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National

How Melvin 'Pete' Peterson is using tennis to make a difference for Native Americans

Victoria Chiesa | November 18, 2022


Tennis has taken Melvin ‘Pete’ Peterson to all corners of the globe. In college, he was an All-Conference honoree at Georgia State University. In a brief stint as a touring professional, he played satellite tournaments in places like Canada, Mexico and India. As a high-achieving adult player, he represented the U.S. internationally, and in 2004, he and his partner Henry Karrasch won the ITF world championship in men’s 35-and-under doubles in Antalya, Turkey. He even coached an eventual Wimbledon champion, having first met South Africa’s Wesley Moodie—the 2005 men’s doubles winner at the All England Club—when he was an assistant coach for Moodie’s Boise State University team.

 

But if you ask him, these world-class accolades all pale in comparison to the difference he’s making at home and for his people. Peterson is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI), a federally-recognized Native American tribe that hails from western North Carolina. For his latest career arc, he’s working to promote Native health and wellness around the country—and tennis is his vessel for doing so.

“I played, did everything I could to be the best I could be, helped other people who were thinking about being the best, beating people and trying to win, and now, [have gone] 180 degrees,” Peterson, 56, recently told usta.com from his Boise, Idaho home.

 

“It’s an unbelievable paradigm shift to be here, starting grassroots programs, and helping people get into the game to have fun and for good health. … I was looking at my life and I wanted to really make an impact to do something, and it came back to Native Country because [I said], ‘Where can I make it?’”  

 

Both of Peterson’s grandparents are native Cherokee, and his grandfather’s ancestors survived the Trail of Tears, the U.S. government’s forced displacement of Native American tribes that occurred from 1830 to 1850. Hailing from a family of educators, Peterson’s current passion is the fruit of seeds planted in his youth. His grandmother—full-blooded ECBI—taught in a one-room schoolhouse, while his mother, Karen Sanders Peterson, is a Hall of Famer at Western Carolina University who famously played on the school’s men’s tennis team from 1962-64 before going on to teach in the Georgia public school system.

 

Self-described as “4-foot-10 and 78 pounds” ahead of his freshman year of high school, Peterson struggled with a learning disability in his youth, and found an outlet for some of his boundless energy on the tennis courts of Augusta, Ga., where he was raised. Though he didn’t grow up on the Cherokee reservation, he visited, and still does, often—and observed that tennis is a natural salve for some of what has historically ailed Native populations as a whole. 

Photo courtesy of Melvin 'Pete' Peterson.

“Native Americans, if you look at their health and wellness, there are higher rates of obesity, diabetes and lower life expectancy rates,” he said. “They’re an underserved community. There needs to be change. There has to be some change somehow, and just figuring out a way to make that impact is what I want to do, creating a different trajectory for Native Americans.”

Peterson and his aunt, Faren Sanders Crews (left) and mother, Karen Sanders Peterson.

Inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians in 2009 for his tennis accomplishments, Peterson’s motivation to give back to Native Americans in this way also stems from what made him fall in love with the game in the first place.

 

“Tennis was one of those sports where you could show up and [size] didn’t matter,” he said. “You could prove yourself each day, and I really gravitated to that. Tennis is a sport where nobody can tell you ‘no,’ really. If you are interested enough and put the time in, you can make it happen yourself. That's what I always loved about tennis.

 

“We all know that the life skills you can learn through sport really help in your life, your school, and that's ultimately what we're looking to do.”

 

Peterson also runs after-school tennis programs in eight community centers in Boise, which is a thriving tennis metropolis. With 140 tennis courts throughout the city’s parks and recreation department that are well-equipped for programming, Peterson says the main challenge with respect to making the same strides among Native populations is the lack of suitable tennis infrastructure available on reservations. That’s where the Serving Love Foundation comes in: Three years ago, Peterson co-founded the non-profit, (which became a USTA Foundation National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapter last year), with Markus Williams, and the organization works to organize pop-up tennis programming for Native youth wherever, and however, it can. 

They’ve held introductory clinics in school gyms and community centers on Cherokee land, and also brought, or will soon bring, tennis to the Navajo, Oneida and Coeur d'Alene people. The next step, Peterson says, is getting leaders to buy in so the sport, and the lessons it teaches, can have staying power.

“There are 574 federally-recognized Native tribes, so the goal would be to put as many programs around the country as possible,” he said. “But, each of those 574 tribes are separate, so it’s not like I can call up one person and get it done. They all have their governments and their whole system, and it's unbelievably challenging.

 

"I’m just looking to get a foothold, get some traction, so we can create that health and wellness opportunity for kids who might be missing the opportunity to use sport to build themselves, to find their way through their lives, and have it be a motivator into the next thing.

 

“I go and figure out what they need, what they have, and what they want. I help provide equipment and curriculum, and find people that want to learn. Ultimately, it’s a tennis thing because I’m a tennis guy, but that’s just the first way. I’m looking to teach the Natives how to teach the kids, not just through tennis, but any number of sports, education, whatever it is they’re not getting.” 

Photo courtesy of Melvin 'Pete' Peterson.

The Serving Love Foundation is the modern iteration of a previous non-profit, Serving Tall Tennis, which was started by USPTA-certified tennis professional Dave Dantzer in 1995. In its first eight years, Standing Tall Tennis introduced more than 3,000 Native youth and adults in New Mexico, Arizona, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington to the sport; the two recently connected and Dantzer shared some of the connections he made in Native communities over his years of service to help Peterson further his goals.

 

Inspired by Dantzer’s work, Peterson says he hopes to take their shared mission forward in a time where there’s a need that’s greater than ever.

Photo courtesy of Melvin 'Pete' Peterson.

“There are 9.6 million Natives in the U.S. as of the last census, and 2.2 million of them are still on reservations,” he said. “If you grow up there, you might not be thinking that the world is your oyster, but if we can really build it, they’ll come.

 

“Making tennis a valid option in Native Country perhaps would be a big goal. I'm a dreamer and a big thinker, and I would love to have someone play in the US Open, or hundreds of kids playing high school tennis, but you've got to create the next options for these kids. It has to start small and build slowly. It takes time and patience.

 

"The long-term goals are just to create an opportunity for impact, and to inspire better individuals that create a better community.”

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