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Historic Clubs Continue Growing Tennis in Charleston, Columbia

February 20, 2015 09:55 AM

Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

Marion Sanders’ first experience with one of South Carolina’s most unique tennis clubs came 35 years ago.

Sanders, who had just moved to Charleston, was playing tennis with his wife when a woman approached them about joining the Charleston Westside Tennis Club.


The club had been created years earlier to grow tennis in the city’s African-American community.

Sanders and his family happily joined, and a year later, a similar organization was forming in Columbia.

In 1981, the Greater Columbia Tennis Association was formed to get more African-Americans interested in tennis.

The two South Carolina tennis clubs, formed independent of each other, have been on similar paths since.

For decades, they have played each other twice a year, one match at the Jack Adams Tennis Center in Charleston and the other at Greenview Park in Columbia. The clubs have shared memorable matches with other groups throughout the Southeast, including one match that ended in a hospital trip for Sanders.

And the clubs’ current leaders – Sanders and James Cook of Columbia – remain passionate about their organizations.

To celebrate Black History Month, USTA South Carolina talked with Sanders and Cook about their organizations, their pasts and their futures. “It means a lot to me,” said Sanders, president of the Westside Tennis Club. “It’s a tradition I would like to see continue.”

The clubs formed decades ago out of the mold of the American Tennis Association, which was formed in 1916 to govern tennis for African-Americans in the U.S. At the time, the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, as the USTA was then known, governed the sport for white America.

Segregation in tennis had long ended, though, by the time Sanders joined the Charleston club in 1980. But the club’s mission remained to grow tennis in Charleston’s African-American community.

The club has changed since Sanders joined, though.

One of the biggest changes has been the organization’s number of opponents.

Decades earlier, Charleston competed against six teams, including Savannah, Augusta, Columbia, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Fayetteville, North Carolina. These days, Charleston plays only Augusta, Columbia and Charlotte.

Before Clarence Richardson took over the club in 1980, though, the Charleston club wasn’t playing any teams; the group was hosting only intra-squad practices.

“We wanted to more or less spread the camaraderie, the interest in tennis,” said Richardson, who, at 81, is less active with the club today. “And the only way we could do that was by branching out and playing other teams in other areas.”

Columbia’s opponent list also has shortened; now the club plays only four teams, down from the seven the group used to play.

But memories of earlier matches remain.

Sanders remembers one particular day in the early 1990s when he was playing a singles match against a Charlotte player in Charleston.

The temperature was in the 90s. South Carolina humidity was South Carolina humidity. And his match lasted three hours. “I eventually won,” Sanders said, “but I paid the price for it.”

After the match, he was taken to a local hospital.

“When they put that (intravenous) fluid in you,” he said, “it’s like a new life.”

The players play for pride and trophies.

Cook and his Columbia teammates have a traveling trophy with two rival teams, Charlotte and Augusta. “It’s a fierce battle when we play (Charlotte),” said Cook, who, at 68, still plays 4.0 leagues the 55 and over division through the Columbia Tennis League.

Despite the intense matches between the clubs, he and other club leaders keep their matches informal. They simply try to play as much tennis as possible. If both teams have 10 people, Cook said, the schedule will go like this: “We’ll probably play 10 singles and as many doubles as we can get out of those 10 people.”

The nameless league runs from about April to September. Soon the leaders of the clubs will work with each other to schedule home-and-away matches.

Both Sanders and Cook are looking forward to another season of good tennis and old friends. At every match the Greater Columbia Tennis Association plays this year, he said, he’ll see friends he’s known for more than 30 years.

“As long as there’s a GCTA and I’m alive,” he said, “I’ll be a part of it.”

The leaders also hope future generations join them and help continue their clubs for decades longer.

Richardson, the former Charleston club leader, was reflective about what the organizations have achieved.

“We introduced the love of tennis to the inner-city,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the interest in tennis moving and hopefully we will continue to do so.”