By Chesney Monroe
Ten years ago, Union University was a powerhouse in tennis.
In 2002, the Bulldogs won their fourth TranSouth conference tennis title and qualified for a fifth consecutive national tournament.
Union finished the season with a 19-4 overall standing and 5-0 in the TranSouth Conference in 2002, winning the TranSouth Conference regular season and tournament championship.
That same year, the team finished as runner-up in the NAIA Region XI tournament and made the Sweet Sixteen in the NAIA National Tournament.
Union cross-country coach Gary Johnson, who was men’s tennis coach at the time, remembers being excited about the upcoming 2003 season and expecting to see great success.
What actually happened in 2003, however, was the unexpected demise of the team.
“I was shocked when they told me,” Johnson said. “We were good, so it wasn’t an issue of the team not doing well. It was just time for a new focus – soccer,” Johnson added.
Union’s tennis team was retired in 2003, and the tennis courts soon became what are now the soccer fields.
Tommy Sadler, director of athletics, said several factors went into the decision to discontinue the tennis team.
The courts needed thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs, and if the team wished to grow and get better, the university would need to expand the courts.
Johnson added that students who enrolled with tennis scholarships were offered the same scholarships if they chose to continue their education at Union.
“Our women’s coach was talking about retiring, the courts needed repairs, and our athletes were being recruited to bigger schools,” Sadler said. “All of these factors came together at the same time.”
The athletic department, trustees, and Union President David Dockery all decided it would be best to shift the focus to other sports that would bring in more athletes and increase student interest.
Sadler and Johnson agree that a tennis team will not be established anytime soon because of expenses.
“If we re-installed the team, it would only be because the Gulf South Conference asked us to pick tennis up as a primary sport,” Sadler said. “They approached us about women’s golf so we added it.
“Another factor is cost. We would have to build a new tennis complex, find a new way to budget scholarships, fund uniforms and equipment, as well as transportation, which would end up being hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even millions.”
Johnson brought up other reasons.
“We don’t have sports programs just to win; we have them to bring in good students,” Johnson said. “As athletes and coaches, we often shift our focus on winning, but that is not our primary focus. Our focus is to bring God glory and to represent Union well.”