Belton Tennis News
Belton, South Carolina: Free public tennis but not during church
Stories of people's lives in tennis
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“When I was 10, I was the 8th ranked 12-and-under player in South Carolina. The seven people in front of me were all from Belton.”
Belton is a town of 4,000 people in a state of more than 4.6 million people. Belton’s industry was textiles. “Unfortunately, textiles has gone away,” Maynard said. “My grandfather started one of those plants and it was 100 years old. They just closed up four years ago.
“We’re just like most small towns in the South: struggling.”
Maynard’s father started the furniture store, and now Rex and his two sons run it. The two sons, Alderman and Blake, both played tennis, as did their sisters, Sadie Ellen and Louise, who played tennis at Furman University and Wofford College, respectively.
Folks have played tennis in Belton since the 1800s. The Anderson (S.C.) Intelligencer newspaper reported in 1892: “The young men of our town are happy. The stores are closed at 6:00, and the clerks thus have an opportunity in engaging in lawn tennis.”
In the first half of the 20th century, the local high school girls team went 14 years without losing a match. In 1930, at the state high school tennis championships in the state capital of Columbia, Belton competed against the largest schools in the state. The four boys’ semifinalists in singles – who were also the finalists in doubles – were all from Belton, so the remaining matches drove two hours northwest to be played back in their hometown.
The town has hosted the Palmetto Championships since 1957. Essentially every junior player in South Carolina who aims to play in the premier tournament in the South, the Southern Closed Championships, must go through the Palmetto Championships every summer in Belton, the Smallest Town Hosting the Largest Tournament in the United States.
For years, the best youth tennis players in the state, raised in sparkling mega-facilities with dozens of courts, have descended on Belton, where the Tennis Center has five courts. Some matches are assigned to private courts in local residents’ backyards, where kids nearby splash around in swimming pools.
“The greatest memories are watching the kids come when they’re 10 or so and watching them mature, be better tennis players but also be better people” said Maynard. “A lot of time when they first come, they don’t figure it out and they go, why do you hold this tournament here?” When the kids catch on to how special the tournament is, they ask to be assigned to matches on their favorite backyard courts. With some of the money raised by the Palmetto Championships, the tournament committee has helped some of the locals repair their courts.
Maynard is one of the many local volunteers for the Palmetto Championships. He and his wife Louise (“everyone calls her Weezer,” said Rex) hosted players in their home. Rex ran publicity, wrote the tournament’s history and became tournament director. He was a linesman one year, trying to call service lines for the older teenage boys who were serving close to 100 mph.
“I got two games into it and realized I was in the wrong place,” Maynard said, chuckling at the memory. “I walk off the court when the match is over and my wife was there. She said she left because she couldn’t stand it. Somebody hollers, ‘Rex, why don’t you try it with your eyes closed?’ And somebody else hollers back and says, ‘He already is.’”
Maynard and fellow local tennis supporter Jim Russell helped open the South Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame in Belton. The Hall of Fame is in the old train depot, which is where the young men of the town played tennis in the 1800s. It’s across the street from the current Tennis Center, where donations have made it possible for free play year-round, including at night on the lighted courts. When Maynard drives by at night, after the last players have finished, he turns out the lights if they’re still on.
A focus nowadays in Belton is teaching children 10 and younger to play, using the modified equipment and court sizes used nationwide. Belton isn’t large enough to support a full-time teaching pro so a local native teaches lessons when he gets off work in the warehouse of a local retailer.
Maynard hits tennis balls with his grandchildren. For his volunteer work in Belton, around the state and the South, he’s been inducted into the South Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame. As a recent president of the nine-state Southern section of the U.S. Tennis Association, he stood at the gates of the professional Atlanta Tennis Championships, greeted everyone who entered and thanked them for coming.
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