Mary Ellen Stewart and Barbara Warnik
© Jen Pottheiser
By Melissa Pampulov,USTA.com
Indian Wells, Calif. -- What started out as a neighborhood sport for two Ohio sisters, has brought them to compete, on two separate teams, for the chance to win the USTA League 4.0 Senior National Championships.
Mary Ellen Stewart of Saint Augustine, Fla. and Barbara Warnik of Richmond, Va., started playing tennis when they were 7 and 8 years old, respectively, in Dayton, Ohio.
These sisters were two of eight siblings who grew up playing tennis on their neighbor’s tennis court. “They had nine kids so they built a court to keep everyone entertained,” joked Barbara.
However tennis became a serious part of their lives. Mary Ellen and Barbara played junior tournaments together and in high school before women’s tennis became the game that it is today. “[At that time] you didn’t go to State [Championships]; you just played your regular season and that was it.”
Also in high school, Mary Ellen became the first female in her area to receive a Billie Jean King award for her participation in three sports.
“Aside from tennis, I played volleyball and basketball,” said Mary Ellen.
“It was a big honor,” said Barbara proudly about her sister.
After high school, they each went their separate ways but always made the time to keep tennis in their lives.
Mary Ellen earned a tennis scholarship at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Fla. “It was around the time Title IX was initiated and they offered me (a scholarship) to come down and play,” said Mary Ellen. “Coming from Ohio, I couldn’t say no.”
After college, she played tennis on and off until she got married and had three children. Today, as a working mom, her time is limited to playing on the weekends.
“Although most of the team is from the Palm Coast/Daytona area, I got together with them because they played their matches on the weekends,” said Mary Ellen. “We have a super group of women and it makes it a lot of fun.”
Back in Ohio, Barbara didn’t pursue college tennis. She also played tennis on and off after she got married and raised a family. As a stay-home mom, she and her family moved to different parts of the country. It wasn’t until they moved to Georgia and now in Virginia that she dusted off her racquet.
“We both got in and out of tennis,” mentioned Barbara, “but once you learn it when you’re young like we did, it’s easy to pick it up again.”
A few of Barbara’s current teammates started competing together 12 years ago and have since picked up ladies from different areas. “It’s a good group and this is a neat experience.”
At the end of the season, each of their respective teams qualified for the USTA National Championships. Mary Ellen’s team found out their team qualified for Nationals in April while Barbara’s team didn’t know until much later in the season.
“[Barbara] was one of the first people I called after we qualified,” recalled Mary Ellen
Barbara wasn’t as optimistic about her team’s chances. “As it turned out we made it to Districts, then to Sectionals and it came down to one set,” she said.
“I know it’s ironic for the both of us, being our first time at Nationals,” said Mary Ellen, “but it is certainly exciting.”
Mary Ellen and Barbara’s teams are in separate flights and will only get to play each other if both of their sections make it to Sunday’s finals.
While the two sisters took a different path to the USTA League Nationals, they can now enjoy their time together here at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden cheering each other on.