Photo | Provided JEFF GRAY (LEFT) WITH MIKE MCNULTY, PRESIDENT OF THE USTA.
Jeff Gray is a legendary figure on the local tennis scene. The director of tennis at the Country Club of Mobile for decades, his presence has also been felt as a player and administrator with the United States Tennis Association (USTA).
Last month, Gray was presented with the USTA Seniors’ Service Award. It was established in 1958 to recognize a person for their service to senior tennis. It is given annually on the basis of the recipient’s willingness, cooperation and participation — either in play or organizational work — to work for the betterment of senior tennis competition.
“Well, it was most exciting,” Gray told Lagniappe. “I mean, this was a national award. The fact that USTA Alabama nominated me and USTA Southern supported it makes it special. Given the quality of people with whom I have volunteered and who have gotten this award in the past, it makes it very important.”
Gray had learned he would receive the award in January 2020. It was originally scheduled to be presented at the USTA Annual Meeting in Orlando last March. When that event was canceled because of COVID-19, it was moved to September.
After another postponement because of the pandemic, it was decided to make it a virtual presentation. The impressive video can be seen by visiting the USTA’s YouTube channel.
“Jeff’s dedication to senior tennis competition in both his play and organizational work makes him the ideal candidate for this recognition,” USTA’s Chief Executive of Community Tennis, Craig Morris, said in the video. “We thank Jeff for the outstanding work he has done and continues doing to promote the growth of tennis.”
In the absence of a 2020 annual meeting, each honoree received a surprise virtual call from a tennis legend as a thank you for their contributions to growing the game of tennis. For Gray, it was Jim Courier, an American who was once the No. 1 player in the world.
“I had no clue he would be there,” Gray said. “He is one of my heroes. A Davis Cup star and he won four major tournaments. He was right there with Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Pete Sampras.
“The video call was a huge highlight and we laughed a good deal. The best part that was not on the video was when he said, ‘I was reading your resume and I see you are a player. What shot do you have that I need to worry about?’ I told him if you come to the net, I have a great lob. He came back and said, ‘I only come to the net to shake hands.’ He was very good at what he does as an interviewer.”
Gray said he wanted to thank Jerrie Burns, the executive director of USTA Alabama, for being the one who nominated him for the award.
“I have been volunteering for USTA Alabama since 1975,” Gray said. “I am back on their board of directors after I was president in 1978. This is an organization that I feel wonderful about and owe them whatever I can do. They have allowed me the luxury of being a part of their association for years.
“USTA Southern is exactly the same way. The people in these organizations are like family. It is hard to describe how close we are. There are hundreds like me who do the same work. I just happened to be the one this year to be nominated for this really nice award.”
Gray also wanted to offer thanks to Newton Cox, another well-known figure in the Mobile tennis community.
“He was here when I moved back to Mobile,” Gray said. “He asked me to be president of the Alabama Tennis Association. He deserves so much credit. He was the original person to organize tennis in the city of Mobile. Now we have the 60-court Copeland-Cox Tennis Center that is one of the finest public facilities in America.”
Although he was born in Houston, Gray has been a resident of Mobile for 54 years. He first lived here as a child from 1949 to 1956.
Gray received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of West Florida in physical education. He earned a spot in the Pensacola school’s Athletic Hall of Fame after helping to start its tennis program. After getting a Master of Education degree from Middle Tennessee State University, he began teaching at the Pensacola Racquet Club.
He returned to Mobile in 1974 to be the tennis professional at Mirror Lake Racquet Club for seven years. In 1981, the Country Club of Mobile offered him the position of director of tennis.
“I worked with the Country Club of Mobile for 40 years,” Gray said. “I retired four years ago, but I still teach a couple days of the week.
“I cannot thank them enough. They allowed me to volunteer with USTA and do work to benefit tennis as a whole. I was very fortunate to work there and to volunteer at the same time.”
Gray, a former president of USTA Alabama and USTA Southern, also has served as vice-chair of USTA’s Adult Senior Competition Committee. He has received numerous awards for his outstanding work and dedication to the game.
An inductee in several halls of fame, including the USTA Alabama Hall of Fame and USTA Southern Hall of Fame, Gray has been named Alabama Tennis Professional of the Year and the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) Southern Tennis Professional of the Year.
He earned the No. 1 state ranking in Alabama several times, and represented USTA Alabama as a member and captain of the Alabama Senior Cup Team.
“I will be 75 at my next birthday,” Gray said. “You wonder if you are getting honors because you’re the oldest one in the room. I have been fortunate to have some other honors. This is a very nice honor from a national organization.”
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