A recent USTA New England News story includes this quote from me: “We were over the moon we won and a bit surprised we played so well. We had a rag-tag team. I was battling a chronic Illness, Brenda tore her ACL last year, and Liane played in a tournament a couple weeks prior and tweaked her knee…. Brenda as the captain was really outstanding. She took the pressure off rather than putting it on and really brought us together. We were also mentally tough. I’m not sure we were better tennis players in [the] end but were mentally strong and very focused when it came down to it.”
Sometimes in sport (as well as life), despite lots of things going wrong, things just really go right. This is what happened when I was invited as a late addition to compete for the U.S. team in the 70’s division at the World Team Championships in Umag, Croatia last month. The team members included Captain Brenda Carter, Toni Novack, Liane Bryson and myself, and given numerous physical challenges among us, our ability to compete well felt uncertain. But I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be a member of the U.S. team for second year in a row. While I had played only doubles last year, this year I would be playing doubles and singles.
132 men’s and women’s teams in age categories 65+, 70+, 75+, 80+ and 85+ from nations throughout the world competed in 10 team cups. In the 70 division there were 13 teams. The 4 seeds (1. France, 2. U.S., 3. Australia, 4. Great Britain) were separated into four round robin groups, with the winners of each moving into a semifinal knockout round. Lurking somewhere was Germany, the team that everyone knew was capable of winning the entire competition, boasting the #3 and #9 singles players in the world plus the #5 doubles player. The draw was made on Saturday right before the opening ceremony in the UMag tennis stadium — Germany was in our round robin. Brenda, being the positive force behind the U.S. team, told us that we were given an opportunity. While I couldn’t quite see it that way, it reminded me of a Billie Jean King quote I’ve often shared with the college students and other tennis players I’ve coached: “Pressure is a privilege.” Indeed, being included on the U.S. Championship Team this year was proof of that.
All 132 teams gathered in the stadium on the Saturday evening before the initial match day. The Croatian tennis administration along with the ITF then welcomed all of the players and, just like at the Olympics, declared the tournament open. It was quite a moment — all teams gathered together dressed in their team colors with their country name on the back of their shirts. The effect in the stadium was breathtaking.
Sunday, the first day of the round robin, U.S. played Sweden. All matches began with both teams gathering on the court for picture time and the exchange of gifts between players. The gifts represented the country giving them, and we received blue and yellow tennis hats from our Sweden opponents.
Each day began with #2 singles (that was me), followed by #1 singles, and finally the doubles. I won the first match 6-1, 6-3, and then Toni won 6-2, 6-1. Our doubles team of Brenda and Liane finished the day with a 6-3, 6-2 win. We next faced Germany.
After a brief warmup, picture taking and exchanging of gifts, I took the court against the #9 player in the world, Barbara Von Ende. She was an amazing retriever, and the match was tough. I prevailed, 6-3, 6-3. Toni was next against Heidi Eisterlehner, world #3, and lost 6-3, 6-3. Thus the doubles match became the deciding point and would determine whether we would be playing for a medal or playing for 5-8th place. Brenda asked me to step in, and I took the court with Liane. The match was hotly contested and could have gone either way, but with patience and grit, we pulled out a 3-set match 5-7, 6-1, 6-4. We were on to the medal round, with a much needed day off!
After a day of sightseeing and a short practice we were ready for Australia. Australia’s top player, Kerry Ballard, was a close friend of mine when we were playing the tour in the early 1970’s. We lost touch with each other but caught up again a few years ago at a tournament. Now we were on opposing teams. Kerry, by the way, is currently #1 in the world, in both singles and doubles, so my U.S. teammates and I knew this would be a particularly rough match. Taking the court first, I beat the #2 singles opponent 6-2, 6-2, but Kerry handled Toni with a similar score. On to the doubles. To make matters more difficult the wind was whipping around the courts with 20 mph gusts. Liane and I partnered again and squeaked out a 6-3, 7-5 win to put us in the finals against Great Britain, who upset France on that same day. Again, another day off, where Liane and I could be found at the physical therapist’s office trying to coax our bodies back together.
Friday, the day of the finals! I thought that it might be possible to win both singles matches taking the load off of the doubles, but again knew there was a battle in store. Whereas the earlier matches had been played on side courts, the finals were played in the stadium, with a referee. The atmosphere was grand. But what was most exciting was to hear the referee say “Game, United States.” This was a thrill unlike any other, and one I will remember always. I played Shirley Fox, #13 in the world in singles and #3 in doubles. She played amazing tennis, pressuring me all of the way by being aggressive, coming in, and returning my serve for winners. I never felt comfortable. Liane, who sat on my court as a coach, as she had done for all four singles matches, urged me to play more balls through the middle so as to take away her angles. I won the first set 7-6, but then was down 5-3 and set point. Shirley played one of the only loose points in this match, she double-faulted on her set point. I ended up winning that game and then went on to win the set 7-5, and the match, proving that one point at the right time can make a huge difference! Toni then played the Great Britain #1 Marjory Love, and battled to win 7-5, 7-5. Liane and I, who were in the stands, were watching sporadically, and pacing a lot! The doubles became an afterthought … we had won the gold … Liane and Brenda played a no-stress match and won handily. We had become World Champions with a 3-0 victory over Great Britain.
That evening at closing ceremonies all of the teams again congregated in the stadium after a full week of hard-fought matches, and we were given our gold medals and a large trophy that will be housed at the U.S. Tennis Training Center in Orlando, Florida. In all, the American teams won 5 titles: Women’s 65+, Women’s 70+, Men’s 75+ and both Men’s and Women’s 85+. This was the first year of an 85+ division for women, but this is just the beginning!
My memories of the week are focused on the competitive matches throughout, the friendliness between countries and the team bonding that occurred. Being on a team means so much to me, much more than individual results. Brenda, our captain, was supportive, always positive and, although the moment was monumental, she never pressured me. My teammate and coach for the singles, Liane, was an amazing and astute support. At the end of a brief warmup she had a plan in place even before the first point. She was generous with her knowledge and offered up solutions on each changeover. I felt her presence during each match, and I know that having her on the court with me made a huge difference. The pressure I felt on the court with my teammates was a “privilege,” and I will be forever grateful that I was a member of the 2019 World Champion Team.
Sometimes things just go right…