ANNAPOLIS – In the early and mid-1960s Ann Koger became the first African-American to win the Maryland State Tennis Championships in the three different Junior Girls’ age divisions.
In 1963, playing in her first tournament at age 12, Koger said, her opponent was cheating by incorrectly calling balls out of bounds. In some tennis tournaments, balls that travel out are called by the individual on an honors system.
However, when she voiced her concerns to an official overseeing play, she was told to just continue playing.
Koger returned to the match, lost, and then cried. She then vowed to come back – vowed to get good enough to win whether someone was cheating her or not.
“I wasn’t going to let that run me out of what I wanted to do,” Koger said.
In November, Koger was inducted into the USTA Middle States Hall of Fame. In October, she received the Philadelphia Sports Legends Award. And in August, she was inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame.
Success for a black woman, playing a predominantly white sport in a segregated era, took more than mere skill.
All blacks, Koger said, would be placed in the same quarter of the tournament. So in order to advance they had to knock each other out, ensuring two would not appear in the final.
“As I kept going through and others got eliminated,” Koger said. “I was the only one left.”
Koger said she wanted to prove she could win for herself and for others.
“There was also a sense of pride and determination because nobody wanted me there,” Koger said.
Now the head tennis coach at Haverford College just outside Philadelphia, Koger grew up playing tennis in Druid Hill Park’s notoriously segregated tennis courts.
“The tennis courts there were called the ‘old colored tennis courts’,” Koger said.
It was on those courts that she gave back to a community that nourished her hunger for tennis. In the late 70s she returned as a professional tennis player and taught the game to young black kids who wanted to learn.
One of those kids was Keith Puryear, the first coach of the women’s tennis team at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I was raw,” Puryear said.
He had just started playing a few months before meeting Koger.
“She was pretty patient,” he recalled. “She told me I could be a really good player.”
In February, Puryear was inducted into the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Athletics Hall of Fame for his playing and coaching career. And last season at the Naval Academy he was recognized as the Patriot League Coach of the Year.
Puryear appreciates what Koger did for him, and others.
“Her legacy is secure,” Puryear said. “She helped to pave the way for the younger generations.”
As Koger looks back at her accomplishments she appreciates the game that changed her life.
“Tennis has opened a lot of doors for me and taken me to a lot of places I would have never seen,” Koger said. “Sure, there have been some negatives, but you can’t go back in time and fix people’s minds.”
She hopes the histories of black athletes in sports like tennis, swimming and golf won’t be lost and plans on doing her part to ensure they won’t.
“We have been underrepresented,” Koger said. “But we have a long history of competitiveness in those sports.”