Some people are just different. They have an “it” factor, a commanding presence. They’re giants.
Dennis Van der Meer, who passed away in 2019 and who will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July, didn’t coach ten Slam champions, like Nick Bolletieri. He wasn’t a full-of-chuckles, media-savvy entertainer like Vic Braden, and he wasn’t that much of a deep-dive, “What’s it all about?” guy like Peter Burwash.
But he was a giant. With his tireless passion and love, Dennis cut a wide swath across the game. Called tennis’ coach of coaches, he was the ultimate teacher. Often with a lanyard around his neck, he used his whistle as his tool. His message was clear – “Listen up. Do it right. This matters.” Whether guiding Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, South African pro Amanda Coetzer, a wannabe coach or hundreds of beginners in Japan, he taught technique with astonishing mastery.
His prime protege, Dan Santorum, who heads the Professional Tennis Registry, founded by Van der Meer, told IT, “There’s nothing equal to the effect he had on coaches around the world. He impacted millions. His gift was that he loved to teach. He was a showman who was at his best when he was on court. That’s where he thrived. A great actor knows how to turn it on – so did Dennis. And he was tireless. He had such a pace and passion. He’d start a clinic at noon on Monday and wouldn’t stop until midday Sunday. He’d fly to Japan and be on court the next day. And don’t forget, he could put a ball on a dime.”
Born in 1933 in a small African village in Namibia, he reportedly started tennis when his mom “strung a rope over some sticks, handed him a ratchety racket and told him to hit the ball.” His parents were missionaries. So was Dennis – his mission was tennis. Few loved the game more, and his worldwide PTR group now includes 15,000 pros.
When he was a child his family roamed from village to village. Then they moved to Capetown, and eventually to Northern California and South Carolina. His genius was mastering consistent techniques. His theme was, “Keep it simple. Keep it fun.” All the while he was always driven by a churning entrepreneurial instinct.
He taught at the Berkeley Tennis Club where the traditional place embraced his untraditional ways, like his pet ocelot named Dropshot, who chased balls on back courts. Dennis soon began innovative camps. Then he bought coastal swampland in Hilton Head and turned it into a tennis university, where for years 50 pros a week would fly in from all over the world. Then he created a Hilton Head academy that still thrives. He made videos, and his prime book, “Dennis Van der Meer’s Complete Book of Tennis,” was a hit.
But in 2011 he suffered a debilitating stroke. Still, his team, including Santorum and his wife Pat, sustained his work. Van der Meer’s calling card was his whistle. “He used it to bring people together,” notes Santorum. “He made us one. If there’s one word to describe our group, it’s family. He affected millions. He was all about diversity. A third of our coaches are persons of color. You don’t see that anywhere else.”
Van der Meer’s legacy is global. Pro John Gruberg said, “He made my serve – and changed my life.” Coach Dick Gould attested, “Few have done so much to raise the standard of the game. He made so many so much better.”
Billie Jean King added: “He touched the lives of so many. He was an innovative coach, a Hall of Fame human being and a real champion in every sense of the word.”
Of course, it kind of helped that he had a photographic memory. Even if he was doing a clinic with 100 students, he’d remember every name. And for decades tennis will remember his name: Van der Meer – the giant with a lanyard and a vision whose passion transformed tennis.