Remembering the Life and Legacy of Al Penelton
The late Alvin ‘Al’ Penelton is considered by many to be one of the greatest service line umpires of all time. Penelton loved many things: his family, tennis and helping the community.
Although a talented participant of many sports as a child, including cross country and gymnastics, and later basketball at Vashon High School in St. Louis, where he graduated in 1958, Penelton didn’t take up tennis until 1974. He picked up tennis because he wished to remain active as he got older. He picked up the game quickly, winning scores of local tournaments, and during his career with Anheuser-Busch won the national company olympics three times. He even got to play on occasion with Arthur Ashe.
While he was an excellent tennis player, he was just plain special as an official. Behind the scenes in the tennis world was where his light shined brightest.
He began his career as an official at the urging of a friend, and in 1978 was an official at his first tournament, just four short years after he first picked up a tennis racquet. That same year he would be an official in his first professional tournament - the WCT Classic at the Checkerdome in St. Louis. It was clear almost immediately his attitude towards life would take him far in the profession.
Penelton was one of the handful of African American umpires on an international scale within the sport. His cool, calm and collected demeanor was what made him great. His life philosophy and key phrase: “It’s all good.”
Former Chief Umpire of the US Open Woodie Walker knew Al since the 1970s and made sure to use him as an official at any chance she could.
“Al epitomizes what a professional tennis official should be like. He was a consummate professional. He was the best, and I would call him the greatest of all time, the GOAT of service line umpires,” Walker said.
He was able to work the US Open in 1982 due to this attention to detail, then proceeded to work 37 consecutive US Opens. Penelton worked the world’s most prestigious tournaments - Wimbledon from 1997-2001, six Australian Opens and tournaments in Indian Wells, Calif. and Rome, Italy.
Penelton also worked numerous Fed Cup and Davis Cup events, as well as the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga. and the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
It was as a line umpire that Penelton particularly excelled. If a player thought to question a line call, then looked to see Penelton on the line, they often changed their mind.
He was so admired by his peers that he won the 1996 John T. McGovern Award, the USTA’s highest umpire award. Because of the respect he garnered, he also appeared on the cover of a USTA umpire manual and on a Wimbledon postcard. Of his many awards as an official, perhaps one of the biggest honors was being named to the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2021.
Community and family were also really important to Penelton. Perhaps even more important than his work on the service line was his work in the community. He was instrumental to improvements of the tennis courts at Lincoln Park in East St. Louis. Penelton often played the game on those very courts in the beginning. The courts had become unplayable and a grant, as well as community leaders, worked to get the courts resurfaced and lights added. The courts are the only playable ones in the city. He even set up a foundation in East St. Louis to get local kids involved in tennis.
With such a passion for tennis and life, it makes Penelton’s induction into the Hall of Fame an easy decision. As his wife says, this is something he’s always wanted and the honor is not lost on his family.
“It means that a wish has been fulfilled. It may not have been around for him to see it, but it was something that he wanted and it was something that he wished for,” Johnnie said. “And we're fulfilling that wish for him. So thank you very much.”
Penelton passed away May 23, 2020.
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