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A lifetime and counting: Maynard keeps working to grow Belton and tennis

September 15, 2015 01:30 PM

By Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

BELTON, S.C. – On the first day of one of the longest running tennis tournaments in the U.S., the man trying to use tennis to save this small town is hustling.

Since 7:15 a.m., Rex Maynard, who has influenced tennis in this country for the past 50 years, has been making last-minute changes to the Palmetto Championships, South Carolina’s state qualifier for boys and girls interested in playing at the USTA National Championships.

Now, a little after 11 a.m., Maynard, a tall and hefty man with thinning white hair, walks to his unlocked Buick LaCrosse, runs an errand and then drives about a mile and a half away from the town’s main drag, past abandoned storefronts and sagging porches.

He arrives at his latest attempt to restore tennis here: Leda Poore Park. In 2013 and 2014, Maynard, who’s spent almost his entire life in Belton, organized and secured money for a quarter-million-dollar renovation of the park, where kids are hitting orange tennis balls on six new courts as about a dozen coaches, parents and grandparents watch.

Maynard greets his old friend Rivers Lynch, a former coach who for decades brought his children and high school teams to Belton for tournaments. Lynch compliments the park while watching his 9-year-old grandson play.

“It looks like it’s brand new,” Lynch says.

“It almost is,” Maynard tells him.

Maynard, 67, has improved tennis on every level in the U.S. In South Carolina, he’s served on the U.S. Tennis Association’s state board of directors and helped create a tennis foundation that annually gives grants to nonprofit organizations.

Regionally, he's helped bring a professional tennis tournament, now the BB&T Atlanta Open, to America’s biggest tennis city. Nationally, he’s played a role in choosing the men and women who have directed the sport’s national governing body, the U.S.T.A., which owns and operates the US Open.

But nowhere has Maynard put more of his time than in his hometown, a place that's lost more than it's gained during his lifetime. In Belton, population 4,250, he has voluntarily directed tournaments, devoting 16-hour days to the thankless work. He’s created new tournaments to draw more people to Belton. Time and time again, he’s run clinics for kids new to tennis.

Maynard has done it all while raising a family of four with his wife and operating the furniture business his dad started. “I don’t know how he has time for everything,” says Thomas McAllister, who has teamed with Maynard to run tournaments the past four years.

Now, though, Belton needs Maynard’s time more than ever. He and residents hear the rumblings that the state's most prestigious junior tournament, the town’s biggest festival, the event that has called Belton home for 59 consecutive years, could one day leave town, just like hundreds of residents and manufacturing jobs have the past 40 years.

It's more than a matter of a schedule change in junior tennis. Belton's identity is tied up in the tournament and the sport.

And somehow it’s fallen to Maynard, a man who barely played tennis, to make sure the tournament, and tennis, survive in Belton for the next generation.

***

Growing up in Belton, Maynard and his friends had little choice but to try tennis, given the sport’s long history here.

A historical marker by the Belton Tennis Center quotes a newspaper story from 1892: “The young men of Belton are happy. The stores close at 6:00 and the clerks have an opportunity to engage in lawn tennis.”

Maynard’s foray into the sport did not last long, though. He played in exactly one competitive match as a child. It was at the first Palmetto Championships. The year was 1957. Maynard was 10, and he lost in straight sets.

Other factors, though, convinced him to stay.

By the time Maynard graduated with an economics degree from nearby Wofford College, where he played baseball and football, he knew he’d come back to run his dad's business.

For the first handful of years he was back, Maynard kept to the business, his new bride and their two babies.

In 1976, Maynard volunteered with the Palmetto Championships and unknowingly began a decades-long commitment to tennis in Belton.

The tournament was thriving. About 250 kids played in the event, and the tournament dripped with charm found in few places. The tournament, unlike most, played some of its matches on the private courts of Southern elite.

Tucked into the backyards of homes, the seven private courts were Belton’s secret gardens. Manicured lawns and blooming hydrangeas surrounded swept asphalt courts. Aging oak trees shaded court edges.

When players and parents arrived for play, the homeowners brought pitchers of lemonade, sweet tea and water and plates of warm chocolate chip cookies to the umbrella table.

“It was just like you were a part of their family,” says Lynch, the longtime high school coach.

Lynch took his four daughters to tournaments all over the country. But he would watch his girls play at Belton’s private backyard courts and think, “My goodness, how many places would do this? Only in Belton.”

Rex_backyardcourt
Maynard visits a backyard court that had been used by the Palmetto Championships. (USTA SC photo)


Maynard, after volunteering for a year with the regular tournament staff, thought of ways to increase interest in the championships. The next year, he handled promoting the tournament and landed coverage in local newspapers, TV and radio stations.

