A look back with Judy Levering, the first woman president of the USTA
Two decades on, Julia A. "Judy" Levering can still remember every detail of the moment she learned she was primed for a history-making appointment as the first woman president of the USTA.
“I can remember, like it was yesterday,” Levering recently recalled to USTA.com, “when I got the phone call that said I was to take the role of the first vice president of the USTA board [in 1997 and 1998], which, of course, meant that you go on to be president. It really surprised me and flattered me, but I was totally surprised by the interest that the media placed on it.
“I thought, ‘Why would it be such a big deal?’ for a woman to be president, because we all know how capable we are.”
Levering’s tenure at the top of USTA administration at the turn of the century was the culmination of 15 prior years of service to tennis in a variety of roles, including as a local volunteer in Lancaster County, Pa. and in leadership in the Middle States section, leading to a term on the USTA Board of Directors beginning in 1994. She held the top spot at the USTA in 1999 and 2000, and wanted to carve out a uniquely player-first focus during her time as president.
“I wanted to make sure that the players knew the USTA,” she said. “I made it a point to meet with them, to talk to them, and that was important. This all seems so normal now… but it wasn’t always. The first time I went to a Davis Cup was in Moscow [in 1995], the year Pete Sampras played singles and doubles, had to be carried off and we won it — and as we were in the van on the way to the airport, I overheard some less-than-complimentary things about the USTA from some of the players. I was naive, but I was really thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ It really bothered me, because if it weren’t for players, what would we truly have? We weren’t very big on honoring them prior to this point. The banners you see around the grounds at the US Open, the Court of Champions and all of those things that you see now… all of that was to recognize how important these champions were and are.”
Most notably, as first vice president, Levering championed the naming what was then the new Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows in honor of the three-time Grand Slam winner and transcendent American icon.
“We were just finishing up building this beautiful stadium, and the decision was now upon us as to what to call it,” Levering recalled. “We had three options. Some people thought we could take a lot of money and name it after a sponsor. Some people thought we should call it the ‘USTA Stadium,’ you know, we’ve done the work, we’ve built the biggest stage in tennis, and people thought the USTA’s name should be on it. But I thought we really should name it after a player, and people asked, ‘Well, who are we going to name it after? We’ve had a lot of champion players from the past and in the present, so how are we going to choose?’ For me, there was one person to choose and that was Arthur Ashe. He certainly was a champion tennis player… but also, as a human being, he represented the sport, the USTA, in the way that I thought it should be represented.
“We were out in California for the board meeting where we were going to decide. We arrived Friday but we still hadn’t made a decision as of Friday night… and I remember waking up in the middle of the night, trying to figure out how we were going to get the idea of naming it after Arthur over the line. I sat up in my room writing up what I eventually read to the board in the meeting. I chuckled a little bit because it really was on these scraps of paper — but it was a great board, and they decided that’s what it should be. We have Arthur Ashe Stadium and, of course, now we have the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which is great also.”
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In addition to honoring the legends of the past, Levering was also committed to supporting the tennis players of the future and making the sport more accessible. She was instrumental in the creation of the USTA Foundation, called USTA Serves at the time of its launch, the national charitable arm of the USTA, and has continued to be involved since her presidency.
She has served on the Foundation’s board since 2001, and helped create the relationship between the USTA and the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network founded by Ashe, Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder. Levering is also the namesake for the Foundation’s Judy Levering Leadership Initiative, a financial assistance program that helps new and fledging NJTL chapters in establishing themselves in the communities they seek to serve.
“I feel strongly that the selling point for introducing tennis to those who’ve never played, and specifically starting with NJTLs, it is that all of these kids are born with God-given talents. Some have more than others, some have different ones than others, but if they don't have a chance to develop them, then that’s unfortunate. You can't be born with something and never have an opportunity to learn how to use it,” Levering said.
“When I look back on when I was in Lancaster… it was almost as if kids didn't belong to a tennis family or have access to lessons, they just never were able to experience the sport. I had that in my background, and… when I came to the board, we started talking about how every other major sport has some sort of philanthropic body that reaches under-resourced communities. I floated it at a board meeting, assigned a committee, and everyone who worked on it just wanted it so badly when they realized what it could do and how we could be giving back to the sport by this.
"There are enough kids who can learn what an individual sport has to teach... the lessons you learn, like shaking hands when you don't feel like smiling. Combining sports like tennis and education give these kids the materials for a productive life, and that's what NJTLs are emphasizing."
Humble in her speech and quick to credit others for her place in tennis history, Levering nonetheless easily recalls the unique pressures that came with the position she held, and how she managed to navigate through them.
“I said it during my term that I honestly think being a woman helped me. At the ITF, I was often the only woman [in board meetings] there also. There was a certain curiosity. They were always respectful to me and I really never felt any hostility,” Levering said. “There might’ve been a few heads of a couple of federations who might’ve felt that it was not the place for a woman to be sitting on the board, and I could feel that, but they never did anything more than, let’s say, not going out of their way to say ‘Hello,’ or something like that.
“Harry Marmion, who was the USTA president before me… he took a real interest in me. It was important to him that the rest of the countries, when we were at meetings, saw that there was a woman coming along and he did everything he could to make sure that I was in on everything. One of the things that really surprised me was that all these different tennis groups never really talked much to each other. They were always, kind of, in competition with each other. The sport needed to grow… so it didn't make sense to me that we couldn't gather all of these entities together. This was a project I started on even when I was first vice president. Today, particularly today, this is a big, big focus.
“Were we successful? We could’ve been more successful, but I believe firmly that whenever you try to do something, you may not get it all done. But just starting the ball rolling can be very important. If it never gets started that way, nothing will happen.”
Two decades after making history, Levering says that her greatest legacy is not what she herself was a part of, but instead, what has succeeded her.
“The biggest pressure I had was,” and she pauses here before continuing, “well, darn, I’ll tell you that I just wanted to do well. I didn’t want to be the first and only female president. I’m really proud of the fact that Jane [Brown Grimes], Lucy [Garvin] and Katrina [Adams] came after me. That makes me feel better than anything. Somebody has to lay the foundation, and all you want to see is that the people who are younger than you, who come after you, do bigger and better things.”
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