Tennis Industry magazine

 

2008 Tennis Industry Hall of Fame

There are many people whose dedication and passion have helped the sport of tennis thrive throughout the years. And now, as we introduce the new Tennis Industry Hall of Fame, we honor those who have made — and continue to make — tennis better for all of us.

The inaugural class of the Tennis Industry Hall of Fame pays tribute to two pioneers who literally changed this sport for millions of players. While both Howard Head and Dennis Van der Meer will be honored for their contributions to tennis at the TIA Forum on Aug. 25 in New York City, you can see what they have meant to tennis at any time, on any court in the world, wherever recreational and pro players gather to play this wonderful game.

Howard Head

The “patron saint of average athletes” has helped millions enjoy tennis.

It’s hard to imagine what the sport of tennis would be like today if the late Howard Head — a passionate yet mediocre player at best — hadn’t decided, for the second time in his career, that it was the equipment that was holding him back from improving.

By any measure, Head was a true visionary. And remarkably, he revolutionized two industries — skiing, then tennis. In the process, the so-called “patron saint of average athletes” allowed millions of people around the world to pick up and enjoy sports like they were never able to do before.

Howard Head

In 1947, after Head’s first skiing misadventure, the aircraft engineer blamed his wood skis, so he put his efforts — and his winnings from playing poker — into designing a new type of ski that combined metal, plastic and plywood and was more durable, lighter, and easier to turn. His Head Standard ski made it possible for almost anyone to enjoy the sport.

The Head Ski Co. later became Head Sports and diversified into tennis in 1968. Head developed a metal tennis racquet that he introduced at the US Open in 1969. Soon after, he sold his interest in the company to AMF. But tennis remained a passion of his, and after this first “retirement,” Head bought a ball machine to practice with.

“At the time, Prince Manufacturing made only ball machines,” says Dave Haggerty, who started his career at Prince in 1980 and is now president of the Tennis Industry Association and president and CEO of Head USA Inc. “About a week later Howard called the president of Prince and said he’s got problems with the ball machine, that it’s not really well-engineered. Howard told him everything he needs to do to fix the machine. Prince didn’t have that kind of money, so Howard decided to invest in the company.” Head bought a controlling share in Prince and became chairman in 1971.

But still frustrated by his poor play on court, Head turned his attention to the racquet itself. He developed a metal racquet for Prince using an aluminum alloy that allowed for a bigger, lighter and easier-to-use frame. The hitting area was 20 percent larger than conventional racquets at the time, enlarging the sweetspot of the frame. Amateurs and pros took up the racquet, and in less than four years, more than 700,000 players were using it.

Head patented his innovative “Prince Advantage” line of racquets in 1976, covering racquets with a head size of 95 to 135 square inches. Later, he was instrumental in the development of the Prince Graphite frame. “Like many eccentric people, Howard had a vision,” says Haggerty. “He was always brainstorming.” Prince was sold to Chesebrough-Pond’s in 1982, and Head retired for the second time.

“Howard was one of those guys for whom failure was never an option,” says Ray Benton, a close friend. “If he had a loss, it was a great learning experience.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1914, Head graduated from Harvard in 1936 with a degree in engineering. From 1939 to 1947, he worked for the Glenn L. Martin aviation company, until leaving in 1948 to found the Head Ski Co.

“Many people said Howard changed through the years and became much softer and easier to get along with and not quite as frantic,” says Martha “Marty” Head, who married Howard in 1984. “I don’t know if that’s quite true. Even though he was older than me, I could hardly keep up with him. He was a lot of fun.”

Outside of tennis and skiing, Head was particularly drawn to philanthropic endeavors, says Martha. He was instrumental in starting CenterStage, the premier repertory theater in Baltimore. And he created the Howard Head Sports Medicine Centers, now with nine locations operating in conjunction with the Vail Valley (Colo.) Medical Center health care system.

