Alex Funkhouser has plenty of reasons to smile these days.
The 2007 Handley graduate lives and works in Florida, where he gets to hit tennis balls for a living at one of the top tennis academies in the country and the world — Evert Tennis Academy, co-owned by 18-time grand slam champion Chrissie Evert and her brother, John.
“I’m very fortunate and I’m really happy to be doing what I’m doing, because I feel like not only am I comfortable with being on the court but it’s also what I know best,” Funkhouser said in a recent phone interview. “I’m really glad that I took advantage of my health and my ability to play and compete at the time that I did, and the fact that I’m still able to play and enjoy myself is really something that I embraced and am just really proud of every day to be doing.”
Funkhouser started working at Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida in August. He works with some of the junior players at the academy and has also been a hitting partner for several top WTA players, including hitting with a few of the players during the Miami Open, one of the top professional tournaments in the world, last month.
He has also done some instructional training videos for Tennis magazine’s website Tennis.com along with John Evert, and will appear in Tennis magazine sometime this year as part of some of the instructional photos they use.
It’s been a wild ride for Funkhouser since graduating from Coastal Carolina in 2011. The 2007 Virginia High School League Group AA individual singles state champion helped lead the Judges to a team state title in 2004. He played for two years at Old Dominion University before transferring to Coastal Carolina for his last two seasons.
After receiving his degree in political science from Coastal Carolina, Funkhouser decided to give the tennis pro tour a try.
He said he played in some challenger events, but soon realized it wasn’t what he wanted to do.
Funkhouser then went to North Carolina and he did a little bit of everything. He worked at a club and worked with the University of North Carolina men’s tennis team. He also was a hitting partner for a player on the International Tennis Federation women’s circuit for a while. Funkhouser said that at that point he realized he wanted to do high-performance work.
“For where I am in my life, high performance is what I want to do,” Funkhouser said. “For now this is what I want to be doing, and I never really thought this is where I would end up.”
Funkhouser had a little help getting there from two famous brothers — Luke and Murphy Jensen, who won the 1993 French Open men’s doubles title. Funkhouser said he knew Luke Jensen from college. They met at a Pro-Am and Luke Jensen was friends with one of Funkhouser’s former coaches. Funkhouser said he stayed in touch with Luke Jensen.
In early 2014, Luke Jensen helped Funkhouser get a short-term job working for Murphy at Sea Island Resort, where Murphy is the director of tennis. While there, Funkhouser served as a coach for the Murphy Jensen Tennis Academy, among other duties.
Towards the end of the summer, the club didn’t need Funkhouser’s help anymore, so the plan was to go back to North Carolina and figure out where to go from there.
However, Murphy Jensen, who is also the coach of the Washington Kastles World Team Tennis squad, put in a call to Chrissie and John Evert, who upon his recommendation hired Funkhouser last August.
One of Funkhouser’s big responsibilities at Evert Tennis Academy is to work with some of the junior players. There are generally four or five kids per coach.
“They’re from all over — Spain, Trinidad, America, Russia, Kazakhstan,” Funkhouser said of the five players he works with. “I basically keep an eye on them as far as their tennis progress, their school, their tournament schedule, make sure they’re on track with everything. If they ever have any questions, they come to me.”
Funkhouser said he enjoys working with the kids, who like him, are away from home and their families.
He said he has also traveled with some of the kids to national junior tournaments out of the country, and it’s been a great experience overall.
“I just want to help kids not only be the best player they can possibly be, but tennis is a great sport to [play] for life characteristics as well,” Funkhouser said. “I also want to help kids get the best out of themselves as far as a student, athlete and also a person. Being at a place where there aren’t any parents, where I’m acting as basically their parent away from home — it’s a lot to ask for. It’s a lot to take on, but it’s also a pretty cool experience because I learn a lot about kids as well as myself.
“It’s really cool to help mold these kids in a very formative time in their life and really help them kind of grow as people and athletes and students.”
Not only has Funkhouser worked with the juniors at Evert Tennis Academy, but he has also worked with quite a few of the pro players who have worked out there.
Funkhouser hit with 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic earlier this year, right before Cilic went to Indian Wells, California to play in the BNP Parisbas Open, one of the top tournaments in the U.S.
Funkhouser said he also has worked with up-and-coming WTA players Donna Vekic and Belinda Bencic at Evert Tennis Academy. Vekic is an 18-year old from Croatia, ranked just outside the top 100. She won her first WTA Tour title last year. Bencic is also 18, and is from Switzerland. She is currently ranked No. 36 in the WTA rankings.
In late March, Funkhouser traveled with Vekic as a hitting partner for the Miami Open, and also hit with Bencic and Ajla Tomljanovic, who is also from Croatia and is ranked No. 60 in the world.
“Being part of the Miami Open was quite a surreal experience,” Funkhouser said. “It’s the highest level tournament that I have been part of without being a spectator. It was great being around all the top pros from the ATP and WTA. I continue to learn a lot from every experience.”
Funkhouser has certainly been able to learn a lot working with an 18-time grand slam champion and Hall of Famer in Chrissie Evert.
“It’s almost like the Ivy leagues of coaching, and I’m learning a lot,” Funkhouser said. “I can’t imagine a better place for me to be as far as learning for coaching and making myself better to help other kids as well.”
Funkhouser said that both Chrissie and John were very helpful and welcoming from the start.
“I have a lot of respect for them — have tremendous respect for them and I think they reciprocate it a little bit,” Funkhouser said. “John treats me very well, for my work with the pros. So I think it’s a mutual respect sort of thing — I hope.
“It’s been great. I really can’t describe into words of how happy I am here.”
Chrissie Evert said that Funkhouser has been great to work with.
“He has very strong character traits,” Evert said by e-mail. “He is respectful, humble, and appreciative. He is willing to work extra hours and is a sponge in terms of coaching skills. He hits with all our top women pros ranked in the top 50, and is equally effective with our juniors in teaching them basic fundamentals, which is important to our academy.”
Funkhouser said he hasn’t thought too far ahead about what he wants to do in the future. He said for now he’s really enjoying working at Evert Tennis Academy, but wouldn’t rule out an opportunity to be a hitting partner on the pro tour if the opportunity came along.
He’s certainly making the most of his opportunities at the Evert Tennis Academy and he knows that could lead him to a number of other jobs down the road.
Evert said she believes Funkhouser has a great future ahead.
“He could have a bright future in coaching a professional or coaching kids as he has a real passion and enthusiasm of the game,” Evert said.
Funkhouser, at 25, is living a life he said he never expected years ago, but he’s trying to enjoy every moment and make the most of it.
“I want to be here at least a couple of years, and just help myself grow and hopefully maybe get connected with some pro players and maybe help them out with their goals,” Funkhouser said. “My big goal is basically to help others to achieve their goals right now.
“Where I am right now, it’s a great place to be to set up for the next thing, whether it’s being at a club or if its college coaching, or going on tour with a player or something like that. I’m at a place where I can really branch out a lot of options and it’s really awesome.”
Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org-->