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Tennis anyone? Mississippi business folks hitting courts

When his three children were growing up, GodwinGroup CEO Danny Mitchell coached recreational soccer, baseball, basketball and softball, winning several championships while remaining actively involved in their young lives.

But when they moved on to the college ranks, Mitchell found himself with an “empty nest” syndrome and had to find some activity to fill the void. That’s when he discovered U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) tennis and landed on a doubles team in Jackson.

“This filled the void quickly and I’ve been an avid player ever since, playing on at least two teams every season,” said Mitchell. “I was competitive as a coach, but found that I’m even more competitive as a tennis player. The big plus in all of this: the many friends I’ve gained over the years and the camaraderie.”

Gretchen Ware, a commercial real estate lender at Jackson-based Trustmark National Bank, played tennis in high school, and then didn’t pick up a racquet again for 15 years until Monica Day, commercial real estate lending division manager at Trustmark, encouraged her to play socially. Now a 10-year veteran of league play, she’s advanced from 3.0 (mid-level) to 4.5 (advanced-level) USTA league play. “Not only have I met so many people and had such fun, tennis has been a great networking tool,” she said.

Going strong

Mitchell and Ware represent a growing movement of business folks heading to tennis courts. In the past six years, tennis is the only traditional sport that has grown in participation. Last year, overall participation reached its highest level since 2000, and increased significantly from 2004 to 2005.

In 2005, Mississippi had 17,275 league players, a 9% increase over 2000, with 15,908 players, according to the Mississippi Tennis Association (MTA). In USTA’s Southern Section consisting of nine neighboring states, participation for the five-year period grew 35%, from 159,772 to 216,190.

Even though Mississippi’s population is much sparser than other states, Jackson is ranked third in the Southern Section for USTA membership density per 100,000, following only Atlanta and Columbia, S.C.

Other Mississippi cities with top USTA membership density are Silver Creek, the leading city in small populations under 25,000, and Greenville, the number two city in medium density cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000. Greenville is outranked only by the resort area Hilton Head Island, S.C.

“In 2006, adult and senior leagues were down slightly due to the loss of players in our second largest league area, the Gulf Coast,” said MTA spokesperson Jenny Markow. “At the beginning of the year, the Coast had lost about 400 players. However, the number of players participating in USTA mixed doubles this summer shows they have rebounded and are only down about 40 to 50 players.”

Tennis superstar Tracy Austin, who is best remembered as the youngest-ever U.S. Open singles champion, defeating Chris Everett in the 1979 finals at age 16, and defeating Martina Navratilova for the title in 1981, made appearances this spring at the Gulf Coast Tennis Club and Parham Bridges Tennis Center to promote the cardio health benefits of tennis. “Mississippi was lucky to be chosen as one of her stops,” said Markow.

In response to Hurricane Katrina, MTA allocated $50,000 for rebuilding grants, and the USTA plans to provide additional funds. MTA also awarded $20,000 to public facilities across the state through the Adopt-a-Court Program.

Corporate support

Jackson-based Trustmark National Bank financially supports Mississippi tennis because the bank “believes in supporting many venues in our communities,” said Gray Wiggers, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Trustmark, once a 3.5 league player. “We value our relationship with the USTA team and senior tennis programs in Mississippi. We’re proud to support their efforts and our associates’ involvement in this important sports program.

Additionally, by participating directly in the USTA programs, our associates are provided a healthy way of enhancing their quality of life across our marketplaces. This participation also brings many people together to form bonds of friendship.”

Increased tennis participation has also boosted retail sales. In the last two years, premium racquet shipments have increased 49%, and the total units shipped have increased 28%, according to the USTA.

‘Very, very busy’

Terry Overcash, who contracted with the City of Jackson to manage the OverKil Tennis Shop at Parham Bridges Park, said sales have increased annually for the last eight years. “It’s tough to judge whether that’s attributed to increased activity on the tennis courts, or because we co-host state championships and see a lot of competitive play,” he said. “Either way, we stay very, very busy.”

During USTA state championship finals in early June, female tennis players were bumping elbows rifling through the 40% off racks and checking out new merchandise in OverKil, the state’s leading pro shop. Three years ago, Overcash expanded the tennis shop by 400 square feet, beefing up the men’s and children’s clothing lines. He also has an online presence through mississippitennis.com and pbacademy.com.

“We’ve always done real well with women’s wear,” he said. “Very few places offer men’s and children’s tennis clothing, and we’ve done real well since increasing those categories.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.


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