Cathie Sabin, who has died aged 73, was a former PE teacher who rose to become the first female president of the Lawn Tennis Association. She was a cheerleader for grassroots and county tennis as well as for the international game, her friendly, down-to-earth approach endearing her to everyone from aspiring young players to Wimbledon champions and world sporting leaders.
She was born Catherine Mary Piddock on January 11 1947 at Smethwick in Birmingham, the second of three sisters, and grew up in Edgbaston in a close-knit family steeped in public service. Her father Geoffrey, a lawyer and the coroner for Smethwick, had won the DFC for his bravery as a reconnaissance pilot in the Second World War. Her mother Kay was a JP and chairman of the bench in Smethwick as well as national president of Ladies Circle.
Cathie attended Lowther College, a boarding school in North Wales where she excelled at netball, hockey, lacrosse and tennis, and particularly enjoyed coaching the younger girls. After training in PE at the I M Marsh College in Liverpool, she taught first at Hartshill High School, Nuneaton, where she met her future husband John, a history teacher and head of humanities.
They moved to Shropshire soon after their marriage in 1970 and worked at Idsall School in Shifnal, where Cathie Sabin’s natural sympathy for the underdog made her highly effective both as a games teacher and in the pastoral side of her role as head of year. With some families affected by drug problems and poverty, she was generous with her time, often supporting children and their families outside school hours.
Among her less troublesome charges were the boys from the FA School of Excellence at nearby Lilleshall Hall, including the future England internationals Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen. Part of her job was ensuring that they balanced the competing demands of football and academe, and although few were enthusiastic scholars, her kindness and evident love of sport won them over and several remained in touch. She was voted Teacher of the Year in 2000.
A keen member of Bridgnorth Tennis Club for decades, she represented Shropshire at senior and veterans level and was renowned for her organisational skills, running a number of school sports teams.
In the early 1990s the LTA spotted Cathie Sabin as an effective leader after she agreed to train hundreds of ballboys and girls, most from Idsall School, for the National Tennis Championships at Telford.
In characteristically thorough fashion, she also organised coaching programmes for the children with British stars including Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski. She even consoled the mercurial Andrew Castle after he was fined for displaying a placard that read “Say no to poll tax” on his bag in the final, then discovered his car had been stolen.
Cathie Sabin was elected an LTA councillor for Shropshire in 2001 and spent many hours chairing committees and volunteering. When she retired from teaching in 2005 she poured more of her energy and dedication into developing the game, and two years later she joined the influential LTA Board, rapidly winning admiration for her knowledge of all aspects of the game.
Just weeks after her appointment, however, she was diagnosed with myeloma and given two years to live. She soldiered on without fanfare, organising her treatment to avoid disrupting her LTA commitments, and she underwent a successful stem cell transplant in 2010 which kept most of the symptoms at bay until the last few weeks of her life.
Soon afterwards she won the national Volunteer of the Year award and became LTA representative on the Wimbledon Championships management committee. Then in 2011 she was invited to become LTA deputy president, a three-year role which led to the presidency.
“It was unbelievable,” her husband recalled. “She said: ‘They’ve never had a woman before. Why do they want me? I’m not a lawyer or accountant; I live nowhere near London – and what would I wear?’ ”
In the event, the LTA’s presidential clothes allowance gave her the confidence to take her place in the line-ups for presentation ceremonies including Wimbledon finals and others.
Rather than simply relishing the glamour of front-row seats at major championships, however, she remained deeply committed to the clubs, schools and county scene, which she considered the bedrock of the game, and made great efforts to visit every county during her presidency. At Wimbledon she particularly enjoyed touring the outside courts, watching the British juniors and wheelchair players in action.
The All England Chairman Philip Brooke always arranged for another LTA committee member to take her place in the royal box during these rambles. Cathie Sabin formed a close partnership with the Duchess of Gloucester, a great tennis enthusiast, and the pair regularly paid low-key visits to inner-city tennis projects in areas like Birmingham and Manchester.
One highlight of her presidency was Britain’s momentous victory in the Davis Cup in 2015, their first for almost 80 years. Inclusive and supportive as ever, she encouraged not just the captain Leon Smith and his squad, but also all the backroom staff – and the vociferous “Barmy Army” of Stirling University tennis supporters with free T-shirts, receptions and commemorative photos.
A member of the International Tennis Federation’s Olympic Committee, she was speechless with excitement watching Andy Murray take Olympic gold in Rio in 2016.
Cathie Sabin was appointed OBE in 2016, and received the Carl Aarvold Award for services to international tennis. Up to her last few weeks, she remained closely involved in the game at all levels.
Cathie Sabin is survived by her husband John, and by their two sons.
Cathie Sabin, born January 11 1947, died May 21 2020