By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
John Callen, the Birmingham native who humbly picked up tennis after picking up wayward tennis balls and then went on to a 33-year term leading the Southern Section of the United States Tennis Association, passed away April 3. He was 69.
The USTA Southern executive director and chief operating officer battled cancer for more than a year. His wife, Frances, and their daughters were at his side at his home in Johns Creek, Georgia.
On the Talking Tennis Southern Style podcast in December, Callen told host Sam Crenshaw about playing in the woods behind Birmingham’s Highland Racquet Club and collecting tennis balls that had been hit over the fence.
“I took them up to the tennis pro (and) thought I would get some money for them,” Callen said of his offer to teaching pro Wade Herren. “He said, ‘I’ll give you one free lesson and a month of play here at the public tennis center in Birmingham.’ That’s how I got started.”
Callen built on those lessons and became one of the best players to come out of metro Birmingham. Mountain Brook native Pat DuPré, who went on to have a career as a professional player, remembers Callen first as a rival player before the two became friends.
“At first we were competitors and then later we basically became friends,” DuPré said. “As young tennis players, we faced each other on the other side of the net numerous times. I can remember as a kid, he actually was one of the few players you could consider a potential competitor of mine when I was young. There weren’t many around, but he was one of them.”
Callen became an outstanding junior tennis player. He won state junior titles before ultimately taking his talents to the tennis team at Georgia Tech.
Beyond his college days, Callen was doubles partners with Randy Stephens of Macon, Georgia, for 40 years. He said an oft-made point regarding Callen is that he seemed to know everything but never came off as a know-it-all.
Stephens said he liked to run important decisions by his doubles partner, having thoroughly researched the matter and narrowing his choices to A or B.
“John would wait, 30 seconds or so, think about it, and he’d say, ‘Randy, have you considered C?’” recounted Stephens, himself a former USTA Southern president and CEO. “He was such an innovative, unique thinker that he thought of things that weren’t obvious to everyone else.
“And when he proposed something, he … would always say, ‘Have you considered?’” he said. “Have you considered came up over and over and over from people’s (social media) comments of him offering advice in a very non-threatening way.”
DuPré recalled Callen’s mother being a heavily involved volunteer in what was then the Alabama Tennis Association, the governing body of tennis in the state. He “got that bug from his mom,” he said of Callen’s decades-long role leading USTA Southern, whose membership is a quarter of all of the USTA nationally.
“He was just a tennis guy,” DuPré said. “All he ever did was try to make tennis a better sport. His whole life was that way. His mom was the same way. Tennis was in his blood and all he ever wanted to do was make tennis a better deal.”
Jerrie Ciza Burns is executive director of USTA Alabama, formerly the Alabama Tennis Association. She remembers Callen as someone who never had bad things to say about anyone.
‘The One That Calmed Everybody Down’
“Even when we were in our meetings and things would get crazy, he was always the one that calmed everybody down,” she said. “He’s just that type of person. Everybody loved John.”
Mobile’s Jeff Gray is a former president of USTA Alabama. He said Callen’s gift to everyone was that he was the smartest person in the room, while also being the most humble and the most unassuming.
“His gift to everybody that had to deal with him was, if there was some dilemma and you had trouble figuring out what to do, he always had a solution that made sense,” Gray said. “He always had a solution.”
Callen was dedicated to volunteerism in the Southern Section. He was a founder of the Georgia Tennis Hall of Fame, founding member of the Georgia Tennis Patrons Foundation and founding member of Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association Foundation. He also served as Georgia Tennis Association president from 1982 to ‘83.
Callen also was elected to ALTA’s board of trustees and the board of directors of the Georgia Professional Tennis Association. He coached winning Georgia Junior Davis Cup teams and served as USTA Southern vice president along with being a member of numerous USTA committees.
Callen was a member of four halls of fame: the Southern Tennis Hall of Fame (inducted in 2013), the Alabama Tennis Foundation Hall of Fame (2000), the Georgia Tennis Foundation Hall of Fame (2004) and the Georgia Professional Tennis Association Hall of Fame. He was also an honorary member of the Georgia Professional Tennis Association
Since his hiring to lead USTA Southern, the section’s membership has risen to a high of more than 187,000, representing 25% of the national membership. During that time, the section has been at the forefront of growing grassroots tennis, including fostering USTA League expansion and Junior Team Tennis formation and growth, and hosting an array of junior and adult tournaments in the section’s nine states.