David Lauderdale

Hilton Head and world tennis icon Dennis Van Der Meer dies Saturday

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Hilton Head Island and world tennis icon Dennis Van Der Meer died late Saturday afternoon at Hilton Head Hospital after a long illness.

He arrived on Hilton Head in 1979 and brought worldwide recognition to the island as a tennis destination and a place important to the game.

“He was a major force around the world for tennis,” said Dan Santorum, chief executive since 1986 of the Professional Tennis Registry founded by Van Der Meer.

Van Der Meer was Billie Jean King’s coach for her famous “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs in 1973. It attracted 90 million television viewers, which “got the (tennis) boom started,” Santorum said.

Van Der Meer was known as a “teacher of teachers,” and was named “Olympic Developmental Coach of the Year” in 1997, the PTR web site says.

His vision was to standardize group-teaching methods for tennis, and to develop teacher certification. He carried it out on Hilton Head.

Van Der Meer’s tennis empire began at the Players Club on DeAllyon Avenue, and more recently he and his wife, Pat, have been operating Van Der Meer Tennis at Shipyard on Hilton Head for many years. She was always heavily involved, but has been in charge since Dennis Van Der Meer had a massive stroke in 2011 at age 78.

Van Der Meer also developed courses and manuals for teaching wheelchair tennis and adaptive techniques.

He was known for his energetic, outgoing personality, and a photographic memory that enabled him to quickly learn names of his students, even in a group of 100.

“Van Der Meer touched countless lives through his Standard Method of Teaching, World Class Academy, TennisUniversity and as founder of PTR,” the registry web site says.

Retired tennis professional Dennis Malick, who came to Hilton Head to work for Van Der Meer, said, “If you attend a memorial for Dennis, he’s liable to sit up, call you by your first name and ask if you still have that crazy hitch in your service motion you had when you first came to his clinic 10 years ago.”

He said Van Der Meer was at once very local (he and Pat were fixtures at Plantation Deli) and international.

“His effect here? Look around and see how many island teaching pros and club staff came here first for Van Der Meer — Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes, Spring Lake, Port Royal, South Beach, Hilton Head Island Beach & Tennis, Rose Hill, Moss Creek.

“There is and will ever only be one Dennis.”

Louie Cap of Hilton Head, who holds a doctorate in nuclear physics and was a Czechoslovakia Davis Cup player and has been with Van Der Meer since the 1970s, said:

“After 50 years, I don’t know what to say other than ‘there is only one Dennis.’ ”

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Out of Africa

Van Der Meer was born in 1933 in a small village in Namibia, Africa, the son of missionaries. At age 6, he was introduced to a rudimentary form of tennis by his mother, trying to keep him occupied as they traveled to rural areas. He excelled in competition after the family moved to Cape Town, South Africa.

“He claims his background of limited equipment, no backdrops, and few tennis balls made him appreciate consistency, and gave him the ability to rally forever with one ball,” the Van Der Meer Tennis web site says.

He emigrated to America in 1961, where he coached champions on many levels, including Billie Jean King, Margaret Court and Amanda Coetzer.

“He was the greatest tennis teacher I’ve ever seen,” Santorum said. “There was no one like him and I can’t imagine there will be anyone like him in the future.”

Hilton Head

At one time the Dennis Van Der Meer Tennis center attracted 56 tennis pros per week to the island from all over the world to learn group teaching techniques. Locals would get free lessons as “guinea pigs” for the tennis teachers.

His goal was to keep the game simple and fun for newcomers and recreational players in every corner of the globe, and to develop a universal language for teaching it.

“Our pupils became overwhelmed and discouraged by too many choices,” Van der Meer said when he was inducted into the Tennis Industry Association Hall of Fame. “A systematic approach was needed to make learning tennis simple, especially for the novice, and teachers needed guidelines to ensure professionalism.”

The United States Tennis Association gave him its inaugural Faculty Emeritus Award.

His Professional Tennis Registry has grown to become the largest global organization of tennis coaches, with more than 16,000 members in 125 countries, and it is headquartered on Hilton Head.

The annual PTR International Tennis Symposium brings close to 750 people to the island from around the world. It includes more than 50 on-court and classroom presentations for tennis teachers and coaches, a trade show and a tournament.

Dennis Van Der Meer and Pat met on Hilton Head and were married here in 1981.

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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