O’Neal led growth of tennis in Vicksburg|[4/16/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 18, 2005

The Vicksburg tennis community is still coming to grips with the loss of one of its most prominent figures, Beverly J. O’Neal.

O’Neal collapsed while playing in a match on April 9 at the Courthouse Tennis Courts in northeast Jackson. The playing group, which included Ridgeland High School tennis coach Arnetha Anthony, escorted O’Neal to St. Dominic Memorial Hospital in Jackson where she later died of a heart attack. O’Neal was 48.

“We were in a doubles match and one minute she’s happy and high-fiving everybody, and then in an instant, she just collapsed,” Anthony said.

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O’Neal was a top-flight player, and was a certified teaching pro. She played at the 5.0 level, which is the highest level on the United States Tennis Association’s club level.

“She was a quiet, energetic person, and it’s a shame she is no longer with us,” said Ann Bradley, of the Mississippi Tennis Association. “She always had a great rapport with this office and the MTA put her in charge of our multi-cultural program in Mississippi.

“She was instrumental in gaining grants to teach junior players who normally could not afford to be taught and give them the opportunity to get involved with tennis.”

For many players in the Vicksburg area, O’Neal was the one who taught them the basics.

“She was my first tennis coach,” Warren Central’s Carrie Taylor said. “Always real sweet. She would always try and come watch us play.”

“It was a long time ago, but she was my first tennis coach. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old,” St. Aloysius senior Ellen Wakeley said. “The thing I remember best about her was that she never got real mad at us. She was always encouragining us.”

“Her biggest attraction was her enthusiasm for the game,” said St. Aloysius tennis coach Leonard Banks. “She gave everything she could to the game. Many times she would give free lessons. And even when she did get paid, it wasn’t much.”

One of O’Neal’s best students is current Meridian Community College player Chase Koestler, who prepped at Warren Central.

“Chase is pretty upset about the loss,” said his mother, Brenda Koestler. “I met her through tennis. Chase started taking lessons from her 10 years ago. Then we started running tournaments together. She was just a really good friend.”

O’Neal was also known as a tremendous talent on the courts.

“I played against Beverly a couple of times,” Bradley said. “She was definitely a 5.0 player, which is our top level. I remember I had to watch out for her ball, because she could hit it hard.”

Vickie Bailey said O’Neal was a driving force to bringing tennis to Vicksburg.

“She meant just about everything to tennis in Vicksburg,” Bailey said. “It was her tireless effort that helped get us more courts in Vicksburg. We needed more courts, and she pushed and pushed the recreation board and we got our courts.

“She helped bring the USTA to Vicksburg. But what I liked best about her was that she worked with both white and black kids, just teaching them the game.”

O’Neal was a member of Greater Grove Baptist Church. She was a computer programmer at Waterways Experiment Station.

Survivors include her husband, Louis O’Neal Jr. of Vicksburg; one daughter, Tenesha O’Neal Lacey of St. Louis; her father, Albert Sweet of Vicksburg; seven brothers, Albert Sweet Jr., Jimmy Sweet, Raymond Sweet and Anthony Sweet, all of Vicksburg, Michael Sweet of Jackson and Anthony Sweet of Tupelo; three sisters, Dorothy Felix and Vanessa Thompson, both of Vicksburg, and Mary Brown of Shreveport, La.; and two grandchildren.

O’Neal’s funeral is set for Sunday at 1 p.m. at Vicksburg City Auditorium.