58 years and counting, Belton and South Carolina’s junior tennis championships

by Jonathon Braden

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BELTON, S.C. – Dozens of South Carolina families this week have traveled here, a town of 4,000 people that, during the next five days, will host the biggest junior tournament in South Carolina, one of the biggest tennis states in the U.S.

And once these families, some of whom left coastal cities with pristine, multi-court tennis facilities, spend some time here and see that Belton has no hotels, only a few chain restaurants and 18 tennis courts total, a few of them are likely to wonder, “Why is a tournament like this held in a town like this?”

Tradition, Rex Maynard, the Palmetto Championships’ longtime tournament director, will tell them, and history.

Maynard grew up in Belton and has lived here almost his entire life. This will be his 38th year of helping run South Carolina’s state qualifying championship.

With the families, he will gladly share stories of backyard tennis courts and friendly homeowners. He will pass along the experiences of so many South Carolina tennis greats – future Division I collegiate tennis coaches, USTA Board Presidents and others – who got their start in Belton and still fondly recall their time here.

He also will say that what makes this confusing to some people – a big tournament held in a shrinking town – is also what makes the Palmetto Championships so special to others – a shrinking town cherishing a big tournament.

“Some people like it and some people don’t,” Maynard said. “And people who don’t understand the history don’t.”

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There is plenty of history.

Since 1957, the South Carolina junior state championship has been in Belton.

In other words, players have to play in the Belton tournament to advance to the sectional championships and then the national championships.

No tournament in South Carolina has been held in the same place for as many years, and, Maynard guesses, few tennis tournaments in the country have been in the same place for as long.

“Even the US Open moved,” he said.

The junior championships started in Belton because tennis was so popular and had been for decades, Maynard said.

During the first state championships Belton hosted, an 18-year-old boy named Paul from Charleston played in the weeklong tournament.

In Belton, Paul had few worries.

He stayed with the Blake family, where he had his own room. For dinner, the family fed him fried chicken, corn on the cob and okra. Paul also didn’t have to worry about transportation; he could walk to the courts, including the nine private backyard courts the tournament used.

On the last day of the championships, Paul’s Belton experience got even better: he won the championship.

He went onto play at Florida State University and coached there as well. In 1967, he returned to South Carolina and became the coach at Furman University.

Paul Scarpa coached at Furman for 45 years. In 2009, he became the winningest Division I men’s tennis coach in NCAA history.

“(Belton) had a lot to do with my career as a player,” he said. “I still remember and treasure it and cherish the fact that I was there.”

Belton remained important for Scarpa years later when he was looking to recruit South Carolina’s best juniors.

“You could go to Belton and see the best of the best in the state,” said Scarpa, who retired from Furman in 2011. “Everybody was there. Everybody played Belton.”

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Rex Maynard

Rex Maynard

Belton still gets most of the top juniors, but much has changed since 1957.

For starters, Belton.

When Maynard was a kid, the town had around 5,000 people. Now it has closer to 4,000 people.

Players also don’t stay at people’s houses often; they instead opt for hotels in nearby Anderson.

What courts the players use also has changed.

The tournament no longer sends players to so many backyard courts largely because few have been maintained over the years.

This year, the championship will use only one backyard court.

Instead, the tournament will use 18 courts in Belton and 36 elsewhere in Anderson County, including courts at public parks, universities, private clubs and city-owned sports facilities.

Maynard acknowledges that all the crisscrossing and different host facilities can make it confusing for parents and kids. He also realizes that it can be time-consuming: driving from one Anderson facility to a Belton complex can be a 30-minute drive.

But he also points out that if the tournament were held in a bigger city, parents probably would be driving 30 minutes in between sites there as well, from a facility on one end of the city to a complex on the other side of the city.

“We are in a small community and we don’t have a mega tennis center,” Maynard said. “It makes it special but it also makes it challenging … We try to make that work as best as we can.”

Ryan Young looks back favorably on the setup at Belton.

Young played in Palmetto Championships from 1994 to 2003. By the time he finished, he held the record for the most singles and doubles titles won – 15.

Young, a prolific junior player, experienced all kinds of junior-tournament settings, including the one at Belton, with courts in people’s backyards and smaller tennis facilities, and the settings at most other places, with 16- and 30-court facilities.

Young enjoyed Belton’s intimacy.

When he played in people’s backyards, he said, sometimes the homeowners would talk to him before and after matches and tell him how much they enjoyed watching him play.

Young also liked how, at the Belton Tennis Center, all the fans were close together. The compact crowds helped make matches more exciting.

What Belton brings to the championships – different facilities and engaged crowds – helps make the Palmetto Championships special.

“That’s why Belton is such a tradition, because of the city… it’s heart for the tournament,” said Young, who’s now an assistant men’s tennis coach at USC.  “Belton obviously has a special place in my life.”

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For all the playing and coaching careers Belton has helped, the championships have probably aided even more tennis volunteers and business professionals.

Include the most prominent South Carolina tennis name on that list: Lucy Garvin.

Garvin served as USTA Board President from 2009 to 2011. As president, she led the board in developing a strategic vision for the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the US Open is played. That strategic vision led to last fall’s announcement that the US Open’s biggest stadium will get a roof in the near future.

Garvin also has served on numerous other USTA and International Tennis Federation committees.

But 40 years ago, she was another volunteer in Belton, sitting behind a desk, handing out balls to players and assigning them to courts.

It was at Belton that Garvin said she was introduced to volunteering and refereeing tennis tournaments. For 35 years, she worked with other volunteers to make the tournament as positive of an experience as possible.

“It was something that inspired me to do more,” she said, “and I’m sure it’s played a significant role in my desire to do other things in tennis.”

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Maynard knows the history, and he also knows the tournament remains strong.

The 440 players in this year’s championships are more than expected. In the 12-and-under division, he said, he had to turn away six kids.

For the next five days, he will sleep less, work more and survive off adrenaline.

Come Wednesday, he might sit down and recall the blur that was the 58th Palmetto Championships.

And, by then, he will have done it once more: Directed South Carolina’s junior state championships in Belton, a small town in love with its tournament.