When LaShawnn Jones completed the eighth grade at Pilgrim School near MacArthur Park two years ago, her parents considered several private secondary schools on the Westside for their daughter, who was developing into an outstanding athlete.
They settled on Westlake School for Girls because of the tennis program and, specifically, its coach.
“For those who have children who might be thinking of going further as players, it makes a difference,” mother Irene Jones said. “The coach’s reputation is known.”
And what distinguishes Janie Willens of Westlake School from the ranks is a certain amount of perfection.
She is starting her 11th season this fall as coach at the Holmby Hills school, and her girls teams have won 10 Sunshine League championships. Additionally, in the past four years as a coach at Brentwood School, her boys tennis teams have won four Delphic League titles.
Today, it’s a sunny, breezy afternoon at the Studio City Golf and Tennis Club, and the Westlake girls are playing Calabasas High in their non-league season opener.
The round-robin team match has six sets of singles and doubles, played simultaneously, and the 42-year-old Willens is in constant motion checking on her girls on the courts laid out over the sprawling facility.
Her seasoned players include her daughter Sara, a ninth-grader and a highly ranked junior player in girls 14 competition, and two 10th-graders, LaShawnn Jones and Dora Gruner.
Overall, though, Willens describes this as her rawest and most inexperienced team, and during breaks in play she offers gentle encouragement and advice to her young players.
Having members of her family who have played in tournaments with all the better high school players in the area, Willens is familiar with standouts on opposing teams. Her oldest daughter, Heather, who attended Westlake for three years through the ninth grade, is now a senior at Palisades and is the defending City singles champion.
The youngest of her three children, 10-year-old Jake, is more interested in sports other than tennis and may take to football like his grandfather, National Football League quarterback Frankie Albert.
It was while growing up in Monterey as her father quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers and later was their coach that Willens developed her tennis game.
Known for her aggressive serve and volley style, she became a top American player, winning the intercollegiate singles title as a Stanford freshman in 1963 and the next year reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
Having played on so many levels of tennis has given her insights as to the pressures of the game, according to Dr. Julie Anthony, a Stanford teammate of Willens and currently the director of the Fitness and Sportsmedicine Institute at the Aspen Club in Colorado.
“She understands the effort it takes to get good,” said Anthony. “And she can relate to players, having done it herself.”
After receiving a degree in psychology and marrying in 1967, Willens moved to Los Angeles and started raising her family. After a period of some inactivity and being interested in a part-time job, she took up a friend’s suggestion of becoming the tennis coach at the Westlake School in 1977.
Making the transition to coaching involved mastering the difficult task of accommodating a variety of players to form a unit in a team endeavor.
“It’s always tough in tennis since it’s an individual sport,” said Willens. “You do have some ego problems.”
Instinctively, Willens has been able to get the best out of her players by knowing how far to push them while always aware of their limits, believes Jennifer Doyle, the captain of the 1986 Westlake team and now a sophomore playing for Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
“It makes a difference when you know a coach played at Wimbledon and knows what she’s talking about,” said Doyle. “And she can help your game.”
After seven successful years at Westlake, Willens also took on the job as coach of the boys’ team at Brentwood in 1984, which was considered a major coup for that school in view of the league championships her teams have won in each year she’s coached there.
“The thought was that Janie would be brought in to build up the tennis program,” said Colleen Reidenbaugh, who coaches the Brentwood girls in tennis. “And she’s been wonderful here.”
Willens is regarded very highly in the tennis world, according to Dick Gould, coach of the Stanford men’s team which has won NCAA championships in two of the last three years.
At one time when there was an opening for coach of the Stanford women’s team, Gould took it upon himself to informally make inquiries for possible candidates, and the first person he approached was Willens, who dismissed the idea, not wanting to uproot her family.
“Janie puts tennis in the right perspective,” Gould said, “It’s just not her competitiveness that’s outstanding about her. It’s what she brings to the game. Her values. Her even-handedness.”
“They’re extremely lucky to have her down there. She’s truly one of the outstanding individuals in the game.”
And that game is now presenting a real challenge for Willens.
The season opening match for the Westlake girls did not go well with Calabasas High defeating them for the first time in years.
Noticing how tensely and tentatively many of her young players had performed, Coach Willens gathered her somber and downhearted team for a meeting on one of the empty courts.
It was important that this first match was behind them so that the next time they wouldn’t be so tight, she told them.
“Have some fun when you’re playing,” she said.
“It’s when you’re enjoying yourself, you always play better. You’ll see.”