Peachy Kellmeyer, an indispensable icon
The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., is the ultimate destination for the greatest of this sport. To be enshrined here is the definitive statement of your importance and impact on the game. Every name here represents an important pillar in tennis’ strong structure; each inductee has forged a lasting legacy in the game. They are champions, all.
So many of these names are household names; iconic figures of global renown. But there are others—no less significant in the storied history of this great sport—who are unheralded heroes, whose important achievements too often fall just this side of the spotlight. As we celebrate Women’s History Month throughout March, USTA.com’s Steve Flink—himself a Hall of Famer—takes a closer look at five of those women who, although they may be lesser known are most certainly no less important in crafting the remarkable herstory of this game. Here, he looks at Peachy Kellmeyer (Class of 2011), whose diligence, dedication, and unflappable persona have been instrumental in the resounding success of women’s professional tennis.
When the definitive history of women’s professional tennis is eventually written, the incalculable contributions of Gladys Heldman and Billie Jean King will be featured prominently. Margaret Court will get her due. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova will receive the recognition they deserve for all they did to carry the sport.
The redoubtable Steffi Graf and Monica Seles will be suitably celebrated. And the towering and transcendent Serena and Venus Williams will be central in the story. But no authentic historical overview of the modern women’s game can be written without a long chapter devoted to a supremely devoted individual who has given her life to the game, hurling her heart and soul into the advancement of female players worldwide, selflessly casting her own aspirations aside, ceaselessly pursuing lofty goals in the country of tennis.
Predominantly from behind the scenes, Peachy Kellmeyer has been instrumental in shaping a universe, altering the world of women’s tennis immeasurably in the process.
Growing up in West Virginia, Kellmeyer was the women’s West Virginia State champion in 1956 and 1957 at the ages of 12 and 13. In 1959, when she was only 15, she became the youngest player at that time ever to compete in the women’s singles at the U.S. National Championships, engineering a three set victory in the first round. Three years later, she was the worthy recipient of the USLTA Sportsmanship Award.
Moving on to the University of Miami, Kellmeyer played No.1 on the women’s team and established herself as the first female to earn a place on the men’s team. She then tasted success regularly in women’s amateur tournaments, achieving (in 1966) the No. 10 ranking in the United States.
To be sure, Kellmeyer was a fine player and an outstanding sportswoman. But she found her true calling in other capacities.
The first major step she took away from the competitive arena was in 1972. She was the referee that year at the Inaugural Virginia Slims Championships in Boca Raton, Florida. Immediately Kellmeyer discovered that the game’s political waters could be choppy, but from the outset she was an unshakably stable force.
As Kellmeyer recollected in a recent telephone interview, “Once I was hired to be referee at that tournament, all of the officials walked out because I wasn’t a certified referee with the USTA. So I had to get all of my friends who I had played tennis with to call the lines. That week in Boca taught me so much. I was interviewed for the job by Ellen Merlo [of Virginia Slims] and Edy McGoldrick [prime mover and shaker]. Ted Tinling [renowned dress designer] was there and Pip Jones, the husband of Ann Jones and a very smart man, was also on site. I learned so much from all of them.”
In that same period of time, having served as Director of Physical Education at Marymount College in Boca Raton, she played a pivotal role in a lawsuit which would have lasting ramifications. Women had been forbidden to receive scholarships for college athletics. The lawsuit against the Division of Girls’ and Women’s Sports (DGWS) and Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) scholarship policy in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida was filed in early January of 1973, but never went to court. The plaintiffs (Marymount College, Broward Community College, and eleven female students and coaches from both schools) won by default, and thereby women were indeed permitted to get athletic scholarships.
As Kellmeyer recalls, “My role was to convince a Fort Lauderdale attorney and top player in the area named Ted Hainline to file the suit. I had raised scholarship monies to recruit young women to attend Marymount by staging Pro/Ams. The college matched whatever I raised. Over the years my reward has been the number of women who told me they would not have been able to go to college without athletic scholarship monies.”
Meanwhile, Kellmeyer was focused on the wider world of women’s tennis, heading full speed ahead into it. Working for Heldman in 1973 as the first Tour Director of the Virginia Slims circuit, Kellmeyer discovered there was no substitute for working tirelessly to excel at a craft.
“That first week in January of 1973,” recalls Kellmeyer, “I went out and spent a week at Gladys’s house in Houston. I saw her working morning, noon, and night. I didn’t have a credit card at that time and didn’t know how to write checks for the players each week, so [American pro] Wendy Overton helped me with that. I was so lucky because Gladys was a great boss. She never criticized you and let you make your own mistakes.”
The year 1973 was indeed a critical time in the life of Kellmeyer, from the lawsuit, to working for Heldman, to becoming the first full time employee of the Women’s Tennis Association. It was in June— right before Wimbledon— that the WTA was founded. Kellmeyer was indispensable in providing credibility to the organization.
She has held different titles at the WTA over the years including Assistant Executive Director; Director of Operations; Director of International Operations; and Senior Vice President, Tour Operations and Player Relations. Currently she serves as Executive Consultant, a post she has held for the past several years. But Kellmeyer’s job descriptions have never come close to fully defining who she is, why she has been so important and what she has done for the WTA and women’s tennis in countless ways.
Kellmeyer is one of the most sensible and clear-eyed individuals ever to serve in the upper regions of women’s tennis. When she was fittingly inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2011 for her vast contributions, it was the highlight of her professional life. “No doubt that was the most satisfying thing in my career,” she says. Kellmeyer was introduced by Stacey Allaster, then CEO of the WTA and now the first female tournament director in the 140 year-history of the U.S. Open.
