Skip to main content
Partner logo
Mobile Icon Link Mobile Icon Link Mobile Icon Link Gamecocks+
General  . 

Gamecocks Recognize Tennis Official Lee Ward for Dedication to the Game

by Brad Muller

Lee Ward found a home on the tennis court. Whether it was playing, officiating, or organizing officials for matches for many years, the Bainbridge, Georgia native has a passion for tennis and has been the coordinator of officials for South Carolina tennis matches since 1995.  South Carolina Athletics Director Ray Tanner is presenting Ward with a framed graphic of him prior to Sunday’s women’s tennis match vs. Auburn that will be hung in the Lee Ward Officials Room in the  Carolina Indoor Tennis Center. He will also be given a personal size version that he can display at home. The 76-year-old, who is retired from teaching, is still going strong and still loves everything about the game.

“It’s a challenge,” said Ward, who has been the head official for more than one thousand matches. “It’s a live action event. It’s not scripted. Anything can happen. The coaches and players are all fine people. I see coaches now that came in as juniors, and now they have children. Tennis overall is a lifestyle.

“I’ve been doing it a while. I’m kind of winding down. This level of tennis deserves the very best, and I want to get the very best people that can work.”

Ward wasn’t someone who grew up at a country club with a racquet in his hand since birth. He grew to love tennis, but he didn’t actually pick up a racquet until he started playing while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Turkey in 1964.

“The reason I chose it was I that I was a good athlete in high school,” Ward said. “I played football and had a few scholarship offers, but I went into the Air Force instead. This was during the Vietnam era. While I was in Turkey, I started going to night school for college and began to play tennis. When I left there, I went to the University of Georgia and became a very dedicated tennis player there. They had a very good team there. I practiced and practiced and studied and studied. I begged people to hit with me and hit against the wall by myself forever.”

After graduating magna cum laude from Georgia in 1968, Ward went to the Southern Illinois for graduate school on a fellowship to study anthropology. While there, he continued to play more and then started competing in tournaments.

His career in anthropology took off as he traveled to South America and Mexico. He later came back to South Carolina and started working at the University as an adjunct professor in the Anthropology Department. Ward later took similar positions in Nebraska and Tennessee and continued to play tennis as much as possible before returning to South Carolina.

“As the result of teaching myself so well, I no longer had to play the number one seed in the first round of tournaments, and I had a chance to win a round or two,” Ward said. “I got to the point where I was seeded and got to be pretty good.

“I began to teach clinics around here. The way I played the game was to put the ball in spots on the court. My style of play was to keep the ball going. Around 1988 I started to become more serious about the teaching part. I developed a program in Lexington County where I was teaching adults and children. I found another opportunity here on campus to teach short courses. I started that in 1992, and that lasted until around 1999.”

After frequenting a lot of collegiate matches in the 1980s and early ‘90s a friend, who was a tennis official, asked him if he’d be interested in becoming one. That led to him getting certified.

“Once you become an official, they want you to work every possible thing that you can because there were so few officials,” Ward said.

Lee Ward
“I liked officiating because I like the game, and I want it to be treated with respect.”
Lee Ward  . 

Ward worked youth, college, and adult tournaments, and studied all the methods to be a great official. Clearly Ward was a dedicated tennis aficionado. With his playing days starting to slow down, Ward was glad for the opportunity learn about officiating, initially as an umpire on the court.

“I liked officiating because I like the game, and I want it to be treated with respect,” Ward said. “I would get assigned to matches and because I lived in West Columbia, I was available to be at all the matches. I became so available, that both (South Carolina) coaches, Arlo Elkins and Kent DeMars, decided that they wanted me to do the assigning, the training, and the recruitment for officials. I’m still doing that today. You have to know how to handle scheduling, and you have to be able to work with coaches and understand the game very well. There’s a lot at stake for everyone that’s involved in it.”

Every institution has someone like Ward, where there is a head referee who is responsible for getting officials and evaluating them. Ward was later trained by the International Tennis Federation to become an international referee.

“I recruit, train, evaluate, and solicit officials,” Ward said. “Nowadays, the level of tennis is so high, we don’t just have one official roving all the courts (for a college match). We have one official at each match.

“The better you are at coordinating; the more officials will want to work with you. I had a pretty extensive network from my playing days.”

Having seen a lot of great coaches and players come and go, Ward has plenty of great memories and has many keepsakes such as tournament programs and media guides that he still treasures. He still has a passion for all aspects of the game.

“I love tennis,” Ward said. “Intellectually, I love the game, the strategy of it, the conditioning that’s necessary, and agility you need to be able to do it. The game was so appealing to me, and I had the urge to pass it on. I looked at it as a lifetime fitness sport, and I take my job very seriously.”