Like many California junior tennis players, Grant Chen dreamed of competing for UCLA. He picked up tennis as a child, but when he realized that his game wasn’t quite good enough to make the varsity team as a freshman, he found another a way to become a part of it.
“I’m not going to play for you,” Chen, now 35, remembers telling UCLA men’s tennis coach Billy Martin in 2001. “I just want to be involved.”
The exchange would kick off a six-year student-management gig for Chen, who wholeheartedly embraced his role as team manager. He organized team dinners and practices, booked travel and accommodations, and assisted coaches with anything they might need on practice or game days.
It’s a selfless job, managing the details and daily nuisances of the team—all so others can succeed.
“He’s just an incredible person to count on,” says Martin, who has been head coach for 25 of his 35 years on staff at UCLA. “I know that things are going to be done and on time—and probably things I hadn’t even thought of that he’s thinking ahead about.”
A student manager, Chen needed to remain enrolled in UCLA to continue the job he loved, so he added a second major to extended his schooling. Eventually, graduation was unavoidable, so Martin created a director of operations position to keep Chen around.
Chen began the new but familiar role in 2006, managing both the men’s and women’s teams. Then, another opp-ortunity came: Pete Sampras, a Brentwood resident who sometimes hits with UCLA players, wanted Chen to assist him during his post-playing career.
Diving into the world of pro tennis expanded Chen’s vast tennis network, but in 2009 he returned to UCLA. After being named men’s assistant coach in 2012, Chen is entering his third season as men’s associate head coach.
“I was excited about the challenge and the possibility of a new experience,” says Chen. “I’m a competitive person. I think it was perfect for me.”
He has managed summer camps, coached club and varsity squads, and organized every aspect of college tennis—all the way down to the grips needed for practice. He has recruited players, was part of an NCAA runner-up team and arranged hits for the likes of Sampras, Grigor Dimitrov and Sloane Stephens. Chen has done it all for his school, on every level.
“Nobody knows our program better than Grant,” says Martin. “I think he’d like to take over. I think he’s working to try to be able to do that, while getting better each and every year.”
For generations, and for generations to come, tennis has positively impacted the young and old, on and off the court, in countless ways. In this year’s Heroes special, we’ve selected 30 such stories, including a 10-year-old amputee’s life-changing moment with Roger Federer, the rebuilding of a college program after Hurricane Katrina, a former prodigy’s important message as an adult, and a 78-year-old coach’s enduring influence on the pros. Taken together, these 30 stories illustrate how people grow up, grow as individuals and grow old with tennis—the sport of a lifetime. Click here for more Heroes stories.