In 1997, there were 140 million women in America. But out of that enormous number, the United States Tennis Association had to pick one who had done the most to further the sportsmanship, fellowship and service of tennis that year. Its choice: Winston-Salem’s very own Mildred Southern.
In accepting that USTA Service Bowl Award, the highest honor bestowed by tennis’s governing body, Southern saw her name added to a list that includes Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Zina Garrison, Maureen Connolly, Pam Shriver and Mary Jo Fernandez.
But unlike those iconic players, Southern didn’t first pick up a tennis racket until she was 18, never took lessons, and never played in a tournament until she was in her 40s. Her childhood, rather, had been spent learning about hard work in the strawberry and tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina. But once she began playing competitive tennis, she made up for lost time in a hurry. Over the next five decades, she won 60 state senior titles, 42 southern senior titles and 16 national senior titles. She won state championships for 20 consecutive years and southern championships for 16 consecutive years. She also captured 16 national titles, the first of which – the National Women’s 75 Grass Court Championship – came in 1996.
Her success on the court was based less on natural athleticism and more on hard work, consistency, smart tactics, and her lifelong commitment to staying in shape. Still, Southern’s victories paled in comparison to the difference she made in expanding and promoting tennis all around the nation. For more than 40 years, she dedicated her life to bringing the joy of tennis to as many people as possible, and no championship gave her the satisfaction that she got from teaching another child to play. In her own words, “The greatest thrill of all is to see that expression on a child’s face when he hits the ball over the net for the first time.”
It was that joy and passion that motivated Southern to create the Young Folks Tennis program in Winston-Salem in the 1960s. Now bringing a love of tennis to its third generation of children, this program has been copied all over the United States. It was designed to take tennis out of the country clubs and spread it into every segment of the community, and at no cost to the children. At its peak, Young Folks Tennis was creating more than a thousand new tennis players a year in Winston-Salem.
The city’s emergence as a tennis Mecca began in 1961 when her husband, Harold, and his friends brought the Southern Championships there. Shortly thereafter, Mildred herself became the leader of Winston-Salem tennis, and as a result of the culture of tennis volunteerism that she gave birth to, Winston-Salem has, for decades, hosted North Carolina’s premier junior tournament, the Tar Heel Qualifier, along with the National Boys’ 12’s Clay Court Championships. For the past three years, the Winston-Salem Open, a professional event, has been played on the Wake Forest campus. And, since 2001, the city has hosted three Davis Cup ties.
Southern served as a tennis association president on the local level, the state level, and the regional level, and most believe could have taken a turn as president of the USTA had she wanted the post. She was instrumental in creating both the N.C. Tennis Hall of Fame and the N.C. Tennis Foundation.
But her greatest legacy as a tennis visionary may have been her creation of the “Tennis Weekend” concept. In the early 1970s, she was given the task of arranging the annual meeting of the N.C. Tennis Association. Previously, these meetings had lasted two or three hours on a Sunday afternoon and had drawn a group of maybe 50 people. But she organized a full weekend of instructional seminars, tournaments, a banquet, and award presentations, in addition to the routine committee meetings that had previously been entire agenda. Southern’s vision of what a “Tennis Weekend” could be now draws hundreds each year, primarily has been responsible for the explosion of tennis into every corner of the state, and has been copied nationwide.
Southern won nearly everything in tennis that could be won, and she did nearly everything that could be done. But it was her ability to see what a child, an organization, or an event could be, coupled with an ability to turn that vision into reality, that made her such a gift to North Carolina and beyond.
Davidson tennis great won Southern Conference singles and doubles in 1950 and at one time state’s leading player. Later won many age group state titles. Junior Davis Cupper 1948. In both Davidson and N.C. Tennis HOF. [more…]
UNC tennis coach (1980-93). As a player he won seven state Singles championships. Member of NC Tennis, Southern Tennis, Intercollegiate Tennis HOFs. Senior National clay court Champion (1977 & 1978). On US Davis Cup Team and Wimbledon semi-finalist (1956). [more…]