- May 11, 2021
When Briana Harris Francois steps into her new position as director of tennis at Longboat Key Club and Resort, she will become only the second person in the club’s history to fill the role.
Following the lengthy tenure of John Woods, who has been with the club since 1978 and previously worked alongside tennis legends Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, is no easy task. But Harris Francois said she has spent her entire life preparing for this.
Harris Francois started playing tennis when she was only 3½ years old. Her dad, Ronnie Harris, was an Olympic boxing gold medalist in the lightweight division at the 1968 Mexico City games. He wanted his daughters, Briana and Tumeka, to play a one-on-one sport like he did, and tennis was the only one widely accessible to girls at the time.
When the Harris sisters were in elementary school, they would either stay in the gym after class to play or get picked up by their grandfather to go play at the nearby Hall of Fame Tennis Center. One of Harris Francois’ first memories in the sport comes from her first tournament in her former hometown of Canton, Ohio.
“I remember skipping around the court and blowing bubbles,” Harris Francois said. “Chewing gum and blowing bubbles. And honestly, I just had so much fun out there.”
By 1990 or ’91, the Harris sisters were good enough to earn full scholarships to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, now known as the sports powerhouse IMG Academy. After winning several championships, Harris Francois received a scholarship to attend Ohio State University, following her sister to the Big Ten; the older Harris played at rival Michigan. It made for an interesting dynamic when their teams faced off.
“My mom would say, ‘Go Blue!’ Then she’d run over and say, ‘Go Bucks!’” Harris Francois said.
Harris Francois left Ohio State in the middle of her junior year to join the professional ranks. She played on the Women’s Tennis Association circuit in addition to some satellite tournaments. As much as anything, Harris Francois enjoyed the opportunity professional life gave her to reconnect with old friends from Bollettieri, many of whom had also turned pro.
“I would see all of these girls that I grew up playing tennis with,” she said. “We’d meet up, go to dinner, … practice together, train together. And then those are the friendships that you keep.”
Harris Francois played professionally for a year and a half before going back to Ohio State to graduate. Then she made the fateful decision to get into coaching and became a volunteer assistant for the University of Akron in Ohio. (She was also a private family coach.)
“It just came natural to try to help others improve their game. And I’d played tennis, by that point, my whole life. So having tennis as a part of my daily life was something that I was not willing to give up.”
– Briana Harris Francois, new director of tennis at Longboat Key Club and Resort
Coaching was something she had thought about since her playing days at Ohio State, and she had the opportunity to teach kids at the summer Nike camp the program ran.
“It just came natural to try to help others improve their game,” Harris Francois said. “And I’d played tennis, by that point, my whole life. So having tennis as a part of my daily life was something that I was not willing to give up.”
Then in 2007, Harris Francois made another crucial decision: She moved back to west-central Florida, this time to Sarasota, to work as junior tennis director at the Celsius Tennis Academy for Cary Cohenour.
“[This area] is home,” Harris Francois said. “I’ve been there 18 years. That’s a super long time.”
After working at Celsius for three years, she was offered a job at Longboat Key Club, her first foothold at the club she will soon run. She was in charge of the junior tennis summer camp and also worked as a teaching pro, her first opportunity to coach adults.
She held those positions for six years before moving with her husband to Miami in 2016. Even then, the club asked her to come back and run the 2017 summer camp. Harris Francois was already working as an independent contractor, so she agreed.
She has spent the past two summers working on her nonprofit, B. Harris Kids, which focuses on tennis and education, from the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in Sarasota. She has also been giving lessons and clinics once a month at Payne Park Tennis Center, where Tumeka is supervisor.
In a couple weeks, Harris Francois will return to Longboat Key Club to begin the next step in her winding tennis journey. She said she had the perfect teacher to learn from: Woods, her predecessor.
“He leads by example,” Harris Francois said. “Just from being there and allowing me to take the summer camp program to the next level while I was there. ‘OK, what ideas do you have?’ He wasn’t someone to shut down my ideas that I had for the program. He allowed me to make it grow.”
Now it’ll be up to Harris Francois to grow the club’s tennis center. And perhaps, if all goes well, she will even groom her own successor someday.