Pioneers in Tennis: Eve F. Kraft
A community tennis visionary.
Tennis in the Parks. Community Tennis Associations. The QST format being taught to underprivileged youngsters in after-school programs. Everywhere you look, outreach for the sport is being done close to the ground, close to home, with the thought that tomorrow’s champions are learning the basic strokes today at rec centers and on public school courts.
Flash back to the 1950s, when a very different philosophy prevailed. Tennis was played in private clubs and on college campuses, and champions were expected to rise from those places. And so it might have continued, had it not been for Eve Kraft, the woman who served as visionary (and just as often, as stubborn adversary), and who by force of sheer will succeeded in getting tennis industry leaders to look to communities as the next big thing.
Not that community tennis was all that popular a concept at the time Kraft was trying to introduce it.
“It wasn’t,” says Henry Talbert, now the executive director of the USTA Southern California Section. “It just wasn’t. But it was my good fortune to be hired by Eve and her colleague at the time, John Conroy, who was the tennis and squash coach at Princeton in 1974. Back then, they were two lonely voices suggesting to what was then the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association that group instruction on parks and playgrounds were the wave of the future because there were so many more people who fit that model than there would be of people who would become champions.”
Even with Kraft’s professional background (she and Conroy had been instrumental in founding the Princeton Tennis Program in 1954; and in 1971, when Princeton University first admitted women, Kraft became the women’s varsity tennis coach), doubts lingered within the industry about the concept of teaching tennis to the masses.
“One of the things that was just beginning to happen in the 1960s and 70s was that tennis was starting to come out of the country clubs and more into the parks, thanks to group instruction,” says Anne Humes, administrative director in the USTA’s Office of the President and a friend of Kraft’s. “Eve saw that, and what she was trying to do was emulate the Princeton tennis program all around the country — she wanted to try to help other communities establish these little service organizations for tennis with the idea that you could get quality group tennis instruction and learn the game at affordable prices.”
Over time, the volunteer group Kraft and Conroy began gained momentum. Community tennis organizations grew. Ultimately, Kraft’s office began creating and supplying teaching resources, instructor guides and more — and became the USTA’s Center for Research and Education.
Kraft’s role and influence in the USTA grew as well. She was the co-founder and director of the USTA Tennis Teachers’ Conference and helped establish the USTA Foundation. She was inducted into the USTA Middle States Tennis Hall of Fame in 1994 and into the International Tennis Association’s Women’s Collegiate Hall of Fame in 1996.
According to Humes, many of today’s popular outreach programs were championed by Kraft. She was a proponent of wheelchair tennis, programs for juniors, and even Short Court Tennis, the forerunner of QuickStart.
In the face of doubts and opposition from industry leaders, Kraft’s stubbornness and perseverance ultimately won out, and not just in terms of the game. She was a feminist before feminism as a concept became an actual issue, according to her son, Robert Kraft, and was also a tireless defender of civil rights.
“She was ahead of her time in so many ways, but especially in race relations. My mother had the benefit of being colorblind as a person, but she also felt very strongly about equal rights for all. In the 1940s as an undergrad at Antioch, she would sit in movie theaters beside African-Americans who otherwise would have had to sit up in the balconies. And you saw that on the tennis courts, too. At her funeral, a woman spoke about seeing my mother at the public courts in St. Louis. I think the words she used were, ‘This one little old white lady playing tennis in the middle of the community tennis courts.’”
Kraft died in 1999, but her presence on community tennis courts is still very much felt today. The home of the Princeton Tennis Program is known as the Eve Kraft Community Tennis Center. Each year, the USTA honors outstanding stewardship in community tennis with the Eve Kraft Community Service Award.
“I think the enduring legacy that Eve Kraft brought to the USTA was a whole new way of thinking about tennis,” says Talbert. “She thought that good players, if there was a huge enough pool of them at the bottom, would bubble to the surface. Eve was, I think, the visionary that brought that all together for all of us.”
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.