For Paul Bradshaw, tennis isn’t simply a matter of staying inside the baseline or perfecting his forehand. It’s about community-building and activism.
Bradshaw, a member of the Austin Tennis Club since its early days, has been hitting yellow balls back and forth across a range of courts for 42 years; he began playing competitively as a teenager. ATC is a nonprofit organization that promotes tennis and social activities in the LGBT community; membership is open to anyone, including beginners.
The Austin Tennis Club has 80 members, two seasons of team tennis per year and it’s part of the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Association (an international governing body). “I’d been involved in sports before,” Bradshaw says, noting his time with the North American Gay Volleyball Association. “It was a great way to meet people who you could hang out with in the daytime – as opposed to your bar friends.”
While the social focus of the gay community used to be primarily in bars and clubs, things have changed. In 2002, Bradshaw headed down to Sydney, Australia, to play in the Gay Games, which brought together 11,000 athletes from 70 different countries. Unfortunately, his doubles partner from Austin bailed out at the last minute. He was matched with a player from Los Angeles and the two became instant friends. “When I walked into the opening ceremonies in Sydney, it’s the most amazing thing,” says Bradshaw, his eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “They’re not yelling for you, but for what you represent.”
The ATC has raised money for the University of Texas Gender and Sexuality Center, an organization that provides a safe space for UT students to study and learn about issues of gender and sexuality, as well as OutYouth, which supports 12-to-19-year old LGBT residents of Austin. Over the years, the group has raised thousands of dollars through tournament proceeds, silent auctions and raffles for a range of local organizations, including AIDS Services of Austin. The Austin Tennis Club is a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization where mebers pay dues to cover expenses.
Tennis brought Bradshaw together with his husband of four years, Stacey Smith. They met at the Courtyard Tennis Club’s annual tournament. At the time, Smith was straight – and married. “We didn’t start going out right away,” says Bradshaw. “We became friends and it sort of grew from there.”
Bradshaw and Smith play tennis three or four times per week – and Bradshaw says that tennis has probably made their relationship stronger. “We don’t get terribly frustrated with each other,” says Bradshaw. “Playing tennis helps with a lot of that. If there is anything bugging him, he can beat the “%?&@” out of me on the tennis court.”
Conveniently enough, the house that Bradshaw and his husband share is across from the Caswell Tennis Center. Bradshaw, who achieved a world number one ranking within the GLTA, plays three or four times per week, and he’s had the same coach for about 15 years. The couple went to the U.S. Open the last two years and the Italian Open three years ago. In 2007, as a 40th birthday present for Smith, Bradshaw took him to all four grand slam events.
Growing up, Bradshaw’s family encouraged his love of tennis. “My mom is that stereotypical Southern mom,” he says. “Whatever any of her chicklets wanted to do – you just go and do it!” His father, a professional basketball player in his youth, was also very supportive of Bradshaw’s time on the tennis court.
Looking ahead, Bradshaw and his fellow tennis lovers will be training for the Heart of Texas Texas Classic Cup, an annual tournament that pits Austin teams against Dallas and Houston (Austin has won three of the last five) and benefits OutYouth. Most tournaments are three day affairs that mix charitable work with the actual sport, along with a social component, like a banquet.
Toward the end of our chat, Bradshaw talks about the difference between standard and LGBT athletic groups. “There seems to be more of a purpose and it’s certainly more social, he says. “You’re united by more than just the sport. It’s that sense of feeling that your sport can be a conduit to something bigger than the recreation.”
The couple played in the Gay Games in Chicago, in 2006, and it was the same. “Sports has become a great sort of way to build community,” says Bradshaw, noting that they made it to the quarterfinals in 2006. They decided not to play doubles anymore after that. “He’s super competitive in that way – I’m more laid back.”