The Beginnings of the Huntsville Women’s Tennis Association
Huntsville, located in northern Alabama, has a rich tennis legacy dating back to the 1930’s. Early on, there were several prominent Huntsville families who had tennis courts on their estates and would take turns hosting heated local competitions. The first tennis club was the Randolph Street Club followed a few years later by the Huntsville Country Club.
The first tennis club in Huntsville to become a member of the U. S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) was the Hog Meadow Tennis Club. Two clay courts and a clubhouse complete with a cold, spring-fed shower and a refrigerator were situated in the meadows of Greenlawn Plantation in Meridianville. Grazing cattle and wallowing hogs gave a unique atmosphere to the club, thus inspiring the name Hog Meadow Tennis Club. This prestigious club welcomed 50 members, including men and women. Some played tennis while others enjoyed the party atmosphere. The undefeated men of the Hog Meadow Club are credited with getting tennis courts built on city school grounds and supporting junior players on the school teams that played on those courts. Tennis courts will always remain at the Greenlawn Plantation in Meridianville as a tribute to the family’s love of tennis.
Big Spring Park, with six clay tennis courts, a spring-fed swimming pool, a skating rink, and ample green space with shade trees and picnic tables, was the center of recreation for residents of early Huntsville. To meet requirements for an urban renewal grant in the 1960’s the city converted Big Spring Park from an “active” park to the “passive” park of today. The courts, swimming pool, and skating rink were all moved.
In 1966, while Big Spring Park was still the center of recreation, a group of Huntsville’s elite women tennis players, under the leadership of Rose Roberts, the tennis teacher of the time, gathered to discuss organizing a women’s tennis club. Thirty-three of the original sixty members were present at the first meeting and agreed to name the new club the Huntsville Women’s Tennis Association (HWTA). They elected Hazel McMahon as the first president in 1967 and set quarterly business meetings. A challenge ladder for singles and doubles was explained and established at the first meeting. Ladder placement became the vehicle through which a tournament chair could determine seedings for local tournaments. Many tennis players were already members of USLTA, regularly playing sanctioned tournaments and working to attain the highest possible tennis ranking in the state. The newly formed Huntsville Women’s Tennis Association provided the platform for women to play organized tennis on a local recreational level without having to be a USLTA member.
Tennis activities moved to Brahan Spring Park in 1968. With the addition of the natatorium and the tennis center to ball fields and playgrounds that were already there, Brahan Spring Park quickly became the new center of recreation for the city. Gordon “Brick” Warden was named Director of Tennis and head pro for the complex consisting of ten clay courts, four hard courts, and a series of hitting walls which doubled as handball courts. Huntsville Tennis Center at Brahan Spring immediately became headquarters for the tennis activities of HWTA and remained the prime location for all HWTA related activities for 40 years. As HWTA continued to provide organized tennis activities for its members, the membership continued to grow, welcoming its hundredth member only two years after the club organized. Elfie Steiner was the recipient of the first annual Most Improved Player Award.
Roselyn Donnelly, who was affectionately known as Mother Tennis, taught tennis to countless women. She always encouraged the ladies in her classes to continue playing and to join HWTA. She was responsible for 128 beginner and 64 intermediate players registering to play in the 1969 spring tournament. Also, 1969 became a legendary year for tennis equipment with the introduction of larger non-wood racquets made from metal and other composite materials. The new racquets reduced elbow injuries and helped players elevate their game.
HWTA encouraged women to play tennis by offering challenge ladders, round robins, and tournaments designed to accommodate all levels of play. Initially, A, B, and C were the designations. As membership numbers increased, the divisions were expanded to include Advanced A, Advanced B, Intermediate A, Intermediate B, and Beginners. In the mid 70’s HWTA added Junior Vet (35 to 44) and Senior Vet (45 plus) divisions to accommodate an aging membership. For a very short time and only by advance request, an HWTA tournament player in singles or doubles could ask for match officials. A complete officiating crew consisted of a scorekeeper and ten linesmen, with five linesmen strategically stationed on each side of the court. This practice lasted only a few tournaments before HWTA realized the overwhelming burden this placed on the tournament committee.
Most members were young, stay-at-home mothers who brought their children to the courts. Infants in playpens, as well as toddlers, were welcome and a common sight at Brahan Spring, where all women were mothers to all children and babysitters were provided by HWTA to keep kids in the fenced-in play area while moms played tennis. Court fees were nonexistent, so mothers dropped off older children at school and went to the courts to play tennis until time to pick up the children from school. Occasionally, a mom might lose track of time and forget a child at school for an hour or two. In the 70’s, that was not a huge problem.
A beautiful young 27-year-old member of HWTA, Mary Jane Rosenthal, lost her battle with cancer and left her husband to care for their two young daughters. In 1971, HWTA memorialized Mary Jane, who was the epitome of a good sport, by presenting the first annual Mary Jane Rosenthal Sportsmanship Award to a deserving young woman named Yvonne Aria. As a note of interest, it was in 1977 that USLTA broke ground for the new National Tennis Center in New York and dropped “Lawn” from the organization’s name.