Although Head died in 1991, his influence in the sports he touched remains huge. Both HEAD Penn and Prince Sports have been among the most influential companies in tennis for decades. And while the products he developed have been important in shaping the tennis landscape, through Head’s companies and his vision, he launched and influenced the careers of many of today’s leaders in this industry.

He may have been a mediocre player on the court, but Howard Head’s impact in this industry has been anything but average.

Dennis Van der Meer

The “greatest teacher ever” has transformed how tennis is taught.

When you look at all the people in this business who have had an impact on the recreational game of tennis, one name keeps coming up: Dennis Van der Meer. No one in this sport has had such a direct influence on more recreational players throughout the world.

Let’s start with the obvious: For more than 55 years, Van der Meer has personally taught tens of thousands of people to play this game. But beyond that, he is the consummate “teacher of teachers,” and his influence in tennis extends to millions of recreational players around the world.

Dennis Van der Meer

“There’s no question that Dennis is the greatest tennis teacher ever,” says Dan Santorum, the CEO of the PTR. “I don’t think anybody even comes close to what Dennis has done. I think the thing that always impressed me is how he did it day after day.”

“After 27 years of marriage, I’m still in awe of how much energy and enthusiasm he generates for the game of tennis,” says Pat Van der Meer. “And he gives this energy across the board — he cares equally about the improvement of a beginning player as he does for a world champion.”

Born in 1933, Van der Meer spent his early years living in small villages in what is now Namibia in southern Africa. His father was a missionary, and to keep young Dennis occupied in those remote locations, his mother developed a game that involved a rope strung between two sticks, with lines drawn in the dirt. “I fell in love with this sport,” Van der Meer says. “And when my family moved to South Africa, I became a tournament player.”

At age 19, in a Davis Cup trial, Van der Meer choked on a critical point, and his playing career suddenly stalled. His coach at the time suggested Van der Meer teach tennis, to help him regain his confidence. Six months later, Van der Meer had a renewed confidence, but now his focus was squarely — and permanently — aimed at teaching tennis.

In Johannesburg, he quickly made a name for himself as an engaging and talented teacher. It was there that one of his legendary traits became well-known: Even in clinics with more than 100 people, Van der Meer knew everybody’s name. The San Francisco Examiner picked up on this and wrote a story, then invited the young teaching pro to participate in a large clinic in Northern California. Van der Meer quickly developed a large following in the U.S., and eventually started coaching pro players, including Margaret Court and Billie Jean King. In fact, Van der Meer was King’s coach during the “Battle of the Sexes” match with Bobby Riggs in 1973.

Soon, Van der Meer and King launched a series of tennis camps in Lake Tahoe, Nev., and advertised for teaching pros. When it became apparent that the different teaching methods each pro brought were confusing to students, they set out to standardize a teaching method.

“Our pupils became overwhelmed and discouraged by too many choices,” Van der Meer says. “A systematic approach was needed to make learning tennis simple, especially for the novice, and teachers needed guidelines to ensure professionalism.” This led to the birth of TennisUniversity, aimed at developing top teaching pros.

In 1976, Van der Meer founded the U.S. Professional Tennis Registry to certify teaching pros and teach the Standard Method. Now, the PTR, based in Hilton Head, S.C., has nearly 13,000 members in 126 countries and is a driving force behind growing the game.

“Dennis Van der Meer … has influenced the entire tennis teaching world with his innovative techniques,” says King.

All along his path, Van der Meer has won praise and honors. In 1972, the U.S. State Department cited him for exceptional coaching performance in the Middle East. He was presented with the Healthy American Fitness Award in 1989, was named Developmental Coach of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1997, and in 2004, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Greenwich, England, for his contributions to Sport Sciences in tennis education.

He’s received the Tennis Educational Merit Award from the International Tennis Hall of Fame and is in the Tennis Halls of Fame for USTA South Carolina, the USTA Southern Section, and USTA Northern California. And while he has yet to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, he was a nominee for induction in 2007.

“Dennis has so enhanced our profession,” says Santorum. “He’s raised the level of tennis teachers, and in doing so, he’s brought the game to millions around the world.

 

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