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Tennis world champion Melvin ‘Pete’ Peterson, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is on a mission to improve health disparities and foster wellness among Native youth through the power of racquet sports. 

Peterson’s journey with tennis began in his youth and flourished during his college years at Georgia State University, where he earned accolades as an All-Conference player. 

"Tennis provided me with focus and determination, especially during challenging times. It taught me resilience, which I now aim to instill in Native youth through our programs,” Peterson told Native News Online. 

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As a professional, Peterson competed globally, winning the International Tennis Federation world championship in men’s 35-and-under doubles in Turkey. His career also included mentoring future champions, reflecting his commitment to nurturing talent and fostering community through sports. 

“I spent my life on the tennis court, clocking around 75,000 hours. Now, in the last third of my life, I want to pursue something truly meaningful,” Peterson said. "I want to empower Native youth to believe in themselves and their abilities."

In 2020, Peterson founded the Serving Love Foundation to expand his vision of using tennis as a tool for transformation. The foundation’s initiatives include pop-up clinics on Cherokee land and introducing tennis to Native communities across Indian Country, reaching over 1,000 kids and adults.

“As a lifelong student and teacher of life, I've found tennis to be a sport where anyone can excel, regardless of their background,” said Peterson. “Even from small communities with limited resources, you can carve out a niche for yourself in racquet sports. There are so many opportunities that I want to help cultivate for people, offering pathways to personal growth and success.”

The foundation’s genesis can be traced back to Peterson’s involvement with Standing Tall Tennis, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 by U.S. Professional Tennis Association teaching pro, Dave Dantzer, which introduced thousands of Native youth to tennis. 

Building on this legacy, the Serving Love Foundation aims to leverage Peterson’s experience and connections to expand the reach of racquet sports in Native communities. 

“I want Native communities to know about the potential of racquet sports like tennis and pickleball,” said Peterson. 

Recently, Peterson has turned his attention to pickleball, a sport he believes offers unique advantages for Native communities, emphasizing its accessibility and appeal across all ages, from children to seniors; Peterson sees pickleball as a gateway to promote health and wellness while preserving cultural identity. 

“Tennis can be challenging, taking a long time to master and sometimes not as fun,” said Peterson. “Pickleball, on the other hand, is thrilling and accessible. It's perfect for Native communities because it caters to all ages—kids, teens, adults, and seniors. You can organize family tournaments and events, making it a fun way to stay fit without hitting the gym.” 

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic leading to widespread closures, Peterson has remained steadfast in his commitfment over the last 4 years. He has forged partnerships with local organizations and tribes, including engagements in Boise, Idaho, and visits to various tribal communities across the country. 

For Peterson, the most rewarding aspect of leading the Serving Love Foundaiton lies in laying the groundwork for lasting change. 

“I'm focused on the hard work needed to make progress. I'm in the phase of getting things off the ground, striving to establish that one successful pilot site that demonstrates the potential we believe in,” said Peterson. “From there, we can build and expand.”

Looking ahead, Peterson plans to extend the Serving Love Foundation’s reach, partnering with tribes and organizations to establish pickleball programs and tournaments nationwide. 

"Our vision is to create lasting change," Peterson said. "By harnessing the power of sports, we can inspire the next generation of Native leaders and athletes."

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About The Author
Kaili Berg
Author: Kaili BergEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Staff Reporter
Kaili Berg (Aleut) is a member of the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq Nation, and a shareholder of Koniag, Inc. She is a staff reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. Berg, who is based in Wisconsin, previously reported for the Ho-Chunk Nation newspaper, Hocak Worak. She went to school originally for nursing, but changed her major after finding her passion in communications at Western Technical College in Lacrosse, Wisconsin.