Juniors and college players from all over dream of playing the Davis Cup for their country. Newly hired Lees-Rae Bobcats Coach Gene Highfield was able to live that dream, and now brings that unique experience to coaching.
“I understand exactly what my [student-athletes] need from my experience as a teaching pro and from playing Davis Cup,” Highfield said.
Highfield credits his competitive nature and high energy as the main reasons he was able to play tennis at a high level in college and beyond.
“I always had a different mentality than a lot of the other guys on the island,” Highfield admitted. “I would respect my opponent, but when I got on court I had the mindset of ‘I don’t care who you are, I am going to take you out.’”
Highfield grew up in St. Croix and dreamed of playing in the Davis Cup for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“It was a dream. I grew up watching Davis Cup on TV and as a kid I remember thinking I would do anything to play Davis Cup,” Highfield said. “When the point was over, just watching how crazy the fans went in [places] like Central and South America — I just thought that is a dream to do.”
Unfortunately for Highfield, the U.S. Virgin Islands did not have a Davis Cup team while he was growing up.
“I knew kids from other Carribean islands that were my age leaving the academy in the spring and going to play Davis Cup,” Highfield said. “They were my age, my level and were able to go play Davis Cup and that really burned me up.”
After completing high school at a tennis academy in Texas, Highfield played a year at a junior college before transferring to the University of Oklahoma. It was not until after he graduated college that the U.S. Virgin Islands finally got their Davis Cup team.
“I went on with my life right after college, didn’t really play tennis for like two years and then I got a call from the president of the U.S. Virgin Island Tennis Association saying ‘We got Davis Cup status – would you like to try out?’” Highfield reminisced.
After he got the call, he was determined to take the tryout seriously. He was able to get his father to fund him and the tennis academy he grew up playing at in Texas agreed to let him train there.
“I stayed on the couch of a friend and I went and trained in the morning, had lunch, and then went back and trained there in the afternoon,” Highfield said. “I took it so deadly seriously because I finally had the chance to play Davis Cup.”
After his training, Highfield headed to Miami for the tryouts and made the first ever U.S. Virgin Islands Davis Cup team.
“I had a lot of special moments that happened to me in Davis Cup and being on the inaugural team was one of them,” Highfield said. “Davis Cup was the number one thing in my life to do. I knew I wasn’t going to be a top pro. I was keenly aware of my deficiencies.”
One of Highfield’s best memories from the inaugural team was when he played a marathon doubles match against the Eastern Caribbean team. There were no tiebreakers, so they had to play out the set until a team won by two games. Despite losing that match, it reaffirmed what Coach Highfield already knew.
“I was like ‘This is my element. This is what I wanted to do,’” Highfield recalled. “I wanted to be in the fight, everyone screaming and being in a different country.”
Highfield went on to play 10 years of Davis Cup — including being team captain an impressive seven times.
“I remember at least glimpses of all of my matches and I remember most of my matches well,” Highfield said.
His never give up mentality led to an impressive 16 Davis Cup singles wins and five doubles wins over the 10 years he played.
After finishing up his Davis Cup career, Highfield moved around the South a bit before landing the Director of Tennis job at Sugar Mountain Racket Club in Elk, North Carolina. He knew the area well as he had grown up summering in the area.
“I was a summer kid growing up here in the High Country,” Highfield said. “I fell in love with the High Country the second we got here when I was 7 years old and I knew when we moved back here I would do anything to stay here.”
Lees-McRae is down the street from the Sugar Mountain Racket Club, so when the Bobcat job opened up, it seemed like the perfect marriage for Highfield. His teaching job is seasonal, so Highfield is able to completely focus his energy on Lees-McRae during the school year.
Very few understand the team tennis dynamic better than Highfield and he cannot wait to draw on his experience to help bolster the Bobcats program.
“Playing Davis Cup has really taught me to see everything, x-ray vision,” stated Highfield.