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Jeff Nelson…… Coach, Teacher, Friend

By Bud Jones


Great coaches are usually known for the great tennis players they have coached. Jeff Nelson has coached a considerable number of high school and college tennis players in South Dakota, but he will be remembered mostly for the friends he has made and the lives he has touched in the tennis community.

 No one, especially Nelson, could have realized what a path he was starting down when the Sioux Falls College tennis team asked him to fill a  tournament spot for an injured player. Nelson, a cross country and track athlete, had suffered an injury in a college Taekwondo class the previous year and realized he couldn’t continue competitive running. 

 On the way to the tournament they were teaching him how to keep score. A pretty inauspicious start to a career that has touched the tennis lives of hundreds of adults and even more students.  Nelson became a student of tennis, reading and studying as much as he could. He’d camp out at Mckennan Park and local clubs to watch the best local players compete.  This eventually led him to getting his first formal lessons from Dick Hahn at Woodlake Athletic Club.

 The next two years, Nelson played on the SFC tennis team and spent the summer months teaching for the Sioux Falls Park and Recreation Dept and traveling around the Midwest playing tournaments.  Nelson figured out early in his competitive career that the key to doubles was finding good partners, such was Mike Hougland, Jenny Luke Jeffries and Nancy Driggs Hougland.

 Jeff’s friendship with Hahn and passion for the game led Nelson to helping Hahn teach at Westward Ho Country Club. Hahn taught him how to teach and run leagues.  After two years, Nelson worked in admissions at SFC, where he also served as womens coach from 1983-1985.  Over the next twenty years, Nelson coaches the girls teams for both O’Gorman and Lincoln, in addition to the mens and womens teams at North Dakota State and Augustana.  Eventually he returned to his alma mater where he coached the USF Cougars to five NAIA national appearances in eight years.

 During those same years, he became certified as USPTA professional 1 and PTR Professional and taught at Southgate Racquet Club in Fargo, Fargo Country Club and Woodlake Athletic Club.  Since 1998, he has been tennis director at Westward Ho Racquet Club.

  During his 31 years of teaching and coaching tennis, he was awarded the 2003 and 2004 NAIA Region Coach of the Year, 2009 USTA Northern Section Frank Voigt Pro of the Year, and 2010 USTA Northern JTT Organizer of the year.  He is past president of the Sioux Falls Tennis Association and SD Tennis Association….all this after winning his first tennis letters as a player his last two years in college.

 Nelson continues to be involved in a number of USTA programs, serving as a National Recreational Coach and Quickstart Trainer, a USTA Northern National Zonal and Intersectional Coach, Visiting Pro, USTA Officials Trainer, Chair of the Junior Teamtennis committee and member of the Northern Board Nominating Committee.  He is also a member of the Wilson’s “W” Team.

 Although Nelson has a full resume of past accomplishments and current involvements,  that is not what he talks about when he looks at his involvement in tennis. It is the flujrry of tennis activity in the 80’s and 90’s when tennis was a high point in Sioux Falls and Nelson was in the middle of it.  He was completely immersed in tennis during this time either as a coach, a tennis pro, directing tournaments, coordinating USTA adult leagues or played in USTA events with students and friends. was at a high point in Sioux Falls and Nelson was in the middle of it.

 Nelson was completely immersed in tennis during this time as he was coaching, working as a tennis professional, working with USTA events, playing with students and friends and helping set up social events for players in the area.

 It started with Nelson playing tennis in tournaments with some of the athletes he coached. He also played with friend and mentor Dick Hahn and longtime Lincoln High Tennis Coach Chris Dummermuth. He said he was always fortunate to have friends who were better tennis players than he, and who would play with him.

 Nelson admits that he is “like a kid in a candy store” when it comes to tournaments, as he loves to compete. Among the tournaments he remembers most is winning the Asfora South Dakota Open mixed doubles division with Chris. He also is proud of the team of friends and former students on a 4.5 USTA team who was able to edge the favored team from Minneapolis and go on to Tucson for the USTA Nationals.

 Maybe it’s this competitive nature that he is able to instill in many of those kids he was coaching. But he says he has been working with unbelievably bright people. He says he has no idea how many of his former students have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and other professional careers. He points out that nearly half of the young men he coached in college went on to become youth ministers.

 He makes note of these students, almost like a proud father. Maybe because Nelson and his wife Muriel haven’t had children of their own, many of those he instructed were like his own children.

 Nelson also created life-lasting friendships with many of the hundreds of adults who formed the social tennis community of the time. There were lots of people who were involved in lessons and drills, and who liked to travel to tournaments and to USTA events. There was also travel to other area tennis clubs such as those in Sioux City and at Okoboji for social tournaments.

 Nelson says he will continue teaching and coaching as long as his enthusiasm for tennis continues. And that will be a long time as Nelson admits he is a student of the sport and he is continuing to learn because the game is always evolving. He says that talking with other coaches also helps keep him fresh and he continues to learn how students learn.

 Nelson says he would never teach the game the way he learned it. This is probably a good thing as he admits that Hahn describes his style as “good form in slow motion.”

 As long as Nelson is physically able he will continue teaching, but his other goals include playing in the nationals in age group events, visiting all of the Grand Slam events, and also increasing his officiating duties to the point that he would officiate on the national tour.

 All the while, he will be making new friends and  keeping people excited about tennis.