From that year forward, he and his friend Jim Russell directed the entire tournament: Russell handling the on-court issues – scheduling the draws, organizing the officials – and Maynard everything else.

With the two in charge, the tournament grew and Belton’s moniker, “Tennis Capital of South Carolina,” became more fitting. In 1981, the tournament set a record with 316 participants. A few years later, the two helped Belton land the South Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame, which moved into half of the old train depot and now houses portraits of inductees and tennis memorabilia from around the world.

Maynard and Russell went on to serve on regional and national boards but continued organizing the Palmetto Championships every year. Three years ago, though, Russell died. Maynard lost his best friend, and he was left to carry Belton tennis by himself.

***

Belton-center
The Palmetto Championships have been played in Belton for 59 consecutive years. Above, players compete during the first day of the 2015 Palmetto Championships in late May. (USTA SC photo)


Now Maynard is back at the downtown tennis center, talking with old friends. It’s early afternoon, and more parents and kids arrive for the five-day tournament. At a stand near the check-in table, cups of Chick-fil-A lemonade and wrapped chocolate chip cookies await.

Away from the tables, though, Rivers Lynch, the former high school coach, admires a Belton tradition.

Lynch, his 11-year-old and 14-year-old grandsons and Myrtle Beach coach John Hairston gaze at large, green metal signs clinging to the back of a fence. The signs list the individual and team champions and sportsmanship award winners from 28 years of the Hall of Fame Classic high school tournament in Belton, one of three additional tennis tournaments Maynard helped create and still runs.

Lynch’s 14-year-old grandson, John Cahill, stops scanning the signs when he sees a name he recognizes. “Coach John, that’s my Mom!” he says, pointing out the name, TA, or Te-Anne, Lynch.

Minutes later, Hairston also spots familiar names. “That’s crazy,” he says.

Rivers Lynch also shakes his head at all the memories these signs hold, and all the time Maynard devotes to them, including a similar sign for the winners of the Palmetto Championships.

“I hate to be the one who comes after him,” Lynch said earlier. “So many people say, ‘Oh, that’s too much work.’ I’ve never heard him say that.”

Earlier in the day, Lynch’s 9-year-old grandson, Nolan Cahill, and his opponent had to play a seven-point tiebreaker to decide the second set of their match. Nolan had never won a tiebreaker, but he broke through at the state championship, winning 7-1.

“He’s on Cloud Nine,” says Lynch, still standing by the signs.

Harrison’s older brother, John, notes his brother’s well-timed breakthrough. “Right place to win it: Belton!” John says.

***

The charm and traditions of Belton are enough to convince some people that the state’s most prestigious tournament should remain here.

Count Levin Lynch among that crowd.

He and his wife’s 7-year-old son Davidson played in his first Palmetto Championships in May. The family expected a scene similar to a high-stakes boxing match: Each player and parent secluded to themselves, scowling at their opponents.

Lynch was surprised then when he watched Maynard walk up and introduce himself to Davidson.

“Hi, I’m Rex. Who are you?” said Maynard, tilting his neck to look the 7-year-old boy in the eye.

“Davidson,” the boy said.

“My man, Davidson!” said Maynard, who found other strangers to welcome.

Levin Lynch said later, “This is not snooty.”

To others, however, logistics outweigh traditions.

“The biggest complaint we get is that Belton doesn't have the infrastructure to host a big event,” Maynard says.

Belton has 19 courts, 35 fewer than the tournament needed to host play for all of this year’s 430 players. All but two of the private courts officials relied on for decades have crept into disrepair, been turned into something else or officials have decided to stop using them. This year, Maynard again used 35 courts in nearby communities, most within 30 minutes of downtown Belton.

Matches at different sites can be challenging for parents with children in different age groups that play a half hour apart from each other.

Belton hosting the tournament also feels harder to digest for some when they consider how many large tennis complexes are in South Carolina, facilities built with big tournaments in mind. At least 10 facilities in South Carolina have 21 or more courts.

Belton also has no hotels, so families must stay in nearby Anderson, about a 20-minute drive.

But it could be worse.

Tasha Armistead and her husband have two traveling tennis children, Jack, 11, and Mary Grace, 12. For the past 18 months, the Hilton Head Island family has crisscrossed the Southeast and even dipped into Florida some for about 20 tournaments.

To her, Belton’s use of multiple sites is fairly regular. In fact, she prefers how Maynard organizes the tournament compared to some tournaments in Atlanta, where 45 minutes of driving and backed-up traffic separate sites.

“Atlanta is the worst,” she says. “You avoid that place at all costs.”

