Joan Donner serves tennis for decades in Milwaukee

Victoria Chiesa | February 19, 2021

For nearly five decades, the name Joan Donner has been synonymous with tennis in Milwaukee… so much so, that you’d never guess that she didn’t pick up a racquet until her mid-20s. 


The current president of the Wisconsin Tennis Association, Donner, now 74, took up the game at the Badger Racquet Tennis Club, founded as the Milwaukee chapter of the American Tennis Association (ATA) in 1973, when she first settled in the state from Georgia. 


In the years since, she has had her hands in all aspects of tennis in Milwaukee, from organizing school and community programs, USTA Leagues, Junior Team Tennis and NJTL Regional Rallies at the club, to running the club’s Badger Youth Development Program for the past 20 years. 


The program began with 23 participants in the early 1990s, and counts nearly 700 participants among its alumni to date. A basketball player and track athlete in her youth, Donner says that the program’s main goal is to offer growth opportunities to youth in the community through a sport that they might not otherwise have been exposed to. It was born out of the desire to create lifelong tennis players amongst minority youth in Milwaukee, with the club having seen high rates of player turnover in its early days at the local Sherman Park courts.

Alumni from the program’s inaugural class include Lia Jackson, a three-time WIAA Division 1 state champion for Nicolet High School, and Brandon Currie, a two-time Division 2 state champion at Brown Deer High School who went on to a prolific playing career at Butler University and collegiate coaching career. 


Both athletes were the first Black players in the state to win these respective titles. 


“This program has been so much for a lot of minority kids. We have had so many kids go through this program and there have been so many kids who’ve been able to play high school tennis, get college scholarships,” she said. 


“It just offers more exposure to tennis for those players who might not be exposed to the game or have interest without the visibility that we have within the recreation and park system to make sure that kids have an opportunity to play.


“We also want them to take away camaraderie, team spirit, organization and consistency. It’s more than just hitting the ball. We want them to learn how to interact with people. We just thought that if we could prepare kids to play tennis on high school teams or things like that, that provides opportunity for them. We’ve had so many kids come back to volunteer to be instructors, as well, and that connection is just awesome.


“Badger’s ultimate goal is to instill a mindset in the community that tennis is more than just fun and game. It is an opportunity for learning a sport, but also a means to network, learn how to be a team player, follow instructions and build confidence in oneself.”


Outside of her work with the youth development program, Donner has had a 15-year tenure on the board of the WTA, which has guided tennis activities in the state for more than 80 years. In all, the WTA services more than 200 organizations and more than 11,000 individual members.


“Serving on the board has offered so many opportunities for me to showcase my passion for tennis by servicing and supporting the game,” Donner said.


However, she says she hopes to see more strides made in the future. 


“Even though we’ve made a lot of progress in diversity and inclusion through the whole Midwest, we have a long way to go,” she added. “I’m very happy to see that the Midwest section has a renewed interest in diversity and inclusion and that we’re taking proactive steps to make sure that we do create that inclusive environment.”


Though she will be stepping down as WTA president in November after having completed a five-year tenure as dictated by the organization’s bylaws, Donner will continue to serve as the WTA’s foundation president, the arm of the organization that provides grants and scholarships for young players who cannot afford tournament entry fees and other related expenses. 


In all, she says she has no intentions of slowing down — and there’s no doubt that the sport in the Midwest will be better for it. 


“At age 74 now,” she said, “I often ask myself what would I do if I didn't have tennis.”

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