Mark Saunders was one of the greatest tennis players in Rockford history. And also one of the most temperamental. He even quit for a year at age 14, saying tennis wasn’t worth it.
“In the future, what will it get me?” he said at the time.
It got him into the Hall of Fame.
Tennis wound up giving Mark Saunders more than medals and trophies. It gave him a career. He worked for the United States Tennis Association Midwest Section for 32 years before retiring last year. He started as the section’s Director of Player Development in 1990 and became its CEO for the last 26 years before stepping down.
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And now he will be inducted into the USTA Midwest Section Hall of Fame on Feb. 11 in Indianapolis.
“He found his niche,” said Ron Balsam, Saunders’ coach at the now-defunct Rockford West High School. “That’s what he was missing when he was young. But as much as he struggled with what he wanted to do with the game for a year or two, it has always been on top of the bundle in his heart. And he’s always been good, even when he was in high school, at bringing up the kids below him to play better, both juniors and other team players.”
“Tennis took me places,” Saunders said. “If it wasn’t for tennis, who knows where I would be today.
“I can’t even begin to think of the number of people I met who helped me in my career and who I have had the privilege to help as well.”
As a player, Saunders was 42-1 in singles as a senior and lost only one match in doubles in four years at West. He went on to have a winning record at Indiana State in college, then played professionally on the satellite tours for a few years. He began in the tennis business by working at the old Victory Tennis Club in Rockford and then at the Kankakee Racquet Club before moving to a club in Philadelphia in 1979 and then the USTA.
At the USTA, he was responsible for the construction of the organization’s building that houses the USTA Midwest Section staff and hall of fame in Indianapolis and running several programs. What he is most proud of is helping develop junior players, including Rajeev Ram, who is a former No. 1-ranked doubles player in the world.
“Mark has been a real advocate for tennis programs and the USTA all his life,” Balsam said.
Saunders and renowned coach Jimmy Evert will be this year’s two inductees. Evert grew up in Chicago and rose to as high as No. 11 in the US as a player, but is better known as the father of six-time US Open champion Chris Evert.