Denoon was Firm Man with ‘Heart of Gold’

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Denoon was Firm Man with ‘Heart of Gold’

RICHMOND– When James J. “Jim” Denoon first started playing tennis in the 1950s, it was a different era.

There were no fist pumps or celebrations after a big point. You didn’t throw your racquet in disgust following a tough loss. You didn’t talk back to the chair umpire when he made a close call in your opponent’s favor.

Denoon expected everyone to abide by those old-school rules whenever he was the lead official for a local junior or high school tournament or the referee at a city or regional event.

“He was firm,” said Richard Peyton, a long-time friend and tennis coach at St. Christopher’s and St. Catherine’s School.

Peyton recalled an incident when Denoon served as a referee for the Prep League tournament at St. Christopher’s.

“He threw a guy out of the tournament one year,” said Peyton. “The guy had lost his [singles] match. He threw his racquet into the bag, which was sitting by the fence.

“He got up and said to the kid, ‘You are out of this tournament.’ The kid said, ‘Well, I have already lost my singles.’ And Jim said ‘I want you off the property.’ That’s how he got his reputation.”

But there was another side to “Spoon,” as he was known to his best friends. Denoon, who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, passed away on June 30.

“He was a very humanitarian, very generous person,” said Peyton. “He had such a good heart. There was no reason not to like him. And he encouraged everyone to be the best they could be in everything they did.”

A protégé of the late Sam Woods, Denoon moved to Richmond from Manhattan in 1954 and learned the game at Byrd Park while enjoying other outdoor sports such as baseball, football and basketball. But tennis was his favorite.

Delanie Denoon, Jim’s wife, said Sam Woods encouraged him after he was cut from the baseball team.

“{Woods] had some tennis racquets hanging around and he kind of took [Denoon] under his wing and got him interested in tennis and, you know, the rest is history,” said Delanie.

Denoon worked hard at tennis. He was a member of the Thomas Jefferson High School’s team, then became the first player to be given a full scholarship at the University of South Carolina, where he helped the Gamecocks win the ACC championship in 1968.

“Tennis is what got him through college and allowed him to afford a degree,” said Delanie.

Denoon became a teaching pro and was director of tennis for country clubs in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. His longest and final stop was at the Country Club of Petersburg, where he worked from 1990-2005.

During his tenure at the Petersburg club, Denoon started the BB&T Invitational, which attracted T.J. Middleton and Bret Garnett, both high-ranked competitors in doubles on the pro tour.

“He was super organized,” said Charlie Owens, a frequent participant in the tournament and formerly ranked top 40 in the world during his pro career. “He was honest with the draws. Didn’t slip anybody into a good spot for any reason. He played by the rules.”

When Denoon became unable to play tennis because of two hip replacements and one knee replacement, he took up cycling, riding roughly 7,500 miles per year as a member of the Richmond Area Bicycling Association.

“He didn’t do anything halfway,” said Irvin Cantor, who knew Denoon for more than 30 years. “Everything he did, he did at 100 percent. Just like with tennis, he was always trying to get people to ride. He actually led a lot of the bike rides.”

For years, Denoon was the lead official for the Prep League tournament, League of Independent Schools, Woodberry Forest Invitational, Virginia Independent Schools Boys State tournament and the Virginia High School League Girls team and individual tourneys.

“Jim was the best,” said Peyton. “I would say he almost has that book of rules and regulations memorized. He would go above and beyond what a USTA official would do.”

Delanie said Denoon wanted to make sure the kids realized there was a right way to conduct yourself.

“He was a great lover of tennis,” said his wife, “He absolutely loved the game. He promoted it any way he could, whether it was as a tennis pro or as an official on the court. It was his life’s work.”