She also appreciates the little things Maynard and his tournament staff do.

For instance, last year, the Armistead family received a Christmas card from the Palmetto Championships. Inside was a 4x6 photo of Maynard, a tournament staff member, Mary Grace and the girl she played in the 12 and under singles championship.

This year, after Mary Grace won the 12 and under championship, the match umpire gave her the match scorecard as a keepsake.

“We’ve never had somebody give us the sheet they use to mark the points,” Tasha Armistead says.

Maynard understands the setup could be better. He knows the multiple sites do create more work for some families.

But that’s part of the charm of Belton. It’s unique, he says.

“That’s the thing I have a hard time getting through to a lot of people – this tournament is different,” he says. “It’s not all good. It’s just different.”

“We try very hard to put on a top-notch tournament.”

And like any good businessman would, Maynard downplays the tournament’s weaknesses and sells its strengths. “We try to build tradition in the event,” he says. “If you win the Palmetto your name goes up on the board.”

“Another thing, it’s been here every year. This is the 59th year. Name me another tennis tournament in the United States that’s been played in the same place for that long? US Open hasn’t.”

***

The tournament traditions remain, but Belton has undeniably changed. Maynard, driving south of the town’s center, points to what has become a manufacturing graveyard.

There’s the former conveyor belt plant, where about 250 people worked until two years ago when the plant closed.

“See where those Magnolia trees are?” says Maynard, pointing to the row of white-flowered trees on the right side of the road, past the Milliken Drive street sign.

There, the Milliken plant that employed another 250 closed about 10 years ago and has since been razed.

On the left side of the road, the white brick building, where workers once made electric blankets, now employs about 50 workers, about a third of what it once did.

Closer to downtown, two textile mills, which together employed around 1,500 people at their peaks, have both closed.

“I grew up in a Belton that had 5,000 people, and the slogan of the town was ‘Watch Belton Grow.’ Twenty-five years later, we have 4,000,” Maynard will say later. “Belton’s like every other small town in the South, we’re struggling.”

Small signs of progress give the folks of Belton some hope.

Baldor, an industrial electric motor manufacturer, opened a plant in the mid-1990s that still employs about 125 people. Su-Dan Corporation, an automotive parts manufacturer, moved some operations to town about 15 years ago and now employs around 30 people. And a little further down the road Maynard is traveling, Sapa, an aluminum manufacturer, employs around 200.

“There’s growth opportunities in Belton,” says Burriss Nelson, director of the Anderson County Office of Economic Development, who provided all of the numbers and dates. “Good things are happening.”

But the math still adds up to a drastic loss for Belton.

So two years ago, Maynard decided to formally work on this problem as well. He recruited other business leaders to work on bringing manufacturers back to Belton. The group, Belton Alliance, now meets monthly.

Earlier on the drive, Maynard had thought about how the loss of jobs will affect tennis in his hometown. Two years ago, when he finished pulling together $250,000 for the six new courts at Leda Poore Park, $100,000 of that came from a local foundation, the Timken Foundation. But with businesses shuttering, Maynard wonders how they’ll raise money for future projects.

“I don’t think we could do that today,” he says. “Where would we get the money?”

***

About a month later, Maynard plops down at Arnold’s of Belton, about a half mile down the road from his store. Customers turn and look when he enters. Golf’s US Open is on a TV by the bar.

Maynard sees a golfer finish and hand the scorecard to the man working the tournament desk.

“I could have done that,” says Maynard, referring to the worker, not the golfer.

By all accounts, Maynard was much better at golf, baseball and football than he was at tennis. But he chose tennis because Belton had picked the sport 80 years earlier.

In the '70s and '80s, he volunteered to help his hometown. The quality of the people involved drew him to volunteer throughout the Southeast and the country.

He now pitches in to save Belton.

The tournaments Maynard runs cover 85 percent of the expenses the Belton Tennis Association incurs through maintaining the five downtown courts and clubhouse and paying a teaching pro to run clinics.

If the tournaments were gone, Belton’s biggest legacy – tennis – would go the way of the mills, of the manufacturing shifts, of the population: away from Belton.

“Just one more thing Belton loses,” Maynard says.

At Arnold’s, an older woman approaches him about tennis clinics for her grandson.

“Are you going to have any more little things that Drake can come to?” she asks.

Maynard tells her yes, that the tennis coach is doing a great job with kids’ clinics.

“(Drake) is a great athlete and I’d love to see him get more involved in tennis,” Maynard says.

She listens and nods, and says thanks and walks away.

Maynard sees her leave, another potential bright spot for Belton tennis, without committing. He knows there will be more grandparents to convince, more businesses to recruit, more tournament parents to please.

 

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