Tennis club pro Benny Sims helps break down racial stereotypes

Noted tennis commentator Bud Collins calls it the game's oldest and most consequential club. If you sit on the veranda, you see members of the grounds crew wearing blue polo shirts and white tennis shorts watering the grass courts. A half dozen women have just come from playing a few sets and are relaxing with a cool drink and conversation. The weather is perfect; it's the kind of day that makes you want to quit your job and spend all your time at a country club. But the Longwood Cricket Club is not a country club - it is a tennis club, and that is no small difference. The members belong here because they enjoy tennis, first and foremost. Many want to improve their games and do so under the guidance of Benny Sims, Longwood's head pro.

For Sims this means a built-in clientele; for the members, it means being taught by a man who has played tennis almost all his life, has been teaching it for 16 years, and has coached touring pros Bob Green and Gigi Fernandez.

Yet Sims offers something beyond instruction in the correct method of hitting a tennis ball. As he puts it, ``I am the closest vantage point some of these members have to a black person. ''

Being the pro at an all-white tennis club does not seem to faze Sims, who says, ``I've been black all my life.'' He concedes, though, that some people have had to adjust to the idea of a black pro.

Sims is confident about himself - as a tennis player and as a person. Part of this stems from his days as team captain at Texas Southern University in Houston, where he was a two-time All-American.

Tennis has always been a sport dominated by whites. Longwood is no exception. Although the club set a milestone in tennis when it hired a black pro six years ago, there have not been any membership applications from blacks.

According to Sims, this is because people have held on to the idea of how clubs used to be. Several years ago, discrimination was a reality. But Longwood today has a diverse membership, and would welcome even more diversity if given the chance. As Sims says, ``The stuffiest thing about Longwood is its reputation.''

Contrary to this reputation, members enjoy the informality the club offers them. Sims feels it is part of his job to help foster this informality. He spends time talking with his students on the court and socializing with members at the end of the day.

Sims is as much an administrator as a teacher. And the business skills he acquired in college serve him well when it comes to running a pro shop, organizing a junior program, and hiring assistants.

The junior program, in which Longwood takes great pride, is one of his pet projects.

``We hired Benny from the Sportsmen's club [an inner-city Boston facility with a racially mixed membership] and he immediately put much time and effort into the junior program,'' says club manager David Biancho. ``It has since developed substantially. Benny brings to Longwood a great dimension of professionalism.''

Sims has a relatively small hard core of regulars to work with, since many Longwood families go away on weekends. When they are at the club they support him by buying neccesary tennis equipment from his pro shop, which is solely owned by Sims, rather than shopping elsewhere for bargains. And Sims says he has plenty to do to keep busy, especially during the annual US Pro Championships.

Thousands of fans attend this tournament each year, so three times as much inventory must be ordered. It is no wonder he feels some relief when it is all over and he can return to his regular daily schedule.

Sims has worked hard to get where he is. In Beaumont, Texas, where he grew up, sports are taken seriously and play a large role in the community. It is natural in Beaumont to play a different sport in every season, and not surprising when an athlete is offered a college scholarship in more than one sport.

Sims chose tennis over football and basketball mainly because, at 5 ft. 10 in., he felt he was too small for those other sports. Then, too, he came along at a time when tennis was entering the ``open'' era, with pros allowed to play for money in what had once been amateur-only tournaments. If a player had the ambition and drive, he could make a living at the sport. Sims had both, and he has made a very comfortable life for his wife and two young daughters.

He has done more, too, by working to open doors for black children in his sport.

For five years, he invested much of his time and energy working with youngsters at the Sportsmen's Tennis Club. Before coming to Sportsmen's, he and a couple of friends started a program to teach young people the game. Seven Sportsmen's prot'eg'es are now playing on the national junior circuit.

Today he remains on the club's board of directors and is chairman of its financial committee. Jim Smith, retired director at Sportsmen's, says, ``We were very sorry to lose Benny. He did an excellent job with our junior players, and he is still active in guiding the kids who play nationally.''

Does Sims feel that he has somehow sold out by switching to teaching more affluent youngsters at Longwood?

Not at all, because, as he puts it, ``kids are basically kids.'' In his opinion, there is not a whole lot of difference between kids hitting tennis balls. ``What one child may seem to lack, another child has an abundance of, and vice versa. It is the adults who differ, not the kids.''

Sims feels it is important that people learn to live together rather than needing to be surrounded by their ``own kind.'' He has spent the greater part of his life interacting and living among people different from himself, and considering his deep commitment to tennis, he knows this will continue.

But lives constantly change, and Sims realizes that his will, too.

``This is my sixth year at Longwood and they have been good, happy years. But this is not the end. There are too many things to conquer. Nothing ever has to be the final move unless you want it to be.''

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