. I actually think that the big adaptation for tennis in the United States has to do with steps we are taking to grow our sport. About 28 million people play tennis in the U.S. The USTA wants to grow that number significantly – especially among youth. A couple of years ago, we had what I call a “Duh” moment. We recognized that, like other sports, we needed to “kid-size” tennis and make it more “kid-friendly.” We have done that through the use of lower-compression balls that do not bounce over kids’ heads, smaller racquets, and shorter courts. Kids are having more fun more quickly, and they are able to master our sport more easily. We call it “10 and Under Tennis,” and it will revolutionize tennis.
LTP: Thanks for that Jon! My little girls play tennis in the summer time, nothing serious, but a few lessons and the like and I just noticed that this year. I instantly thought the same thing – “duh!” It’s nice to see a 6-year-old have fun getting a serve over the net than the way it used to be. OK, back to you. Tennis has long been a sport buoyed by star power in the U.S. and rivalries on the global stage. Obviously guys like Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish have been carrying the U.S. flag in men’s tennis, but what does the pipeline of future stars look like? How long away are we from the next transcendent men’s personality from emerging on to the stage – a John McEnroe or Andre Agassi type?
JV: First, don’t forget Serena Williams on the women’s side and the Bryan Brothers in men’s doubles. They’ve still “got it,” and they are dynamic personalities. Rising stars on the men’s side include former college star, John Isner, who had wins this year over Federer, Djokovic, and Tsonga and who broke into the Top 10 for a while. Sam Querrey, Ryan Harrison, and Jack Sock are others to watch. On the women’s side, Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens are up and comers. We have a number of junior players who could break through, especially on the girls’ side. As for a transcendent men’s personality, I’m not sure who it will be. Although Andy Roddick retired at this year’s US Open, he’s been doing some amusing impressions at exhibition matches and entertaining fans in the process. Like John McEnroe, he could emerge as a transcendent personality in retirement.
LTP: How in tune are you with the collegiate ranks in tennis these days? Do you keep special close tabs on the Wildcat program?
JV: I continue to follow college programs. Having previously served as Chairman of the USTA Collegiate Committee, I still have a big interest in college tennis. Yes, I still keep tabs on the Wildcat Program. I like to attend matches when I can. I also serve on the NU Board of Advisors that Men’s Varsity Tennis Coach Arvid Swan wisely established. It’s comprised of a great roster of former NU players.
LTP: That’s great. Any other type of specific involvement you still have with Northwestern?
JV: I have met with former men’s varsity tennis coach Paul Torricelli and current coach Arvid Swan to offer my support and advice. I continue to support the team and the law school through donations. I also have gone back to the law school to support law students by conducting mock interviews and speaking about effective interviewing and marketing. At the request of Charles Katzenmeyer, I made a guest appearance on a Northwestern University Alumni Association conference call.
LTP: You may have heard about the recent announcement for Northwestern Athletics – a $225 Million lakeside facility to service all sports. How much of an impact do you expect that to have on Wildcat tennis?
JV: Fortunately, Northwestern already has a terrific indoor tennis facility – the Combe Center. I don’t know whether the new lakeside facility will have tennis courts. If it does, that will further enhance the attractiveness of Northwestern for students who play tennis. Even if the facility doesn’t have courts, it still should help attract tennis recruits and tennis enthusiasts. Just building it sends a message that Northwestern is continuing to invest mightily in its athletic facilities and its stunning campus.
LTP: Obviously you’ve got strong Chicago connections having formed a law firm here more than 30 years ago as well as an assortment of leadership positions in various Chicago-based sports and business entities, including the Chicago District Tennis Association Presidency. What is your perception of how the Northwestern brand has changed, athletically and academically, since your days in Evanston?
JV: I think the brand has improved both academically and athletically. One of my former teammates, Peter Newman, and I have kiddingly said that we wonder if we could be admitted to Northwestern if we were applying today. The academic standards are higher than ever. On the athletic side, while we had some strong teams back when I was at Northwestern, I think that Northwestern has come a long way – and it keeps getting better and better.
LTP: Anything else you feel Northwestern fans would get a kick out of in terms of your life journey and the Wildcat connection?
JV: Without our Wildcat link, I would not have had the pleasure of meeting you. Thank you for keeping all of us connected with one another. Go Cats!
LTP: No, thank you Jon. Your career achievements and connectedness to Northwestern are really impressive. It’s a great reminder that there are so many amazing Wildcats out there in the world doing great things. Thanks so much for spending time with us and we look forward to seeing you again soon!