A lifelong lover of tennis, Natalie Cohen made her mark on the sport as both an athlete and a trusted referee. While working full–time, Cohen maintained a remarkable second career in professional tennis, winning thirteen Georgia State Women’s Open Double Championships and a number of other tournaments. Cohen was also a certified umpire for over fifty years, the first woman to serve as chair umpire for men’s National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Tennis Championships, and the first woman to umpire a professional match during the Jack Kramer tours in the 1950s. The Southern Tennis Association repeatedly honored her for her work as an umpire, and she received a Presidential Sports Award from Gerald Ford.
Because Natalie Cohen’s life met the very essence of the definition of the “Georgia Women Sports Trailblazers,” she was elected a charter member in 1996. Already a Hall of Famer, this crowning honor was only one of many received throughout her life recognizing Natalie Cohen as a woman who has made significant contributions to sports, forging paths for others to follow.
Born on June 9, 1912, Natalie Cohen, a lifelong resident of Atlanta, Georgia, was the only surviving daughter of Dewald A. Cohen of Atlanta and Meta Leinkauf Cohen of Mobile, Alabama. She was educated in the Atlanta public school system, graduating from Girls’ High in 1930, and matriculated at University of California, Berkeley, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1934, with honors.
Her religious training stemmed from her parents and Sunday school at Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation. A confirmant in May 1928, Cohen’s lineage includes early members of the oldest Atlanta congregation through her great-grandfather Solomon Dewald and his daughter Dora Dewald, who married Henry Cohen. Henry Cohen’s son, Dewald Cohen, Natalie’s father, was president of the congregation during the World War II years between 1941 and 1944.
After graduation from the university, Cohen’s first professional mentor was the beloved Pulitzer Prize–winner Ralph McGill, then the sports editor of the Atlanta Constitution. After an initial taste of sports journalism, Cohen commenced work in the federal government, at first with the Civil Service Commission district office from 1936 to 1940, then in the War Department Civilian Personnel Field Office (later of the Department of Army) and South Atlantic Engineer Division from 1941 to 1967. After retiring from federal service in 1967, Cohen started a new career as the first executive secretary of the Southern Tennis Association (STA), which she held until her second retirement in September 1980.
Career and Legacy
Described in articles as “Miss Tennis of Atlanta” a “tennis legend,” and “USLTA woman of the month,” Cohen began playing tennis at age eight. When she retired from play in 1994, she had won thirteen Georgia State Women’s Open Double Championships and the Atlanta singles in 1949. In 1954, at age forty-two, she won the “grand slam” of local tennis by winning both the Atlanta City and Georgia State singles and doubles championships. Cohen was ranked number two in doubles by the STA.
Cohen was a certified umpire for over fifty years, a United States Tennis Association stadium umpire and referee. She was the first woman to serve as chair umpire for men’s National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Tennis Championships; the first southern woman to serve as chair umpire at Forest Hills; and chair of umpires, Southern Tennis Association and Georgia Tennis Association (GTA). She received the Marlborough Award from World Tennis in 1962. She was selected umpire of the year by STA in 1976; awarded the Jacobs Bowl by STA in 1977; was GTA umpire of the year in 1978; and became the recipient of the GTA Service Award in 1980. She is an STA, GTA, and Georgia Jewish Sports Halls of Fame member and was awarded the Presidential Sports Award by President Gerald Ford. As a volunteer, Natalie Cohen umpired local, regional, and national matches and was the first woman to umpire a professional match during the Jack Kramer tours in the 1950s.
Drawing upon her experiences in sports, she wrote and spoke on encouraging more active roles for women, particularly in tennis. Cohen’s alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, recognized her long-standing support by dedicating a seat in its stadium in her honor, and she was recognized in International Tennis Who’s Who.
Outspoken for good sportsmanship and adherence to fairness in the application of the rules, she did not hesitate to write, “To kow-tow and break rules and regulations for a few favored players is wrong, wrong, wrong.” She publicly reprimanded the famous Romanian tennis star, Ilie Nastase, while umpiring at his matches in Atlanta. Nastase, in a public apology that made the international news of the day, presented Cohen with a bouquet of roses.
Cohen passed away on February 7, 2007, at the age of 95.
SELECTED WORKS BY NATALIE COHEN
“Bitsy Grant Is Life Member of the Month.” Tennis USA (April 1972)
“My Point.” Tennis (September 1977).
Cohen, Natalie. Interviews by author, April 3, 1996, and September 26, 1996.
International Who’s Who in Tennis (1983).
McDonald, Joe D. “Miss Tennis of Atlanta.” Net News (October–November 1980).
“Reminiscences of a Southern Old Blue.” Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Train, Sally. “Finding Missing Persons ‘Elementary’ for Cohen.” Tennis USA 2, no. 13.
Weiner, Beryl H. “Athlete Natalie Cohen Has Always Been Ahead of Her Time.” The Jewish Georgian (May–June 1996).
“Women of USLTA in Profile: Natalie Cohen Is a Fixture at SLTA Office.” Tennis (December 1970).