Allaster said that memorable July day in Newport, “Peachy has been singularly instrumental in building women’s professional tennis into the leading global sport for women—from organizing the first women’s event at Madison Square Garden, to the unprecedented growth in prize money from $300,000 to almost $89 million today, to the international expansion of the game. When Peachy started her journey there was primarily a U.S. based circuit to what is now 53 [annual] tournaments in 33 countries featuring 2000 athletes from 100 nations.”
Kellmeyer has not been surprised by the way women’s tennis has flourished across the decades of her deep involvement. She asserts, “We just knew we were warriors and we would push the button together and get things done. When we played in Madison Square Garden, it was in the smaller arena called the Felt Forum. You couldn’t lob! It never dawned on us to protest about things like that. We felt that the show goes on no matter what. We would go to a tournament and there might be no tennis balls. But we all worked together to make things happen.”
While Kellmeyer was doing so much to enable the women to flourish globally and financially, she was also navigating some challenging territory within the confines of the WTA. Over the years, she has worked for 10 Executive Director/CEO’s. Simultaneously she has heavily influenced the outlooks and decision-making acumen of all the leading players. Only someone with her inimitable characteristics could have been in the trenches so forthrightly for nearly half a century and not be wearing permanent wounds.
One great champion who can attest first hand to the character, demeanor and capabilities of Kellmeyer is Chris Evert. Evert has known Kellmeyer since the 1960’s, when she was a ball girl for Peachy at tournaments. She speaks with clarity and conviction about Kellmeyer’s soft-voiced yet unmistakably persuasive skills as a communicator.
Asked to describe how Kellmeyer was able to get along so well with high profile leaders at the WTA as well as so many dynamic players, Evert replied, “She just has had this way of communicating with the strongest of personalities because she has so much common sense. She is so practical and always sees the big picture. With the top players like myself and also middle- and lower-ranked players, she had this great understanding of our positions.”
Elaborating on that theme, Evert added, “Peachy was very organized when I played because she had to put together the roster of players for each tournament. In our day, there were tournaments every week, and most of them were pretty demanding in wanting eight of the top ten players. Peachy just had this calming effect on the most spirited of personalities. Her temperament really helped her do a great job.”
That meant telling the likes of Evert and Navratilova what they might not want to hear, and gently twisting some arms in the process.
As Evert explains, “When we did our tournament schedules, Peachy would talk to Martina and I separately. Tournaments wanted either Martina or me because we were the two big draws at that time. Peachy would ask which tournaments we wanted to play and she would then come back and say, ‘Okay, but you have to play two extra tournaments. And it has got to be these two cities because they don’t have any top players.’ We would either give Peachy that look or argue with her, but at the end of the day she would calm us down and say, ‘Look, this is for the tour and you would really be helping out.’ And we would always say yes.”
Evert appreciated Kellmeyer’s low-key candor and willingness to take tough and principled stands. “She would call us on things,” explains Evert. “She was the referee or our attitudes and our egos. And she was dealing not just with the players, but so many different entities in tennis who were trying to protect their own interests. Peachy had to make everybody happy. When we were acting like spoiled brats, that was when she called us out. But she would do it in such a nice and kind way that it would make you think twice. You would see her side every time.”
Asked to clarify how she has been such an able and affable leader without making enemies, Kellmeyer says, “It was easy because I knew all of these players. They were friends and I was in their homes. I got to know Mrs. Austin (Tracy’s mother) really well and I would go to their home for dinner. I knew the Evert’s really well and that made a difference. I was older than the players so I could relate to their parents.”
Having said that, Kellmeyer expands, “In my day we were a family out there on the tour. If somebody got sick like Nancy Richey did one year with a terrible tooth problem, or when Betsy Nagelsen hurt her back in Newport and I went with her to the hospital, it was a problem we all shared. These players helped me a lot. I tried to help them as well. We were out their on our own, trying to do our best.”
That is the essential Peachy Kellmeyer, incessantly lauding others, refusing to pat herself on the back, showering everyone around her with praise. It is an endearing quality that has defined this woman from the moment she became immersed in the inner workings of the sport so long ago.
She is 77 years young now, and as Kellmeyer reflects on the passage of time she speaks affectionately about the wide range of people who have influenced her in the sport. Among the many Kellmeyer mentions are highly valued old colleagues like Ana Leaird and Ina Broeman, former bosses at the WTA like Jerry Diamond, Anne Person Worcester, and Allaster, agents who have become close friends for life like Stephanie Tolleson and Phil de Picciotto, and current female leaders on the horizon such as Mary Carillo, Ilana Kloss, Micky Lawler and Katrina Adams. Of that latter group, she says, “They are some of the key ones now and down the road who as women will be responsible for doing the heavy lifting.”
But when I persistently enquired about how she developed her own leadership style and why she has endured through generations of players and WTA leaders while steadfastly adhering to her own standards, Kellmeyer responds, “I never lied. Not once. If I needed help from anybody I just told them. I have always tried to level with the players. I have seen them in the locker room when they were going through not very good times and they would just go out and play. I am not sure I could have done that. I have been close to the players, but sometimes we would fight. I had to default Margaret Court a couple of times, but afterwards I would go out and have beers with Margaret and her husband Barry. So, above all else, we were friends. It has been a lifetime of a really good journey.”
Kellmeyer pauses for an instant, but then concludes her thoughts on a career that has brought her so much joy, laughter and fulfillment. “This has been my life,” she says, “and women’s tennis has been my family. I give a lot of the credit to my own family and my mom and dad, who gave me my values. I just wanted to achieve and make people happy. Tennis is a sport I love. If I had it all to do over again, I would do it the very same way. I would not change a thing.”