In their own words: Ken McAllister on tennis in the public parks
The National Public Parks Tennis Championships (NPPTC) will be the weekend of July 22-24, hosted by the Bucks County (Pa.) Tennis Association and supported by the Bucks County Tourism Grant Program. The event returns to the Philadelphia area for the first time since 1926. (For more on the NPPTC, visit its website.)
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the NPPTC, which was started in 1923 in St. Louis by tennis legend Dwight Davis (founder of the Davis Cup international team competition), who was the city’s parks commissioner. The 2023 tournament will return to its birthplace, St. Louis.
In honor of the NPPTC, we’ve asked volunteer leaders who have been instrumental with the tournament over the years to share their thoughts on the importance tennis in the public parks has played throughout the history of this sport in the United States. Up first: Ken McAllister.
I learned tennis on a single court at my junior high in Alpine, Texas, in 1956. My dad, a football coach, was my teacher because he believed I should learn to play a lifetime sport. Neither of us would have believed, especially by the results that summer, that I would have spent my life teaching, playing and making a living at tennis.
I played football, basketball, golf and tennis through high school. Although tennis was mostly a spring afterthought, for some reason I joined the USLTA (United States Lawn Tennis Association, now the USTA) in 1958, the first year that individual membership was offered. However, I did not play a USLTA sanctioned tournament until 1965, after playing four years of college tennis.
While I was playing and learning my tennis in public schools, two other players my age were doing the same thing through public parks. On the East Coast, there was Arthur Ashe and on the West Coast, Billie Jean Moffitt (King). The fact that they and many other champions were products of public tennis began to cause many in the USLTA to reconsider their structure, which since its beginning in 1881 was primarily based on private clubs.
Clearly many in the USLTA had already been thinking about this when a national public parks committee and tournament was inaugurated in 1923, with the initial tournament on public park courts in St. Louis. The tournament was the brainchild of Dwight Davis (the founder of Davis Cup), who was the St. Louis parks commissioner at the time and also president of the USLTA. Now, we’re approaching the 100-year celebration of the tournament, which will be back in St. Louis in 2023.
At some point along the way, the National Public Parks Committee became the National Public Parks Tennis Association, which was formed separate from the USTA. With financial help from the USTA and donations and entry fees, the NPPTA continued running the annual National Public Parks Tennis Championships. A Board of Officers coordinated bids from cities all over the U.S. to determine the annual host. It has expanded its events from men’s and women’s singles and doubles to currently offering every USTA event, including wheelchair.
Because we know that more than 70% of all tennis played in the U.S. is in public facilities, it has definitely reflected American tennis at its most grassroots level. With leaders such as Hollis and Jean Smith of Los Angeles, Black and other minority players became a large part of this very diverse player base of public parks play. The inaugural NPPTA Lifetime Achievement Award given annually at the USTA Semi-Annual Meeting was first presented to Jean and Hollis Smith, and the award was then named after them.
Throughout my career in this industry, as a high school coach, a teaching pro for 17 years and the Executive Director of USTA Texas for 24 years, I’ve always valued the importance of public park tennis to the growth of this sport, and to the enjoyment it provides to the millions of players in the U.S. The NPPTA, and the annual National Public Parks Tennis Championships, deserves support from all areas of this industry. Tennis in the public parks is the most important area for the growth of this sport, yet it’s a segment of this industry that for many years has been underutilized.
[Editor’s note: Ken McAllister, of Bastrop, Texas, was inducted into the Texas Tennis Coaches Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013, and also is in the Snyder (Texas) Hall of Fame (as a former high school coach) and Southwestern University Hall of Fame (as a former player). McAllister joined the NPPTA Board in 2000 and served as President from 2005 to 2014. In 2014, he received the Jean and Hollis Smith Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2020, the USPTA’s highest honor, the George Bacso Lifetime Achievement Award.]