Nan Smith proves that tennis is a game for life

Nan Smith was looking for something fun in her life, a bright spot to distract her from her rough luck of the past few years. Two years earlier, in 1991, her husband had died of leukemia, leaving her a widow to raise three boys – 20 months, 6 and 9.

“I thought, ‘I gotta do something for me,’ ” Smith remembers.

A friend invited her to play tennis, and Smith was hooked. She started taking tennis lessons at Spring Valley Country Club. Soon , she helped organize U.S. Tennis Association leagues through the Columbia Tennis League, a local non-profit. Smith would later volunteer with the USTA to help grow tennis and draw new people to the sport.

Now her decades of service are being celebrated. The South Carolina office of the USTA recently honored Smith with its Lucy Garvin Volunteer of the Year Award, named after the longtime South Carolina volunteer and former USTA Board Chairwoman and President.

USTA Southern, based in Atlanta, will award Smith with its Gerrie Rothwell Award, given annually to a dedicated USTA league volunteer.

“Nan stood out among amazing nominees,” said Laura Weygandt, chairwoman of the USTA Southern awards committee. “Nan dedicated a lot of time and energy into getting people introduced and engaged into tennis as well as continuing to maintain her other tennis responsibilities. That shows her enthusiasm and passion for our sport and for people.”

Smith has impacted the nine-state USTA Southern region with her passion for tennis, but what she started in Columbia last fall might be her most important tennis work.

Smith spearheaded and organized eight beginner tennis classes around the Midlands. The informal classes, called “Tennis Apprentice,” welcomed people of all ages and backgrounds.

No tennis experience was necessary, and participants received six hours of instruction from a certified tennis instructor, a new tennis racquet, a free membership with the USTA, and the opportunity to meet future tennis partners and friends, all for $60.

“The players loved it,” Smith said.

She attended the first session of each class, handing out racquets and personally welcoming the players. Six weeks later, she’d return with a backpack, a can of tennis balls and brochure about more tennis playing opportunities.

About 100 new players, who ranged in age from 18 to 67, participated. Smith and the Columbia Tennis League have more classes planned for the spring.

“Tennis is a game that you can start at any age,” Smith said. “The whole point is to get them playing league tennis and play a sport you can play for life.”