Nancy Jeffett had lured the best women’s tennis players in the world to Dallas with a promise of unprecedented prize money. The trouble was, she didn’t know if she could pull it off.
“I told them I was going to give them $40,000, and I didn’t have a penny of it,” Jeffett recalled. “It was pretty gutsy when I look back on it. They believed in me. They had no guarantees that I would produce.”
She did produce, thanks to a friend at Dallas Country Club who talked 200 of his friends into donating $250 apiece into the pot for the winner of the Maureen Connolly Brinker Cup in the early 1960s.
1946: As a player, she was ranked No. 10 in the world in USTA girls singles
1968: Co-founded the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation
1975: Founded the Virginia Slims Tournament of Dallas, which ran until 1989
1981: Began a 10-year stint as chairman of the U.S. Federation Cup team
1983: Inducted into the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame
It came during a time when women’s tennis wasn’t anywhere near the level it is today, in terms of fame or fortune. And it was Jeffett’s gamble more than 50 years ago that helped pave the way for Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, and other future superstars who helped define the women’s game.
In July, the Greenway Parks resident will join many of those great players as an inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
She started as a player in her native St. Louis, but her career didn’t last long despite her ranking as the 10th best junior player in the world during the 1940s.
Instead, she focused her attention behind the scenes, giving women opportunities in the sport that didn’t exist at the time, both locally and internationally.
As a tournament organizer, Jeffett founded both the Brinker event and the Virginia Slims of Dallas, which was a regular stop on the pro tour for more than a decade and became a premier social event.
“That tournament was the first big women’s event in the United States,” Jeffett said. “There were men who told me I couldn’t make it happen.”
When Navratilova came to the United States from her native Czechoslovakia at age 16, she played Jeffett’s tournament before any others. And in addition to organizing the first women’s event for prize money, she also was the first to put matches on television.
At first, Jeffett operated the tournament from her garage apartment. By the end of its run, when it became more difficult to raise the funding through sponsopships, she was able to sell the tour slot for $1 million to a Japanese group trying to expand the sport there.
In her heyday, Jeffett ran tournaments all over the world. She was a longtime Wightman Cup and Federation Cup chair and captain of the United States team.
“She was a pioneer,” said longtime friend Betty Harlan. “Nancy could sell anything. She has done more to start up women’s tennis than anybody.”
Perhaps her most noteworthy accomplishment was starting the Maureen Connolly Brinker Foundation in honor of her close friend who died of cancer in 1969. Although the pro tournament that bears Brinker’s name is defunct, the foundation still runs the prestigious “Little Mo” junior tournament each year in Dallas that has become a stepping stone for such high-profile players as Andy Roddick and Sloane Stephens.
“We decided to do everything that we could to carry on the mission,” Jeffett said. “She never saw what we did. I know she would be proud. We’ve had so much fun doing it.”
Jeffett has become friends over the years with some of the top women’s players in the world, even inviting many of them to her home when they were in town. She has been an advocate in recent years for gender equality in terms of prize money at major tournaments.
Even though she’s slowed down at age 87, Jeffett still travels to tournaments when she can, and otherwise follows the results closely on television. It’s reflective of her passion for the game that’s still as lively as ever, and the reason for receiving the sport’s highest honor.
“I love the game,” she said, “and it’s been a great part of my life.”