Sue Selke, Big Ten Champion
There are several star athletes every Big Ten sports fan should know about.
Here’s one of them: Sue Selke
In September 2014, Sue was inducted into the Michigan State University Athletics Hall Of Fame. Her bio notes three Big Ten individual championship wins from 1973 to 1975 in No. 1 singles. It leaves out her loss as a freshman in the semifinals, but that year was the very first Big Ten tournament women’s tennis ever had. Sue went on to be undefeated her next season, and now she’s the only tennis player, male or female, inducted into the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame.
So how did she get started?
“When I was 10 years old,” Sue answers. “That’s sometimes old for tennis players nowadays when they’re starting at two, or three, or four, or five, but I started when I was 10. We actually had some neighbors who had moved in our neighborhood from Scotland and they all played.”
The public courts were a block away from Sue’s house on the northwest side of Detroit, Michigan, and that’s where she began playing tennis with her neighbors. The sport was fun for Sue and she started summer lessons through Detroit Parks and Recreation. The coach took about 20 kids under his wing that summer, and he showed them how to compete in tournaments.
Only two girls participated in the program. Sue was one. The rest were all boys.
As a young kid who loved the game, Sue was limited on playing time. Back then there was only one place to practice: outside.
During the 60s, there weren’t really indoor tennis courts. Indoor clubs began popping up closer to the 70s as tennis started to boom in popularity. So for Sue, the only tennis was at the parks.
At 14 years old, her game was getting good. So she decided to travel and play in tournaments across the midwest. Sue Selke, was the third out of eight children growing up, and traveling was brand new to her.
She laughs when she tells people that her parents never saw her hit a tennis ball. With that many kids, Sue, her five brothers and two sisters, her dad worked a lot to feed everyone and her mom stayed home to take care of everyone. Her dad, a builder, even worked on their own house — turning the attic into something of a dorm room so the kids could spread out.
When Sue wanted to play in a tournament, she tagged along with a friend. Sue stayed with Sandy and her parents — paying her share of the hotel room.
Sue says her parents always encouraged her. They wanted to see her get better and to do that she had to travel in the Junior Circuit. One thing Sue loved about her family… she felt like the siblings were treated equally, all eight of them. If anyone wanted something they couldn’t afford, their parents motivated them — go out and make it happen. Work hard and respect every opportunity you get.
Those values mean a lot to Sue, even today. Back then she babysat a lot and got paid a quarter an hour. It took a while to buy some six-dollar tennis shoes, but Sue made it happen. And Sue knew, if she wanted free lodging for her tournaments, she had to become a top ten player. Unable to afford to stay in hotel after hotel, Sue improved until she ranked top ten.
In 1971, Sue began college at Michigan State University. After an extremely successful junior career behind her, the best was yet to come. Now, with MSU, Sue could play tennis year-round for the women’s tennis team.
They would practice at two local clubs in Lansing, Michigan not far from campus. The extended playtime really improved Sue’s game. No more hitting tennis balls off the side of a barn, praying the winter snow holds off another weekend, then stuck inside until spring.
That extra time, coupled with Sue’s weariless drive as a competitor, earned Sue a spot in history. Her freshman year, the team played in the very first Big Ten tournament for women’s tennis.
“You gotta do things and win,” expresses Sue, who was disappointed by her semifinals loss that year. “I’m thinking in my mind, okay… am I second best person in this tournament?”
The player who beat her wouldn’t return for Sue’s sophomore year.
“I had to prove to myself, well if you were second best and now you’re the best, you gotta work at it.”
So Sue worked at it, and it put her on top for the next three years. She was the Big Ten individual champion from 1973 to 1975 in No. 1 singles. Looking back, it’s one of Sue’s proudest achievements. She also helped the Spartans gain two Big Ten team titles in 1973 and 1974.
The successful seasons Sue led at MSU led her induction into the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014.
“When they said, you’re being inducted, I wanted to say, are you sure?”
Fierce Sue, unrelenting, passionate, and legendary for progressing the sport of tennis, was unsure about her spot amongst other greats. But MSU knew where Sue belonged, and now she’s in the Hall of Fame along with NBA superstar, Magic Johnson and track and field olympian, Judi Brown.
In the early 1970s, when Sue played college tennis, Title IX hadn’t kicked in yet. That’s the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program receiving federal money.
“Every year they’d say next year… So we’d play hard, win, whatever, and they’d go next year!”
Sue shares a story about her freshman year on the tennis team. Instead of a final meal that season, the girls saved their money and bought racquet covers. On them, they stuck on some of those furry letters to spell out Michigan State on their new gear. That way, when they showed up to play somewhere, people knew what team they were on.
Sue says, back then, the women’s tennis team didn’t get MSU gear to play in. They didn’t have their own jerseys. Instead, they wore the university’s field hockey warm-ups, which had to return at the end of each season.
The men’s team had their own gear and training room.
“You just made do,” Sue explains.
Several years later, Sue’s younger sister played tennis at MSU too, and Title IX was finally in effect.
“She got some opportunities out of it,” Sue remembers.
After she graduated, Sue would travel to different schools and talk about Title IX — how it could help athletes. She got some backlash.
“They said, well, they’re going to get rid of some men’s sports. That was never our intention. We never wanted to get rid of men’s sports.”
Sue says, MSU today, has an amazing indoor facility for men's and women’s sports teams.
Looking back on her tennis career, it was the people Sue met that made it all special.
“I know we picked a sport where love means nothing,” Sue starts, “but it really means everything.”
The camaraderie, the people, the travel… All of it delights Sue and she loves helping other people enjoy tennis the way she does.
“My coach would tell me stuff and I’d be so excited when my opponent wasn’t doing it. I would go up to the net and say, don’t feel so bad. If you did this…” Sue would explain. “My coach goes, can you just wait until after the match is over? I guess I was destined to eventually teach.”
Since she started coaching, Sue believes she’s learned a lot more about the game than she ever did as a player. She teaches a wide range of players. Some of her youngest are just three years old, but Sue also instructs adults — men and women. Today, she’s the proud Executive Director of Court One Athletic Clubs in Michigan.
Sue’s been a volunteer for USTA/Midwest Section for more than 35 years and served on the Board of Directors, plus numerous other committees. The involvement and dedication Sue demonstrated earned her the USTA/Midwest Mel Bergman Award in 2002.
Outside of tennis, Sue enjoys watching MSU football games and basketball. And in the springtime, she’s a “bleacher bum” (her words) watching baseball. She likes meeting people in the stands and keeping score herself. It reminds her of her childhood — growing up just 20 minutes from Tiger Stadium, previously known as Briggs Stadium when Sue was a kid. She says she was a big Detroit Tigers fan.
On Sue’s bucket list, she wants to see all sports played professionally at least once, and now that goal looks more and more achievable with the pandemic’s end inching closer.
In the meantime, Sue inspires our next generation of players.
“I love to share my past experiences, help build competitive players and teach everyone the sheer enjoyment of what tennis can bring you through friendships, travel, and just trying to be the best you can be.”
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