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Postcards from the first Duke of tennis

Coach Duke is currently in his late 80’s and is a resident of Tulsa.
Photo by: Josh Crow

In 1968, Coach Bernis Duke wrote by hand 50 postcards and sent them to students in South Africa, Australia, Finland and Czechoslovakia in search for ORU’s first tennis team.

It was not an easy step for Duke or the university. Duke faced adversity in wanting to start a new team for the school, because of the bad character shown in many professional athletes at the time. Duke was fervent—he firmly believed if the school formed another good sports team, it would give ORU a respectable name.

Oral Roberts told Duke, “In Oklahoma, we do wrestling. You can start a team for that.”

Even though Duke was previously a boxer, he wasn’t passionate about fighting and didn’t have any experience with wrestling, so he suggested a tennis team to Roberts.

As a previous college athlete, Duke attended college at Arkansas College, now known as Lyons College, where he played basketball and was eventually recruited to the University of Arkansas’ heavyweight boxing team.

With a lot of effort, he held a state championship title for three years, facing off against notable athletes like Billy Ray Smith, who would go on to play football for the NFL team the Baltimore Colts.

After graduating college, Duke taught and coached in Arkansas, but when the Korean War broke out, Duke was drafted into the army.

At the end of his time serving and fresh out of the National Guard, Duke stumbled upon an open position as a basketball coach at ORU.

“I started in 1965, on day one when ORU opened,” said Duke.

Three years into coaching, Duke was not satisfied with only having a baseball and basketball team. Duke thought this wasn’t enough. Eventually, in 1968, Duke asked Roberts if he could start a new sports team for the school.

With Roberts’ approval for the new team, recruiting began. In Duke’s opinion, it was hard to recruit Americans because ORU was a young school, and most American tennis players desired to go to prestigious universities with established reputations. After searching the United States far and wide, Duke decided it was time to look for players overseas.

Conflicts with international recruiting arose in Czechoslovakia, because of the country’s Communist party. Realizing this, Duke helped push to allow the Czech players to attend school in the United States.

Later, in the peak of the Cold War, Czech government officials realized some of their citizens were in the United States and demanded that all Czech players return to the Communist nation immediately. To resolve the tension, Duke took a photo of the players holding a Czech flag that they had pulled down from the Circle of Flags.

This picture was sent to the Czech leader saying, “We [ORU] are a Czech outpost loyal to the works of the Czech government.”

The Czech leader responded to Duke’s postcard, saying, “Comrade Duke, we are puzzled. Nevertheless, because you are an outpost in America during the Cold War, we will allow the Czech citizens to stay for another six months.”

That same year, Duke’s team challenged the prestigious tennis team of University of Texas in ORU’s first tennis match.

“They offered to let us play their intramural team, and I said, ‘nope, that’s not good enough’. Then they offered to let us play the junior varsity team, and I said, ‘nope that’s not good enough,’” Duke said.

As he spoke to UT’s tennis coach, a confident Coach Duke refused to play any team other than UT’s varsity.

Coach Duke and Oral Roberts next to the Universities first tennis team. Photo provided by Coach Bernis Duke

The tennis coach of UT finally gave in, allowing the newly formed tennis team of ORU to play their varsity team. He warned Coach Duke that it wouldn’t be a fair match, but still gave ORU the opportunity to play. Duke seized the opportunity to play UT and left with a victory. Throughout the rest of the first tennis season ORU went undefeated. Many years later, Duke was inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame, reflecting his tennis career.

Thanks to Coach Duke’s early efforts and relentless belief in his vision, ORU’s tennis team is a part of the NCAA and is still composed of skilled players who come from across the globe. As a coach, mentor and friend, Coach Duke’s legacy lives on through his players and coworkers, so much so that ORU named one of the recently completed tennis courts in his honor.