Sports enthusiasts these days are so occupied with the local NFL expansion effort and the Orioles' quest for free agents that it's easy to overlook Baltimore's Pat Koger Thompson, who is doing big things in her own sport.
Thompson's game is tennis. She doesn't play it competitively any longer. She doesn't coach it.
She describes herself as a tennis activist/educator. What she does -- organize it and bring minorities into the sport -- will have a greater impact than the efforts of most who do swing a racket.
Thompson is executive director and founder of Play Tennis Baltimore Inc. and co-founder of Baltimore's National Junior Tennis League. She promotes tennis programs that serve more than 1,000 Baltimore area youngsters yearly, a total she calls "a drop in the bucket."
In July she was appointed to the executive board of the U.S. Tennis Association. That's quite a distinction for an African-American woman who recalls that it was once against the law for blacks to play on the clay courts at Druid Hill Park, just as it was once difficult for the late Arthur Ashe to play tennis in his native Richmond, Va.
Thompson works as a speech pathologist in the Baltimore City public schools, including Harlem Park Middle School, where we met to discuss her work in tennis. After school, she volunteers and teaches the game to children.
Last week she took part in a USTA recreational leadership workshop in Harrison, N.Y. This coming weekend she'll conduct an open forum on minority participation at the Middle Atlantic Tennis Association's annual meeting at the Cross Keys Inn.
Clearly this is a woman who gives generously of herself for this cause. Why?
"I'm alarmed," she says, "by the near exclusion of physical education and athletic services in lifetime sports like tennis and swimming in public schools and recreation department programs.
"This is particularly detrimental to the quality of life for families in large urban environments."
Pat's maiden name -- Koger -- is known to those familiar with local tennis. Her sister, Morgan State graduate Ann Koger, in 1967 became the first black woman to win the city championship. Ann Koger went on to earn a Ph.D. in sports administration at Temple, where she coaches tennis and volleyball.
When Ann Koger ran a tennis program at Druid Hill Park, she got her sister, Pat, to come out and help with the teaching. That, of course, changed Pat's life.
Pat went to Western High and Towson State and played for a while on the American Tennis Association junior circuit. In 1980 she received a Master's degree in speech pathology at Towson.
Tennis clinics for inner city kids are nothing new in Baltimore. More than 20 years ago the Junior League was putting on big-time tennis tournaments at Towson State (Connors, Nastase, etc.) and using part of the proceeds for clinics and equipment for city children.
"Thirty-five years ago, I taught 100 black kids on Saturday mornings at Druid Hill Park," says Bare Hills' Maury Schwartzman, dean of the local tennis pros.
"But kids have to have the money to go beyond that. They'd probably have to move to Florida or get somebody to pay for indoor court time if they want to play at a high level."
"What it takes to reach the top," says Sam Shriver, whose daughter, Pam, has been on the pro tour for 15 years, "is a total family commitment."
Althea Gibson became the first black to win Wimbledon and Forest Hills in 1957 and 1958. Ashe won the first U.S. Open in '68. But in all the time since then no other African-American has won a Grand Slam event; none has been No. 1.
"I think the great African-American players will come," says Thompson. "We'll see it in the next five to 10 years with the direction the USTA is going."
"We conduct a $4 million program to identify young players and provide coaches," says Page Crosland, the USTA communications director. "As far as Pat Koger Thompson goes, she's fabulous. She's so articulate and she has great skills in community relations."
The hottest black prospect in the world, 13-year-old Venus Williams, played in the annual Pam Shriver-promoted event held last month at the Arena. Jack Kramer predicts future Grand Slams for Venus.
"She's great, and so is her 11-year-old sister, Serena, who also played in Baltimore," says Thompson. "We have some young African-American kids right around here who have great futures -- Lauren Scott, from Roland Park Country School; Isa Stokes, from Cardinal Gibbons, to name two."
Developing a No. 1 is not Pat Koger Thompson's top priority. She's more interested in getting kids into tennis programs that will lead to scholarships and better lives.
But if an African-American player becomes No. 1 by the year 2,000, that's fine, too, as far as she's concerned.