Jackie Keller did something few people manage: She retired from one sport after winning a national championship, picked up another sport and won again.
Keller was a champion on the tennis court, on the golf course and through 37 years of sobriety. In the decade or so she spent with the St. Petersburg Tennis Center, she helped build a successful program for players and school kids.
In St. Petersburg, she built up the communities she was part of, not as a star athlete, but as a steady force.
“She did it quietly,” said niece Milena Margulis. “She wasn’t the kind of person who would walk in and be the loudest and most attention-grabbing. That wasn’t her style.”
Keller let her actions do the talking.
She died Nov. 22 at 73 of bladder cancer.
Growing up outside Pittsburgh, Keller didn’t have many opportunities to play sports in high school. So she made them. Keller helped start Turtle Creek High School’s girls’ basketball team.
In the 1970s, after getting her degree in education, she returned to her high school and coached basketball, softball and tennis. In 1975, the girls’ varsity basketball team won the section title. A few years later, Keller started working as an assistant tennis pro before moving to St. Petersburg, “which makes sense,” said her niece, Margulis. “You can’t play tennis year-round in Pennsylvania.”
Keller worked at Isla del Sol Yacht & County Club and Treasure Island Tennis & Yacht Club. In 2000, she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. After a mastectomy and treatment, she returned to work the following year. In 2002, she joined the St. Petersburg Tennis Center as general manager. The center, which opened in the 1930s, had a historic building in Bartlett Park and, in 2001, just 27 members.
The city planned to shut it down, said Mike Carroll, a former board chairperson and a board member of the center. He helped put together a group to save the tennis center. In 2002, he met Keller and hired her as general manager.
“In 10 years, we were sustainable,” said Carroll, a former St. Petersburg Times CFO. “We had well over 150 members, but most importantly, the after-school program.”
Through that program, First Serve, Keller grew registration from six kids to 300, with 100 regulars who came for tennis lessons and homework help.
“We had an idea,” Carroll said. “Jackie made it something very real and very promising.”
Today, a court at the tennis center is named in Keller’s honor.
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Lisa Grattan remembers piling into Keller’s hotel room with their teammates each night to talk strategy during the U.S. Tennis Association’s national championships in 2007.
Keller’s strategy for the team with no players to spare: “No one could get injured.”
She led her team with humor, Grattan said, and fierce competition. Her skyhook, a move where she’d snag a ball out of the air with a windmill motion, helped win a crucial point for her team.
After winning nationals, Keller decided it was time to retire from tennis and take up a new sport.
Terry Decker knew Keller when she was a tennis pro and he was a golf pro at Isla Del Sol. But he hadn’t seen her for 20 years until the day she walked into the St. Petersburg Country Club.
Decker, then the head golf pro, recognized Keller instantly. He gave her pointers and watched her work on them.
“Next thing you know, she became a really good player.”
Keller also became a leader for the women’s golf association.
“She just really worked hard at it,” Decker said, “just like anything she did.”
Judith Preston met Keller on the golf course and found a golf and travel buddy who loved music and old movies and often won big in poker.
The two traveled and played in Ireland, Scotland, Canada, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. In 2016, Keller was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, East Boros Chapter, for her contributions.
In 2019, she won the St. Petersburg Golf Club’s Women’s Club Championship.
Keller approached the sports she played as an athlete, her friends said, and everything else with quiet determination.
“Even though she was a lot better than many people, whether it was in tennis or golf or had longer sobriety,” Grattan said, “she never was too good to help another person.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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