Barbara Wynne’s long life has been centered around tennis with the exception of only a handful of years, the first five she was alive. She started playing the game at 6 years old, and she’s since had her hand and racket in too many tournaments, organizations and tennis courts to count. These days, at 85 years old, she walks a little slower and can’t travel like she used to, but she seems to still be everywhere.
Wynne teaches tennis formally in the morning, and then continues teaching informally for however long she’s on the courts at the Barbara S. Wynne Tennis Center by North Central High School. The complex was named after her when it was built in 2003.
During an interview with the Recorder, she walked around the courts and interrupted herself numerous times to tell players to “swing up” or stop kicking their racket (she promised they would have to get their racket restrung if not). She said people are starting to see her more as a grandma and less as an athlete now, but Indiana Community Tennis Program’s founder and chairwoman hasn’t dipped in her passion and commitment to the game and the players who love it.
“I marvel at how she keeps on plugging away,” Wynne’s longtime friend Helen Petersen said laughing. “… She’s still out there on the freakin’ court. My God, Barbara, sit down!”
Wynne and Petersen, 71, have worked together in tennis since Petersen moved to Indianapolis with her husband in 1976. Wynne found out that Petersen liked tennis, and they’ve been volunteering together ever since. From fundraisers to fashion shows to National Junior Tennis League conventions, Petersen has learned Wynne just “never runs out of ideas.”
She also apparently never runs out of love. Wynne — or B.B., as she’s affectionately called — says “love you” as a farewell to everyone, even strangers at the airport, Petersen remembered.
“I just say, ‘love you too, B.B.,’” Petersen said. “It used to unnerve me, but I see where she’s coming from now. … She truly cares about every human being she lays eyes on.”
One of Wynne’s greatest achievements was starting the Riverside Upswing program in 1969 at the encouragement of the late Richard Lugar, who at the time was the 44th mayor of Indianapolis and Wynne’s friend. She asked what she could do to help, and he suggested creating an integrated tennis program that would help ease race tensions in the city.
Gary Davis played in the Riverside Upswing program, which four years after it was created became the Indianapolis affiliate of the NJTL. Davis was 12 years old when he started playing and was good enough to get a scholarship to play at the Indianapolis Racquet Club.
“When you look at the African American community, she really did what she could do,” said Davis, 62, who is now senior project manager at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. “It was never about if you had money. It was about if you had talent. If you had talent she would always find money for you to go to the tournament.”
That’s still true today. Playing with Indiana Community Tennis Program for the summer is expensive — $1,000 per player — but Wynne helps players whose parents can’t afford the cost or families that have multiple children in the program. Some don’t have to pay at all.
Wynne and Davis have kept a strong friendship over the years. He said they talk about every other week, and he doesn’t think she’s changed much. Last year he invited her to Washington, D.C., for a tennis tournament. She showed up Thursday in time for late-night games, and they woke up early Friday for more games. Wynne traveled to D.C. under one condition: She had to be back in Indianapolis on Saturday morning to teach tennis, and she was.
Wynne was a good tennis player in her day. She won mixed doubles in the city and got to the state finals in high school. She played at Goucher College in Maryland in the early 1950s but transferred to Northwestern University, which didn’t have a women’s team, to get her teaching degree. There’s a bronze statue of Wynne wearing a top hat and holding a tennis racket at the Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
She said she doesn’t want her legacy to be about whatever she accomplished as a player. She wants it instead to be about all the players she’s taught over the years, especially the ones who’ve gone on to live honorable lives, whether they continued on with tennis or not.
“I think of myself always as a teacher because a teacher gives away what they love,” she said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.