There was little in Billy Kingery’s early years to suggest he would one day become a national tennis champion.
Certainly, there was persistence, as Kingery demonstrated earlier this month, when he was the winner of the 90-and-over men’s clay-court title at the USTA national championships in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Kingery, 90, who was born in Roanoke and attended Jefferson High School, did not come from a tennis background.
He was a 147-pound wrestler at Virginia Military Institute on teams that twice finished second in the Southern Conference, but a dislocated shoulder limited his participation.
“They had a tennis team and it was really good team,” he said in a recent interview. “I played [No.] 7 or 8 on that team, so I really didn’t play much tennis at all.”
Regardless, he had military obligations and joined the U.S. Air Force after graduation from VMI.
“When I got out of the Air Force after five years, there was a real market for jet pilots,” he said in a recent interview. “I was in the reserves down in Richmond, flying on the weekends and we were getting flight plans. I enjoyed flying but was ready to do something else.”
He subsequently went to work in Roanoke at Carter Machinery, where he spent 33 years, and later at Virginia Pre-Stress Concrete for 10 years before retiring in 1998.
It didn’t keep him from playing tennis on an occasional basis.
Kingery was in his 40s when his tennis started to take off, thanks in part to teaching he received from the late Fred Rawlings, the Roanoke Country Club tennis pro at the time.
“He kind of took an interest in me and I started taking lessons,” Kingery said. “I had never taken a lesson in my life until then. I think I was having a good time but wasn’t really serious or competitive till the 1950s and ’60s tournaments.”
He subsequently was ranked No. 1 in Virginia at some point in every division from age 65 to 70, 75, 80 and 85.
“The competitive part of it was compelling to me,” he said, noting that one of his advantages is his consistency.
“At this point [in their careers], the server just gets the point started. I don’t get points off the serve much. The ground strokes are very important.
“So is consistency. I get the ball back.”
For much of the time during which Kingery was one of Roanoke’s elite men’s players, he shared that distinction with the late Carnis Poindexter, who was 84 when he passed away Sept. 21 and known for teaching tennis to young African American students in the Roanoke Valley.
“I went to his funeral,” Kingery said. “He was in the hall of fame, too, the Roanoke Valley Regional Tennis Hall of Fame.”
Kingery doesn’t play in tournaments exclusively.
“We’ve got a ladder at Roanoke Country Club with 26 or 28 guys,” he said. “And they’re all 30 or 40 years younger than I am and I play singles against them.”
“I can’t beat hardly any of them but I get to play them. That’s one of the [important] things. I play five or six times a week. I play most every day.”
This year’s national tournament at Palm Beach Gardens in Florida was previously held at Pinehurst in North Carolina. There was a small turnout in Florida but Kingery was faced by a field of 22 one month earlier in Boston, where he was fourth.
He was ranked nationally before going to Florida and expects to get as high as No. 5 or 6 in his age group by the end of the year.
“There’s one more tournament down in Long Boat Key [outside Sarasota, Fla.] after Thanksgiving and I may go play,” he said. “That would help my ranking, too.”
He said he really enjoyed his days as a pilot, “but was ready to do something else.”
Is there any question that he did?