Tennis brought ISyE alumnus Kenny Thorne (BIE 1989) to Georgia Tech – and after he graduated, tennis brought him back again.
Thorne first picked up a tennis racquet at the age of nine. “It was less expensive than waterskiing,” he noted, laughing. He played all the way through 12th grade and even lived with his coach for his first two years of high school, which allowed him to intensively work on his tennis game. “I practiced tennis in the morning before school and then had a lesson as soon as the school day was over, followed by a couple hours of group lessons. Then I would do my homework and return to practice late at night.”
Thorne also had an academic aptitude for math and science, so when Georgia Tech offered him an athletic scholarship to play for the Yellow Jackets men’s tennis team, it seemed serendipitous.
While pursuing his degree at the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), he also made his mark on the tennis court, finishing with 75 career doubles wins and a .717 career win percentage as a singles player – the 10th highest in school history. By the time he graduated in 1988, Thorne had set a record as Tech’s career leader in singles victories with 112 wins, a record that was later broken by one of his own players, Guillermo Gomez (BSIE 2011).
Thorne also saw success post-graduation. As a tennis pro, he knocked off four of the world’s top-10 players in the 1990s and ultimately achieved a career-high doubles ranking in 1995 of no. 67 in the world.
Although Thorne expected to work as an industrial engineer at the end of his pro career, in 1998 Georgia Tech invited Thorne back as the head coach for men’s tennis. The Yellow Jackets have reached the NCAA Championship 13 times in 21 years under his purview. Inducted into the Georgia Tech Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995, Thorne has been named ACC Coach of the Year twice, in 1999 and 2017.
In this short Q-and-A, Thorne reflects on his lifelong love for tennis and what’s most important to him about coaching.
Why are you so passionate about tennis?
Anytime you do something for as long as I’ve done it, it’s because there’s a love for it. At a young age – 15 or 16 years old and living with my tennis coach – I was playing for a coach who had as much passion as anyone has ever had for tennis, and he put that into me. And then I started learning the tactics and strategies, and it became a part of me.
What was your favorite Grand Slam tournament while you were a pro?
Playing at Wimbledon. It’s unique, because you don’t play on grass that often, and there’s so much tradition. And as a tennis player, once you get on the grass, you feel like you’ve arrived.
What is the most rewarding aspect of coaching?
I love to see character growth – to see someone come through the program and then leave a better person than when they started. Everyone says it, but character matters so much. You can go out and win, but without character, it’s all going to come crashing down. I love to see my guys maturing and growing.
What are the essentials you try to convey to your student athletes?
Honestly, it just comes down to the fight. We’re all having to persevere through things. And student athletes come to Georgia Tech, and they’ve got to embrace the fight. We take pride in Tech being one of the best institutions in the world, and it can be tough to be here. You have to solve problems under pressure – and that includes being on the tennis court.
In a lot of sports, if an athlete is having a bad day, they can be swapped out for a teammate. In tennis you either win or you lose; there are no substitutions. So I tell my athletes I want them to embrace the fight as soon as they get out on a tennis court.
That’s why I love sports: It teaches you things. Think about a tennis tournament like Wimbledon – there are 128 people who play in Wimbledon, and 127 of them are going to lose. So if anything, you gain the ability to make adjustments and lose – but not lose your confidence or the ability to get back up and keep going. That’s extremely important in life.
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering