Watching Wimbledon, Sylvia Gothard got so hooked on tennis that it led to her 45-year career around the game that still brings her to the courts at the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District’s Racquet Club at least once a week.
The United States Tennis Association (USTA)/Midwest Section will honor Gothard, of Homewood, at its awards dinner on Feb. 5. She will receive the Mel Bergman Award in recognition of her devotion to tennis, and her passion and enthusiasm for the sport that has inspired hundreds of players over the years.
The Bergman Award is given to someone who has “continuous and distinguished service” to USTA/Midwest for at least 10 years. Gothard said she was very surprised to be notified she’d won, yet her list of accomplishments speaks volumes for her generous spirit that has benefitted hundreds of players.
Gothard initiated the park district’s TennisFest in 1988 that is drawing tennis enthusiasts from all parts of the country. Over the past 25 years, more than 300 people have gone to Wimbledon on trips she organizes with former Australian tennis star Judy Dalton.
Billie Jean King and other top stars of tennis are her personal friends and have been to the Racquet Club’s events, and Gothard is very proud of the Outstanding Facilities Award the Racquet Club won three times from the United States Tennis Association.
“We call tennis a game of life for life,” she said. “It teaches you anything and everything. You have to be creative. You have to be able to problem solve. You have to be able to take a few knocks and bounce back. You have to learn how to handle yourself under difficult situations. You have to be respectful of people.
“So all of the characteristics you would hope your child would have, you could learn from this sport,” Gothard stressed.
Growing up in the East Anglia region of England, she was excited watching Darlene Hard, the top American player at Wimbledon in 1960, and wrote her a letter wishing her luck. Hard sent a thank you note on hotel stationery.
“By then I think I was 15 and thought maybe I could really find that hotel if I pushed my luck,” Gothard remembered. She traveled to London, found the hotel and “I walked in and she was having a cup of tea with another player and asked if I would like to join them. I was freaked out, literally paralyzed with fear,” but from that encounter she and Hard became friends.
“I still hear from that lady ‘til today. She was a Wimbledon winner, a U.S. Open winner, one of the top players in the world. She was my heroine, well in the days before Billie Jean King came around, so you never know how you can impact somebody else,” Gothard said.
Gothard took tennis seriously and as a teenager became the England County Championship winner and the National Insurance Offices of Great Britain winner, and she attended the Wimbledon Ball.
“I started playing in tournaments. I was never at that (Wimbledon) level, but at least I got to play in some of the tournaments where the big players were at, and got to go to the cocktail parties.
“I met Billie Jean King in the locker room with Judy Dalton, an Australian player and Wimbledon finalist. We started a conversation and Billie Jean and Judy have been my friends for years.”
Gothard married an American and came to Chicago in 1969.
“At the time there weren’t many female tennis pros. A local chap hired me. I learned something from him, developed my own style, got used to the American language so I didn’t flub up what I was saying,” and that was the start of a beautiful career.
Although her marriage didn’t last, Gothard stayed in the U.S. She took up residence in the southern suburbs and started teaching tennis at a club in Dolton. Later she taught at Park Forest and then Ravisloe Country Club before coming to the H-F Racquet Club.
“I started with six hours in a week,” she recalled. “Then the job just grew and from that point the clientele grew on the court” and she started dreaming up events and activities around tennis. In short order, she was working 40-hour weeks as a full-time employee. She retired as racquet sports supervisor in September 2015 after nearly 39 years at the Racquet Club, including three stints as interim manager of the club. She now teaches tennis lessons on Tuesdays.
“Different things have occurred in my life that I would never ever have dreamed would have been” without tennis, she said.