Nancy P. Jeffett, a groundbreaking promoter who was instrumental in advancing women’s professional tennis and in developing opportunities for promising junior players, passed away peacefully on July 6 at the age of 88.
“Nancy Jeffett was a true trailblazer and smart businesswoman, and through her love for tennis, opened doors for many young players,” said WTA founder Billie Jean King. “Her leadership and her commitment to the future of our sport – especially the access and opportunities she provided for junior players – will forever be her legacy. Nancy will always be remembered for taking tennis to new levels. She had strong relationships with the tennis community and lifelong friendships with many of us in the sport. She lived a full life, committed to making our sport and our world better.”
Refusing to take no for an answer when she was told no one would pay to watch women’s tennis or tune in on television, Jeffett made history in 1972 when she facilitated the first ever network broadcast of a women-only tennis tournament – a revolutionary boost to the sport. First staged in 1969 as the Maureen (Mo) Connolly Brinker Memorial Tournament, Jeffett’s televised event evolved to become the Virginia Slims of Dallas, one of the most popular and important events in the early years of the WTA Tour.
Born in St Louis, Missouri, Jeffett was an accomplished all-court player who rose to No.10 nationally in the USLTA Girls’ 18 division in 1946. She parlayed that success into becoming the USLTA/Missouri Singles, Doubles and Mixed Doubles champion in 1948. She lived most of her life in Texas, where she founded the Tyler (Texas) Tennis Association in 1954 and later became the Chairman of the Texas Tennis Junior Development Program (1960-82).
In 1968, Jeffett joined forces with her good friend Connolly, the nine-time Grand Slam singles champion, to co-found the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation (MCBTF). Their goal was to engage more people with the sport, especially children and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Following Connolly’s death in 1969, Jeffett spearheaded the organization that has since contributed millions of dollars to player development around the world - from tennis programs in public parks to professional tournaments.
In addition to her work with MCBTF and the Virginia Slims circuit, Jeffett served the sport in numerous capacities, including as an active member of the USTA Executive Committee (1973-1994) and on the ITF Fed Cup Committee (1988-1996). She was the longtime chair of both the U.S. Wightman Cup (1978-90) and Federation Cup (1981-1990). Among many accolades she was made an Honorary Member of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, having been elected for her services to international tennis. She is the only American woman who is not a Wimbledon champion to have received this honor.
In recognition of her immense contributions to growing the sport, Jeffett was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2015.
“Nancy was one of the sturdiest tent poles the women's game has been blessed to have. I miss her already,” said former player and esteemed tennis commentator Mary Carillo.
WTA legend Betty Stove added: “It is a sad day to lose one of our leaders in sports. She did a great thing and was ahead of her times.”
And former World No.1 Chris Evert remembered, “Nancy was a strong woman in a man’s world… and she outshone all of them.”
Jeffett is survived by her daughter, Elizabeth P. (Sissy) Jeffett; her son, William F. Jeffett and his fiancée Margaret Metras; her grandchildren Austin Jeffett Smith and Katharine Marguerite Smith; her son-in-law, Charles F. Smith, Jr.; and her sister-in-law Ann Pearce.
The WTA sends its condolences to Nancy’s family and friends.