A Vintage Tennis Museum Discovered
Mel Locklear is like some people who love to create and then not really worry much if no one knows about it.
For some, that might be paintings, a half-written novel or songs. For Locklear, it’s the Vintage Tennis Museum.
While he is more than happy to share his bounty of more than 1,000 wooden tennis racquets, 500 wooden racquet presses (remember those?) and dozens of photos, ball cans and other memorabilia, he doesn’t sell tickets nor mount any major communications/marketing campaign.
Go to the lower Appalachian mountains in northern Georgia and you’ll find a lovely, quaint tourist and resort town named Blue Ridge. It’s the seat of Fannin County with a population of just 1,290.
Downtown in Blue Ridge is crowded with shoppers strolling among an assortment of restaurants and stores on Main Street. Perched above the picturesque street is 511 Main St., the home of the Mountain Tennis Association (MTA). That’s where Locklear lends space in his building to the local tennis community and houses hundreds of pieces of tennis history.
The loquacious former financial advisor stuffs his explanation of establishing the museum with fast-paced words, much like he’s stuffed some much tennis history into one modest-sized room.
“I don’t know if I’m a collector or a hoarder,” he joked. “I would pass antique stores and, if I saw some used racquets, I’d buy every one.” He hit the tennis motherlode when he purchased about 900 wood racquets off a collector on Ebay.
Locklear planned out his space as a walking tour, going from the 1920s to the 1980s, finding a wall for each decade. Surrounding the racquets are photos and other items that tell the story of the period. “After I found a lot of photos, that’s where I got the idea to organize it by history.”
Who and what are pictured? Everyone from Susanne Lenglen, Bill Tilden, Bitsy Grant, the great Australian players, the beginning of the ATP and WTA through the great 1980s rivalries of Martina vs Chris, Johnny Mac vs. Bjorn vs. Jimbo Connors.
Here’s how he describes the collection: “Displayed next to the corresponding player‘s racket, view this well researched collection of original press photos of great players, coaches and promoters from the past.”
He didn’t start his collection to make money. “My focus and hasn’t been on the quality (of the racquets) but in the quantity. I don’t have any $1,500 or $3,000 items with special significance or autographs.”
He admits that he hasn’t promoted the museum, and no one pays admission. “If someone wants to see it, they just need to give me a call.” The collection is featured on just one page on the MTA website, where you’ll find contact info.
But, Locklear’s real driving force in Blue Ridge is expanding tennis. His weekly schedule includes coaching youth four days a week at the Blue Ridge City Park. Every Tuesday night he has between 30 to 40 adults getting some of their first lessons at nearby Young Harris College. He also serves as tournament director of the Georgia Mountain Tennis Championships. He and the MTA are working on getting clay courts built in the park.
“One of my plans is to install a collection box in the musem. To pay for balls when I coach kids.”
He cut short his interview with this reporter as he hopped out of his chair. “I gotta run. Got some kids to coach.”