Mary Ellis Richardson (background) knew from an early age that tennis would be the sport for her.
© Garrett Ellwood
By J. Fred Sidhu, special to USTA.com
SURPRISE, Ariz. – When Mary Ellis Richardson was a little girl, she vividly remembers the first time she hit a tennis ball. At that moment, the sport of tennis became her passion.
Richardson, a member of the USTA Southern section women’s 9.0 team playing at this weekend’s 2013 USTA League Adult 55 & Over 9.0 National Championships at the Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex, recalled hitting tennis balls at the back of the court into the fence while her mother played doubles.
“I knew from the first time when I hit a ball, that I just loved the sport and wanted to play,” said Richardson, now 58. “I just loved the feeling of actually having a racquet hitting a ball and controlling the ball. I was hooked.”
Richardson continued to play tennis and develop her skills. She attended West High School in Knoxville, Tenn., and went on to become state champion in girls’ tennis in 1971 and 1972. It was during her high school years that she represented the city of Knoxville one summer in a team tennis tournament. Richardson played a doubles match against a team from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
One of the players she faced that day would go on to become one of the greatest players of all time. “I did have the pleasure of playing against Chris Evert,” said Richardson.
She remembers a moment within that match vividly. Richardson was playing the net when her partner hit a short lob to Evert: “By the time I realized it was short, I could not get back in time to get out of the way,” she said. “[Evert] was going to hit that overhead smash right at me.”
All Richardson could do was close her eyes and hold up her racquet to protect herself. Evert’s smash hit the shaft of Richardson’s racquet and the ball bounced back high over the net. Evert attempted to hit an overhead, but netted the ball.
“I felt the ball hit my racquet. There were a lot of people watching the match,” said Richardson. “My eyes were still closed and I heard the crowd go, ‘Ooh.’ I hit the luckiest shot I ever hit in my career during that match! It was a very memorable experience.”
After high school, Richardson attended Furman University, where she played women’s tennis from 1973 to 1977. She posted a 68-6 singles record, earning Most Valuable Player honors all four years in college. In 1985, Richardson was inducted into the Furman University Athletic Hall of Fame. Last year, she was also inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s so humbling to have your university recognize you in such a memorable way,” said Richardson “There are so many other outstanding athletes to receive that honor. Just to follow that path, it’s very humbling.”
Richardson eventually took time to raise a family and, along the way, stopped playing competitive tennis. Yet as her children grew up, as many working parents do, she found the time and the itch to resume playing. Reconnecting with one of her life’s joys, and she is now having as much fun playing USTA League tennis now than at any point in her decades in the sport.
Being part of a team is Richardson’s way to reconnect with friends from her junior tournaments and high school days. As a teenager, Richardson played doubles with Ellyn Cauble. Thirty-five years later, they are reunited as doubles partners – a blessing, given that Cauble has fought past breast cancer in recent years. “She is such an inspiration to me,” said Richardson.
“I love the team format, that’s what really brought me back to the sport,” she added. “The camaraderie within our team, I just don’t know you can get that in any other sport in any other way. It highlights that tennis is the sport of a lifetime.”
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