WHM: USTA League Pilot Started in 1978

Pat Devoto / Special to USTA Southern | March 01, 2022

The year was 1978. The United States had new tennis heroes. Jimmy Conners had won the US Open in 1974 and 1978. Chris Evert was the No. 1 singles player in the world from 1974-1978. New metal racquets had been introduced to the recreational player. American tennis was on a roll but with few opportunities for recreational players to take part in USTA events except sanctioned tournaments and these required giving up a weekend to travel to designated sites.


All that changed when USTA Southern introduced, in 1978, the USTA/Penn League Evaluation Project – a pilot program to study the feasibility of a national league program for recreational players. Instead of playing individually like they did in tournaments, these players were organized into teams and competed as a team.


Participants were divided into levels one, two, three, four and five. There was no NTRP back then. We developed our own level placement questionnaire for this project. Participating players were given a form to fill out describing their level of play, to the best of their ability, and asked to be as objective as possible. Then, you and your team were put into one of the levels. 

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Pat Devoto promotes USTA League tennis in its early days.

Five cities/towns were selected to participate – men and women - in a playoff to determine a champion – and for us to see if they were generally in the right levels of play. The cities were: Anderson S.C., Birmingham Ala., Macon Ga., Rome Ga. and Lynchburg Va. (Even though Lynchburg was out of the Section, there was a young pro, John Embree, who wanted to bring a team and did.)


And, lucky me, I was asked by Bill Fish, a fellow volunteer, to develop and run the program. My hope was that the players would voluntarily put themselves in competitive levels – my nightmare was that they might be out of level and get so carried away with winning that fights might break out on the courts. As it turned out, players went away having loved the idea and the competition, meeting new players and socializing.


In retrospect, the most difficult level to judge had been the beginner, or novice, level because new players were so eager to win and represent their community with honor that after they won locally, they practiced constantly. And so, some who came to the championship as beginners were so enthusiastic that they were already in the wrong level. But then so were most of their opponents in the beginner level.


I remember that at one point we had a big banquet for all the players. Everyone was carried away by the tennis and the comradery and so different tables of players began to sing their state’s college fight songs –Alabama Crimson Tide, then another table struck up “I’m A Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech.” Then it went around the banquet hall of several hundred people singing various college fight songs and everyone laughing and loving it when a new song began.


It was the start of what would grow into the largest tennis recreational league program in the history of USTA and the world. Last year, 87,638 USTA Southern members played USTA Leagues, which is more than 77 percent of the total USTA/Southern adult membership.


What an adventure!


After the championships were over and evaluated, and most seemed to be in competitive levels, it was determined in the USTA Southern that we should continue with the program and assume it would go national relatively quickly – we hoped.


Soon enough the word got around the Southern Section and I began to be inundated with team applications from various communities. At this point we didn’t even have a form for teams to fill out. All players had to be members of the USTA, so we altered a USTA form that was meant for tournaments and I began to spend hours going through application forms and checking USTA memberships, rushing to get them up to USTA headquarters in New York to be processed and then grabbing another bag full of mail and doing the same thing. We had begun with about 1,000 players in the pilot program and after that it quickly evolved onto 2,000 players, then 5,000 then 10,000, etc. - ever growing.


There was so much interest that at one point I needed to write a booklet to send to local associations with instructions about how to start a local league competition.


That summer, as our next step, we became the Wilson/STA League Championships and then by 1980 we went national with the USTA/Michelob Light National Championships. Sponsors were easy to come by as it was the perfect program to be identified with. At last, a place for recreational players to have fun and improve and become an integral part of the sport.


At the very beginning, when we had finished the first USTA/ Penn League Evaluation project, I gave out a questionnaire to all of the players asking them to answer 10 questions. The most telling answer came from question number one.


Question #1

Prior to participating in this pilot program, have you ever been involved in a USTA sponsored tennis program?

(a) Yes (01%)

(b) No (99%)


We’ve come a long way, baby.


To this day I have continued to be involved with USTA/Southern.  After our evaluation project, I later served as president of our USTA Atlanta league and have at various times set up programs for schools, even going so far as to start tennis in a women’s prison.  I’m a writer by profession and took time out to pen a novel – The Team – that is a tongue-in-cheek story about the lengths women will go to to win a tennis match. What a great sport and what delightful people I’ve met along the way.

If I had one suggestion for the future growth of tennis, it would be this: We need to have another pilot program to study the feasibility of starting a tennis program for beginners and seniors – much like the fast-growing sport of pickleball, but using tennis equipment and rules more accommodating to seniors players and to youngsters just beginning the game.


Pat Devoto is an Atlanta-based novelist and former teacher who has volunteered at various levels of the USTA for decades. She is the recipient of the Jacobs Bowl and the Charles B. Morris, Jr. Service Award, two of the highest honors awarded by USTA Southern.

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