Mike Hill of Topsham was the men’s singles champion of the Betty Blakeman Memorial Tournament in 2009, a year marking the largest field in the event’s history with 253 players. Last year, 154 took part. Doug Jones/Staff file photo

Organizers of the venerable Betty Blakeman Memorial Tournament – biggest of the year for Maine tennis players and a staple of the Yarmouth Clam Festival – have decided to discontinue the event after a 30-year run.

The pandemic-related cancellation of the Clam Festival had wiped out the tournament for this summer, but Carrie Blakeman said her family already had been considering winding down an operation that required significant volunteer effort and untold hours of planning and work behind the scenes. Since 1989, the event raised more than $300,000 for cancer-related organizations in Maine.

Betty Blakeman, Carrie’s mother, died in 1989 of breast cancer and the tournament became a way to honor her memory. Carrie and her brother, Eric Blakeman, made the decision, in no small part to devote more time to looking after their father, Chuck, who has Alzheimer’s disease.

“It was not an easy decision,” Carrie Blakeman said Tuesday. “When we found out the Clam Festival was canceled, with the way things kept going we said, ‘You know what? It’s time to call it.’ We both have teenagers preparing to go to college, and with wanting to spend every day with our dad, we thought 30 was a good year to cut it off.”

In a written statement, she offered heartfelt thanks to everyone involved in the event, “from the staffs of the cancer organizations that were our benefactors and offered us years of support, to the tournament committee and organizers and all volunteers, the (Yarmouth High) art students, and most of all to our dad, our immediate family, and our mom’s family, who all without hesitation, year after year, proudly stood by us, worked with us, to honor our mom, Betty Blakeman’s memory.”

Brian Powell won seven men’s singles titles at the Betty Blakeman Memorial Tournament. “The camaraderie and the sportsmanship … and obviously for the people who know the Blakeman family as closely as I do, made it special.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Brian Powell, 50, of Kennebunkport was a seven-time Blakeman champion in men’s Open singles. He said the three-day event was like no other, with a Saturday night barbecue, players as young as 11 and as old as 85 and spectators in lawn chairs adding an all-are-welcome vibe.

“It just had a totally different feel,” he said. “Yes, the competition was great, but the camaraderie and the sportsmanship, the number of (satellite) sites, the number of people working behind the scenes, and obviously for the people who know the Blakeman family as closely as I do, made it special. And it’s always been for a very worthwhile cause.”

David Dealaman, 60, of Freeport is a 1978 Yarmouth High graduate who remembers playing mixed doubles with the tournament’s namesake. The only Blakeman he remembers missing was the year he played in an alumni golf event as part of a high school reunion.

“You’d see people from all levels and all ages playing in the tournament,” he said. “If they came home to visit relatives for the Clam Festival, it was a place people would meet. That could be the only tournament they played all year.”

Jesse Butler, 25, grew up in Portland and is in his first year at Tufts Medical School. He reached the men’s doubles finals of the Blakeman five years in a row, with three different partners, and won in 2015 and 2019.

“It was one of the first things I marked on my calendar every year,” he said. “It’s kind of what I associated the summer with, the Blakeman tournament.”

Donna Dwyer, 54, of South Portland is a Stage 4 cancer survivor who said the Blakeman drew Maine’s tennis community together as “an iconic event that many players looked forward to and came home for and partnered up with players that you don’t normally see in tournaments. It really gathered the bulk of the tennis community in one place. It will be sorely missed, for sure.”

Don Atkinson, longtime director of the Betty Blakeman Memorial  Tournament, said of the event’s end after 30 years: “I’m broken-hearted.” Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Dwyer said she recognizes how such an undertaking could become unwieldy for organizers, from raising funds to figuring out logistics to preparing drawsheets and assigning courts at six sites in and around Yarmouth for up to nine different brackets within the Blakeman umbrella. The latter duty fell mainly to Don Atkinson, volunteer director extraordinaire, whose color-coded charts and cheerful demeanor provided the hub around which the tournament revolved.

“I have mixed emotions,” Atkinson said Tuesday. “It’s a tremendous drain on my time and energy, especially at my age (73), but I’m broken-hearted. It’s the only time I see some of those people in the whole year.”

The largest field in tournament history was in 2009 when 253 players took part. The biggest men’s open brackets were 112 for singles and 55 for doubles. For women’s open singles the peak was 36.

The smallest brackets came during last year’s oppressive heat and humidity, with 56 in men’s open singles and eight (all of them under the age of 20) in women’s open singles. Even so, there were still 154 total participants across nine distinct tournaments.

“It’s like putting a puzzle together,” Atkinson said. “I get frustrated and scream at the computer, but I love organizing it. I’m relieved and at the same time I’m really going to miss it.”

Before the Blakeman, there had been a tennis tournament connected with the Clam Festival. Carrie Blakeman said she thinks there may be another in the future, but it won’t be the Blakeman Memorial.

“I have a feeling something creative will come of it, but I don’t know what that looks like,” she said. “But for sure, the Memorial is closed.”

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