Karla (Thompson) Leibee remembers the boy that lived beside Breezeland Swim and Tennis Club looking for somebody to play.
Jerry Groce took up tennis at age 16 after watching an epic Wimbledon match between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg on TV.
“I was hooked,” said Groce, who turned to tennis after getting hurt playing sandlot football.
“He always loved it when our brown Volkswagen bus pulled into the parking lot at Breezeland,” Leibee said. “All four in our family played tennis. A good thing about Breezeland, you could always find a game.”
Thirty-three years later, Groce’s passion and devotion for the game has earned him a spot in the Kentucky Tennis Hall of Fame.
General manager of the Ashland Tennis Center since 1996, Groce is known statewide for his work with USTA League Tennis and also continues to remain active as a player.
“It’s very humbling,” Groce said of his election to the class of 2013. “The people I know (Hall of Fame members) are in there for playing ability. Mine is mostly for love of the game, and administration. I’ve always loved playing, but I enjoy being around people.”
A press release from the USTA Kentucky office in Louisville lauded Groce for going “above and beyond” to help promote the game through his various roles as a tennis player, USTA Adult League coordinator, tournament director, coach, volunteer, administrator and general manager of the tennis center.
“USTA Kentucky is recognizing Jerry for his long-term service to the organization at the state, local and southern level,” said USTA Kentucky president John Herring. “Jerry is recognized as one of the true authorities of USTA League Tennis throughout the south.”
Groce will be formally inducted into the USTA Kentucky Tennis Hall of Hame on Jan. 25 at a luncheon at the Louisville Country Club. Tickets will be available for the ceremony in January.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Leibee, 66, who was out of town last weekend competing in a Super Seniors (65-and-over) tournament. “I’m so tickled for Jerry. He’s great for the USTA, and does a super job managing our tennis center. Everybody loves Jerry.”
Dr. Jack Ditty, who nominated Groce, described him as a quiet and unassuming gentleman who earned the Hall of Fame honor for thousands of hours of dedication.
“Tennis has been a lifelong passion for Jerry,” Ditty said. “I met him when I started the Ashland Tennis Patrons. I recruited a group of young people to assist with tournaments in Central Park. He was always quick to volunteer. Even when he was assistant tournament director, he had a lot of responsibility.”
As a result, a career was born.
“That’s where I got my love of tournaments,” Groce said. “I used to help him with the Kentucky State Open, setting up the draw and working out the seeding. I loved that aspect. I remember being the youngest person there at the time.”
The Boyd County High School grad went on to become assistant manager of the ATC from 1984-89, organizing and overseeing leagues and tournaments for the center.
“That’s when I got involved with the USTA and league tennis,” Groce said. “I was 18 at the time. I wanted to be on one of those teams, but I was too young. You had to be at least 21 at that time. Now it’s 18.”
Groce served as USTA state league coordinator from 1996-2003. Working out of his home, he supervised 11 local league coordinators across the state. The league program grew 35 percent during his tenure, from 3,900 participants to more than 6,000.
Groce’s license plate — 10S NUT — is an indication of his passion for the game.
That means on the court as well as off. In 1997, Groce captained a 4.5 level men’s team from the Ashland Tennis Center that won the Southern Section title in Chattanooga.
“At nationals we finished 4-1, losing to the team that won the whole thing,” he said.
These days, Groce likes to say that he plays as much tennis as his knees will allow. This year, he’s been a member of six league teams. His Charleston (W.Va.) 4.0 team has won the local level the last five years.
During his time as general manager of the tennis center, Groce has conducted 10 or more tournaments each year for adults and children and also organized several USTA district state championships there. He was tournament director for the $25,000 Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital women’s event in 2004.
Some of his USTA Kentucky awards through the years include 2001 and ’04 Volunteer of the Year, and 1990 and ‘95 Local League Coordinator of the Year. The tennis center has also been recognized with several honors.
“I have so many people to be thankful for,” said Groce, who began with Jim and Helen Fout, and Jack and Juanita Ditty. “Jim Fout gave me the opportunity to be manager here. If these people had not gotten me started, I don’t know if I would have gotten involved in tennis. Overall, so many people had an impact, too many to give credit to, anyway.”
Groce said his best friends have been made through tennis — around the state and around the world.
“My whole adult life has been tennis in some shape or form,” he said. “I’ve gotten to experience a lot through tennis. For that, I’m very grateful.”
Groce expressed thanks to wife Janita for her support and “allowing me to live my dream. She’s had to share me with a lot of people, let’s put it that way.”
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.