That’s a bit of an exaggeration, actually. Family comes first, of course. His professional endeavors – the 1984 Collegiate graduate is a well-regarded, successful real estate agent with Joyner Fine Properties – are pretty important as well.
Tennis, though, is a really big deal.
It has been ever since he was five and his mom Jackie and sisters Benita (Miller, class of ’76) and Karen (Stephens ’80) introduced him to the game at Willow Oaks Country Club.
It always will be, but as he’s evolved over the years, he’s come to understand that there’s much more to the game than besting an opponent on the court.
Sure, winning is great. It was when he played three years on Collegiate’s varsity. It was when he coached both the boys and girls squads at his alma mater for the better part of 25 years. It is when he competes in adult leagues and when he watches his son Drew, a freshman, represent the Cougars on the court.
That said, true achievement, he feels, comes from paying forward the gifts and honoring the game.
Which brings us to the River City Tennis Open, presented by Lowe, Brockenbrough & Co., a 17 team college tournament slated for October 11-13 at the Williams-Bollitieri Tennis Center on Collegiate’s Robins Campus.
Atiyeh conceived his plan back in 2010 when the facility opened. Why not have a college dual match? he thought. Try as he might – and he was persistent – the plan never materialized.
Then, in January 2018, he met Houston Barrick, the head men’s tennis coach at the University of Richmond. Atiyeh pitched the idea. Barrick was all in.
Five weeks and much scrambling later, Atiyeh and Barrick staged the Spider Open in mid-October. That was the warmup. There was more, they felt, they could do.
“This time, we had a year to plan,” Atiyeh said. “We thought, How can we bring high-caliber tennis to Richmond, showcase the courts at Collegiate, and do something for the community?”
Since then, they’ve lined up several corporate sponsors. ESPN Radio (950 AM) will broadcast the admission-free event live from 8-10 and 3-6 the first day. They’ve also created the River City Tennis Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization. Proceeds from the tournament will benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Richmond.
“Our mission and vision is that proceeds go toward teaching life skills to youth through tennis,” Atiyeh said. “We’re having the Boys & Girls Club be part of the tournament as on-court monitors, helping with set-up, as ambassadors. And we’re hoping to have red-ball clinics (foam ball, shorter racquets and nets) on Saturday for the kids (10-under) to interact with players and coaches and teach them some skills that a lot of us, frankly, take for granted.”
The tournament will include men’s teams from Richmond, VCU, Virginia Tech, Virginia, William & Mary, Longwood, Radford, James Madison, Campbell, Elon, Old Dominion, Navy, College of Charleston, Bucknell, Appalachian State, UNC Charlotte, and East Carolina.
There’re six singles and three doubles flights. Scoring is two-of-three sets, no ad for singles and one six-game set, no ad for doubles. Each flight basically constitutes a mini-tournament. Team scores are not calculated.
“It will go by fast,” Atiyeh said. “You’ll see a lot of tennis in three days.”
So what do you hope to accomplish with the tournament? I asked Atiyeh.
“Really,” he said, “the main thing is to continue to grow tennis, especially the amateur aspects of the sport. Houston and I saw where this could bring the tennis community and the Richmond community together and get them excited. A lot of people love to watch tennis. It’s easy. You can get right up close to it. We’d like to make this a premier event in Richmond.”
What makes this decade-long project worthwhile? I inquired.
“When I coached at Collegiate, it wasn’t for the money,” Atiyeh said. “It was for the relationships, the connections, not only with my former teachers and coaches but with the players, even after they’ve graduated.
“The passion for me – the reason I coached – was that I wanted to teach skills that I learned at a young age. I wanted to be a positive mentor. I feel like this (the tournament) is another way of serving the community and keeping tennis relevant and exciting.
“The kids that play on the amateur level give it their all. Last year, it was amazing to watch those kids play in 90-degree temperatures – two or three matches a day – just grinding it out for an hour and a half or two, then getting on the court an hour and a half later and doing it all over again.”
Why so passionate about tennis? I inquired.
“It’s a lifelong sport,” Atiyeh responded. “It’s great when you can go out and play tennis when you’re in your 70’s and 80’s. To be able to run around the tennis court, however fast or slow you might be at that age, is great exercise. Tennis builds friendships, camaraderie, memories. You stay in shape. You set goals. You have a sense of purpose.”
“Each point you play,” he continued, “is a different point in life. Every game starts with love. You have two serves, two chances, and every point is just another quick-thinking, decision-making process. Then you have to have a short memory.
“How you emotionally, physically, and mentally prepare on the court really helps you in life. I wasn’t the best at that, especially at a young age. I learned a lot of lessons the hard way. I got angry with myself, trying to be perfect. You can’t win every point. You have to learn, ‘OK, what did I do wrong? How can I correct it? How can I atone for that mistake?’ The older I get, the calmer I tend to be. I don’t want kids to make the mistakes I did.”
What will make the River City Tennis Open a success? I asked.
“There’s really no winner or loser,” he said. “If people come out and bring their kids and their kids watch the college kids play and get interested in tennis or some other sport, that’s success. That’s giving back to the community.”