On the courts of the Roger Scott Tennis Center in Pensacola, Northwest Florida’s largest tennis facility, you are guaranteed to find tennis teaching professionals Rita Dotson, Laura Waldon and Sierra Nellessen. The only women on RSTC’s professional staff, the trio have 65 years of tennis teaching experience combined.

Dotson, who is a member of the USTA Florida Board of Directors, is a PTR Professional, USPTA Elite Certified and the Founder and President of Tennis-4-Everyone, a non-profit organization that provides free tennis instruction to inner-city youth. Waldon played No. 1 singles and doubles for the University of West Florida, served as the UWF women’s assistant tennis coach from 1991-1993, and has been a USPTA Certified Professional since 1996. Nellesseen competed in division 1 singles and doubles at Northern Kentucky University and became a PTR Professional in 2017.

Rita Dotson and Laura Waldon

Where did your journey in tennis begin?

Rita: My journey in tennis began as a high school freshman! I was playing tennis during P.E. class and the teacher sent me to the tennis coach to try out for the team.

Laura: My journey in tennis began by chance. I had gone to the National University,  in Mexico City, to join a volleyball clinic, but after realizing I was too short to be part of the spiking action, I left the gym. On my way out, I passed by the tennis courts where they were conducting tennis clinics. I inquired and joined the clinic the next day and fell in love with the sport immediately. Our courts didn’t have any lights but we would play until we could not see the ball anymore. There was no doubt in my mind I was going to work hard to get good at it, and I did. 

Sierra: My tennis journey began when I was 5 years old. I was in a gymnastics class and I kept coming up to my mom and asking her “How do I win?”. She told me that the class was just for fun and it was for working on balance and flexibility. I kept asking her “How do I win?” repeatedly until she eventually realized I should try another sport. She walked me across the street to a tennis center and I watched the little kids playing red ball – I was immediately hooked. I have played ever since.

Rita Dotson (photo taken pre-pandemic)

How long have you been teaching professionals?

Rita: I have been teaching tennis for 25 years. 

Laura: I have been teaching for 38 years.

Sierra: I started running junior clinics when I was in high school, but I have been a certified teaching professional ever since I graduated college in 2017.

Sierra Nellessen

How would you like to see the workplace change for women in tennis in order to progress forward?

Rita: I would like to see more female professionals in general, but especially in leadership positions. Most of the time females are seen teaching young children and beginners. It’s tough to be seen and heard in this male-dominated arena. I, personally, would like to be known and respected as a good teaching professional, not a  “pretty good for a female” teaching professional.

Laura: I have experienced a disparity in salaries between men and women because some of my duties didn’t seem to be as important as the men’s duties. I always felt that it was because I was a woman. Where I work now there are no salaries and the price per lesson is the same for men and women, so that makes me feel even with my fellow teachers. 

Sierra: I would like to see women valued for their knowledge and experience in an equal way to men. Too often I see women being perceived as weak or inexperienced when they are more than capable to make an impact as a teaching professional. In a male-dominated industry, it is important to have your voice heard and respected.

Laura Waldon

Do you have any advice for women wondering if they should teach tennis professionally? Or advice for women currently teaching professionally?

Rita: My advice for women considering a career in teaching is to GO FOR IT! Don’t let fear or doubt drive you away. Seek a mentor. For women currently teaching, keep doing what you are doing! Your voice, your opinions, your ideas matter. Speak up, stand up, and rise up! 

Laura: I would advise incoming teachers that the long hours on the court are not easy, but, when you truly care to see your students get better, it’s all worth it. You will love teaching and will have a long career in tennis. 

Sierra: My advice would be to speak up. Let your voice be heard. Don’t let a negative reaction from another pro or a student quiet your coaching. You are a coach for a reason, you know what you are talking about, you are an expert in your field and you deserve to be heard.

For more inspiring features on women in Florida tennis, follow @ustaflorida on social media throughout the month of March.