You’d be hard pressed to find a student athlete calmer, humbler, and more gracious—and yet with as much natural talent—as Ken Wang. Behind that inborn skill, however, is a story that spans generations and continents.
A 16-year-old junior day student from Belchertown, Mass., Ken is the Williston Tennis team’s number one player. Heading into the spring season—his fifth on varsity since he came to Williston as a seventh grader—Ken is poised, along with friend and co-captain Ethan Dursht ’19, to lead the team to another successful record.
There are quick ways to quantify his success and standing: Ken is ranked 17th in New England in the United States Tennis Association (USTA) 16 and under division. In the 18 and under group, Ken holds the 18th spot. But his story is about more than numbers; it’s about family.
Ken’s father, Zhijun, is an Associate professor of Chinese Language at UMass Amherst; he’s also the Chinese Language Program Director and the Study-Abroad Program Director, among other prestigious titles. Beyond his academic credentials, he’s also a tennis fan, a love and passion he learned nearly 10,000 miles away and instilled in his son from an early age.
Following his Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Zhijun Wang taught in Thailand for nearly two years, where Ken says his dad “first fell in love with the sport.”
When Ken was three, his dad took that new fascination with the sport—and his impressive resume—to a job teaching at the University of California, Davis. The family lived in an apartment complex near campus that had tennis courts. Ken said he grew up playing with his dad on these courts and in Amherst, where they moved when Ken was six. For another four years, at least, Ken learned from his dad, who excelled, at least among his cohort at the college.
“He likes to brag that he won his department tennis tournament,” Ken said. “He’s definitely not an amateur.”
Ken, who also tried swimming, soccer, and basketball, is quick to point out his parents never pushed him to play tennis. His body type—Ken is 6’1”—is suited to the court. With their encouragement, Ken began practicing in and around Western Mass. with private coaches, including Arthur Carrington, a former American Tennis Association (ATA) champion. (The Maryland-based ATA, the oldest African American sports organization in the U.S., was founded in 1916 in a response to the USTA ban on black players in their tournaments.)
Ken has attended Nike campus every summer at UMass, and also trains with Steve Rogers, a notable player as well as an assistant coach at Wesleyan University. Coach Rogers has in the past worked with stars including Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic at the renowned IMG/Bollettieri Academy in Florida.
In addition to a powerful serve around 100-mph, Ken brings a focus and dedication to the sport and his Williston teammates that he believes will serve the program well.
“I think I have a good idea of what the team should work on,” Ken said. Along with Ethan Dursht, Ken said, “I think we’ll have an easy time leading the team.” His goal, he added, is to make it further in the post season than they have before.
To that end, Ken plays tennis all year; he gets waivers during the fall and winter to play with Harrington and Rogers; he spends up to two hours every day on the court, and between two and four hours a day during the summer.
But despite the hours he commits to the court, Ken isn’t putting all his balls in one basket when it comes to his post-Williston plans.
He’s talked to some Division 3 schools, he said, but in terms of recruiting, he “hasn’t really gone in depth with coaches yet. I plan on reaching out in the beginning of summer or at the end of season to give myself a little more time to work on my game and play tournaments.”
Ken said he thinks he’d be “really well suited to play at a top D3 school,” but that academic excellence is his top priority, not choosing a college solely based on where he can play.
Ryan Tyree, Williston’s Boys Tennis coach, said Ken acts as both an “inspiration” and an “anchor” to the squad.
“He exhibits a quiet confidence and is an avid supporter of his teammates,” Tyree said.
With Ken’s star rising so quickly in the local and regional orbit, he still humbly gives his dad credit for introducing him to the sport, though he does point out his own skill surpassed his dad’s a while back.
The last time he played his father, Ken said, he was 14. “He won maybe two or three points,” Ken smiled. “He says he has a bad back.”