In the early 1980s, league play was defined as unofficial competition between HWTA and neighboring towns, mainly Decatur and Florence. Of course, local leagues gave way to newly formed USTA Leagues which initially had commercial sponsors such as Virginia Slims, Michelob, and later Volvo. This is also the period when the original rating system became the newest, most important, and most talked-about change occurring in our tennis life. The local league coordinator was paid $5.00 to observe a player and place her where he thought she would be most competitive. Then at league championships, courtside monitors observed players wearing numbers pinned to the shirt back and assigned each player a final rating based on his opinion of the player’s ability. Also during this period, the 12-point tie-breaker became a new scoring tool for everyone to learn. The object of the tie-breaker was to shorten the time a player was on the court, thereby creating a more predictable timetable for scheduling tournament and league matches.
Another HWTA community service took place in the 80’s. In the spring of the school year, HWTA volunteers assisted teachers introduce tennis to students in physical education classes. Several of the city schools accepted this valuable assistance from the HWTA volunteers. Membership dues were $7.50 for the year. Court fees had increased to $1.50 for one and a half hour of play.
By 1990, court time at Brahan Spring was still one hour and a half, but the court fees had risen to $2.50 for soft courts and $2.00 for hard courts. Because there were more HWTA members in the workplace, HWTA began sponsoring evening tournaments and round robins to accommodate working women. Calling by the phone committee was still the only form of communication for the membership. The bubble at the Dug Hill Racquet Club became available for HWTA in inclement weather. Tournament results appeared in the 1992 directory for the first time. In the spring, there was a morning doubles tournament at Huntsville Athletic Club and a prime time (after five) tournament, both singles and doubles, at Brahan Spring. In the fall, a weekend singles tournament was held at Valley Hill Country Club, and a daytime singles and doubles tournament was played at Brahan Spring.
The first year HWTA members began contributing Christmas
gifts to the popular Toys for Tots campaign was 1995. Toy contributions remain an important tradition at today’s holiday luncheon. In the final year of the twentieth century, HWTA began designating the fall tournament a charity event. The first recipient was Habitat for Humanity. HWTA not only contributed the tournament profits of $2300 to the organization, but fourteen industrious ladies helped to build a Habitat house in a neighborhood near the tennis center at Brahan Spring.
Spring Break Tennis Camp began in 1999. The first year volunteers from the tennis community introduced tennis to 330 youngsters at seven locations throughout the city. Deservedly, Spring Break Tennis received the Special Event Award from both Southern and Alabama Tennis Associations.
By 1995, the conditions at the Brahan Spring Tennis Center had begun to deteriorate beyond repair. Locker rooms were dirty, there was mold in the showers, toilets would not flush, and ice in the machine was yellow because of the rusty water being delivered. A committee of tennis players formed to persuade the city to build a new tennis facility. That committee failed in its effort to get the new courts they were seeking, but did pave the way for the second committee, a few years later, to work with Mayor Loretta Spencer and representatives from the recreation department to get the new courts and clubhouse built and ready for occupancy in 2005.
HWTA lost its first lifetime member, Roselyn Donnelly, to leukemia in 2001. To honor Roselyn for her many contributions to tennis, the fall tournament, which had been the charity tournament for several years, was renamed the Roselyn Donnelly Memorial Tournament. Tournament proceeds that year went to the Leukemia Foundation in her memory. HWTA also added her name to the Most Improved Player Award.
Over the years, entertainment at the Christmas luncheon included talented members performing dance from tap to ballroom, vocal and instrumental music from opera to pop, and skits, both dramatic and comedic. Entertainment at the 2003 Christmas luncheon was the return engagement of our own Racquet Ringers. This group of musical tennis players was recruited to form the choir of hand bell ringers who had previously played Christmas favorites at the luncheon in 1985.
By the early 2000’s, HWTA dues had increased to $15, and we said farewell to an unforgettable era of tennis at Brahan Spring Park. We welcomed the beginning of a new era at Huntsville Tennis Center (HTC) in John Hunt Park. Joc Simmons became the Director of Tennis. A ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony in June 2005 officially opened the new city-owned tennis facility with twenty-four clay courts and six hard courts added later.
Currently, the HWTA calendar has expanded to include round robins, a summer social, a membership coffee, tournaments in the spring and fall, a holiday luncheon, and local spring, summer, and fall fun leagues. USTA leagues continue to supplement HWTA calendars. HWTA members have become official hostesses providing hospitality to players visiting for the many local, state, sectional, and national tournaments hosted by Huntsville Tennis Center.
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of HWTA in 2017, dues are currently $15, the court fee at HTC is $6 for two hours of playing time, and there are 301 members. The success of HWTA is the direct result of its innovative members working together to sustain their mission: “to promote and encourage participation in tennis among the women in Huntsville and in the Madison County area.”