In their own words: Mary Thompson on tennis in the public parks

Compiled by Peter Francesconi | July 27, 2022

July is National Park and Recreation Month, and we’ve just completed the National Public Parks Tennis Championships (NPPTC), which took place in Bucks County, Pa., and was hosted by the Bucks County Tennis Association. It was the first time since 1926 that the event returned to the Philadelphia area. (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 National Park and Recreation Month and the NPPTC, we’ve asked volunteer leaders who have been instrumental with public parks tennis and 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 next: Mary Thompson.

I began playing tennis in 1980 as a means to give our twins a “mom-break.” The 2-year-olds would socialize in the nursery while I learned a new sport. When our local community tennis association in Sioux Falls, S.D., hosted an exhibition fundraiser that included Betty Stove and Wendy Turnbull in 1981, I committed to my first act of tennis volunteerism by offering to bring cookies for the event. The kids went to school and I went to the tennis courts!


In 1986, I was certified as a tennis professional with the USPTA as a prerequisite to becoming the director of tennis at Woodlake Athletic Club in Sioux Falls. In 1999, I was certified with the PTR. I’ve been a men’s and women’s tennis coach at Augustana University, the executive director of the Sioux Falls Tennis Association for 12 years, a member of the USTA Northern Community Development Committee, and director of tennis at the Country Club of Sioux Falls. 


What started as a way to have a little time away from the kids really took over my life—in such wonderful ways. As a volunteer, in addition to serving Sioux Falls, I’ve been on the board of directors for the National Public Parks Tennis Association (NPPTA) since 1995. I was a USTA Northern board member for eight years (including two years as section president), was on the USTA’s Community Tennis Committee, and was the section’s delegate to USTA National for two years.

Tennis is a family affair for Mary Thompson, on-court here with her grandson.

I retired from the Country Club of Sioux Falls in 2014 and continue to help the development of a 5-year-old community tennis center, Huether Family Match Pointe. I volunteer there with leagues, tournaments and special events, and I continue to serve on the USTA Northern Hall of Fame Committee and the South Dakota Tennis Hall of Fame Committee.


Having begun as someone who offered to bring cookies to an event, then to having served as ED of our local CTA and as president of our section, I’ve witnessed and worked closely with the great body of volunteers who are the core of the sport. We could not possibly operate the many aspects of tennis without such passionate tennis volunteers, who offer priceless expertise, relationships and experience at every level.

My history with the National Public Parks Tennis Championships goes back to 1994, when Marcia Bach—a tremendous advocate for parks tennis at every level—approached the Sioux Falls Tennis Association to consider hosting the NPPTC. We put in our bid and hosted the NPPTC in 1995, and I served as tournament director. It was a privilege to be part of the community that came together and offered a tremendous experience for players from coast to coast. Since that time, I have held a seat on the Board of Directors for the NPPTC and have attended many of the tournaments, offering help to each host city and playing in their events. 


When Dwight Davis inaugurated the first national amateur tennis championship in 1923, I’m sure he had a vision of this tournament becoming a gem for the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association—later the USTA. Davis was the parks commissioner for St. Louis at the time, and he knew how important public parks are to healthy and happy residents. The tournament is so important and unique: a place where “my” tennis peers, of all ages and abilities, can compete at a national level! 


In recent years, I think we as an industry have lost sight of the importance of the NPPTC. Attention is slowly beginning to come back, but we need more help, support and exposure—not just for the NPPTC itself, but for public parks tennis overall and the NPPTA. This is where the USTA, and other industry groups such as the Tennis Industry Association, Tennis Industry United, the PTR and USPTA, should be getting more involved and helping out.


It’s been well-publicized that 70 percent of all tennis in the U.S. is played on public courts at parks and schools. If tennis had to rely on sustainability and growth with mainly member-based clubs or through professional players, it would surely be just a minor sport. Neighborhoods—and public parks—are ideal arenas for tennis. It is for families and friends, it is fun, and it can be forever!

[Editor’s note: Mary Thompson, who currently lives in Brandon, S.D., was the 1999 Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, the 2002 PTR South Dakota Member of the Year, and a member of the 2002 USTA All-American Team (one of 27 nationwide). She also received the 2002 Wolfenson/Ratner USTA Northern Section Community Service Award and is a 2003 inductee into the South Dakota Tennis Hall of Fame and a 2011 inductee into the USTA Northern Tennis Hall of Fame.]

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