ORIGINAL NINE SPOTLIGHT:
Kerry Melville Reid
Steve Flink | July 1, 2020
In honor of the 50th anniversary of women's professional tennis, International Tennis Hall of Fame writer and historian Steve Flink is catching up with each member of the Original Nine for USTA.com. In his latest interview, he talks with Kerry Melville Reid.
Widely lauded by peers for her backcourt consistency, deeply appreciated by the cognoscenti for her enduring reliability as a competitor and her outstanding sportsmanship, unrelentingly devoted to her craft, the Australian Kerry Melville Reid was as admirable a performer as anyone among the “Original Nine” who signed $1 professional contracts with the indefatigable promoter Gladys Heldman at Houston in September 1970.
Reid was unerring from the baseline, displaying remarkable ball control off both sides. She drove through her one-handed backhand admirably, and her sidespin forehand kept skidding low, forcing adversaries to dig out the most difficult shots off the backhand side. ADVERTISEMENT She seldom broke down off the ground and was one of the finest match players in the game.
Reid emerged from the land “Down Under” in her teens, reaching the third round at the 1963 Australian Championships when she was only 15. In 1966, she upended Billie Jean King on her way to the semifinals at the U.S. Championships in Forest Hills. She also reached the penultimate round at the Australian Championships that season. By the time she signed her contract with Heldman in 1970, she was establishing herself as a perennial member of the world’s Top 10.
But her best tennis was played after she moved out onto the Virginia Slims circuit. In 1972, she was runner-up to King at the US Open, upsetting Chris Evert in the semifinals of that tournament. In 1977, she captured the Australian Open. Carrying herself elegantly and gracefully throughout her career, she took three major titles in doubles, captured 22 official WTA singles titles, reached 40 additional finals, and set herself apart as a woman who unfailingly fought hard yet always played fair.
In this interview, Reid reminisces with joviality about her career, her life post-career in the United States, and her husband and kids. Soft spoken yet thoughtful and genial, she has a lot to say, presenting her thoughts with remarkable charm and humility.
Steve Flink: You have always been admired for being so self-effacing, staying true to your values and being a total professional. But you were not necessarily inclined to be bold. Does it surprise you looking back that you joined the Original Nine in 1970?
Kerry Melville Reid: Judy Dalton—who was also Australian and was with me in the Original Nine—definitely had an influence on me in making that decision. The fact that Billie Jean King was No. 1 in the world back then and was putting her career on the line was one reason I did it, and Judy was all for it. It just kind of evolved. We were there at the right time. We bonded and went with it. It was just a crazy and exciting time for all of us. I know my parents were a little worried for a while, wondering what would happen now that I was turning pro. We ended up getting banned in Australia. So it was a big risk, but we didn’t think too much about that. We were excited to be doing something new that could have a deep effect on the game. We weren’t looking long range. Our feeling was this could give us a better career financially if it all worked out.
Flink: Once you got off the ground in Houston, soon more tournaments were announced, and you had a Virginia Slims circuit in place for 1971. Was it important as a selling point for the tour and women succeeding on their own that your band of players had so much diversity and the fans could relate to your strategic sense, court craft and a little bit of everything in the mix?
Melville Reid: We definitely did. And then there were players coming along like Evonne Goolagong, who kind of sat on the fence early on. Her coach, Vic Edwards, was very protective of Evonne, but one by one the girls started wanting to join the tour that we had started. And there were a lot of different playing styles back then. We had serve-and-volleyers and baseliners and everything. Tennis lost that for a while, but it is coming back again now with more variety. As the Virginia Slims tournaments got going, we had Margaret Court with the big serve and her long arms, Billie Jean King with her great serve-and-volley game, Chrissie playing like a backboard, and Evonne with all of her finesse. There were a lot of different kinds of players out there, and the crowds seemed to appreciate that.
Flink: As late as 1973, there was still a rival tour out there, which Chrissie and Evonne showcased week after week for a part of the year. How did you feel about that?
Melville Reid: We had confidence that our way was the right way, and we knew those players would join our circuit soon enough, which they did. We did a lot of hard work in the beginning, which was fine. It was all good for the game, and we were off and running.
Flink: You had some great years in the early ’70s, when you made it to the 1972 US Open final and got to the final of the Virginia Slims Championships in Boca Raton not long after. Did you feel your game was now blossoming?
Melville Reid: I do remember beating Chrissie in the semifinal of the US Open. We were playing on grass at Forest Hills, and I hit a lot of drop shots. She was quite a bit younger than me and hadn’t learned to move forward too well at that stage. The grass was kind of damp, and I remember saying to myself, "I have got to get her off the baseline." I did that. I guess my drop shot was a good one, and it really worked on the grass. Chrissie was tough because she could always get one extra ball back, and she beat me a lot of times, but I think I was pretty tough to play with my patience. Margaret Court was one player I had a lot of trouble with. But those were really good years for me.
Flink: You established yourself as early as 1963 and played great tennis all the way into 1979, when you beat Martina Navratilova at the Family Circle Cup. You already mentioned Evert and Court, and you also played Evonne Goolagong, Tracy Austin, Virginia Wade and Billie Jean. How satisfying is it, looking back, to have played against so many great players from different generations?
Melville Reid: I did play against a lot of great players. It was such a sterling contingent, with Margaret, Billie Jean, Chrissie, Evonne and Virginia Wade. I had wins against all of them at one stage or another, and I am proud of that. I was ranked in the Top 10 for, I believe, 12 years in the ’60s and ’70s. Looking back on it all, it was a good effort, what I did.
Flink: Why were you consistent for so long?
Melville Reid: I met my husband Raz Reid when we played World TeamTennis for the Boston Lobsters in the mid-’70s. He was ranked in the Top 60 in the world and was moving up in the rankings when he met me. I probably ruined him! But we decided to try playing on separate tours. It didn’t work. He decided to sacrifice his tennis and came with me on the women’s tour. He was my coach. We worked together for many years, and those were the best years for me as a player.
Flink: Was he one of the key reasons you won the Australian Open in 1977?
Melville Reid: He certainly was. But I also had a really good coach back in Australia named Neil Guiney, who was from Melbourne, and another coach before Neil named Keith Rogers when I first started. When I was back home in Australia, I became like a part of Neil’s family, and he had seven kids. That was where I learned to volley a lot better, and I added more topspin to my shots. It all made me a more complete player, and in those years, my game got to be about as good as it could be.
Flink: Getting back to your husband Raz, how did you make it work so well, with the two of you being around each other so much both personally and professionally. That is very tricky. Why did it work?
Melville Reid: Those first two years we were together, he tried playing on the men’s tour, but being apart like that was just too tough on both of us. We were still really happy in our relationship, but it was too much stress being apart. We sat down one day and talked about it, and he said, “I guess I will travel with you.” My career was starting to really get going then, and financially I was doing well, with the money getting better. So I had a lot of opportunities. Raz and I both realized that. It was a great thing that he did. A lot of men would not have done what Raz was willing to do. And he was never tough on me. He had a very good way of imparting what he wanted to say. So we really trained hard and had a lot of fun. Those were great days and great times for both of us.
Flink: Have you kept up with the Original Nine much over the years, and did you realize you were part of something so historic?
Melville Reid: I keep up at Christmas but don’t communicate that much with them otherwise. But whenever we get together, we have such a great bond. If I saw Evonne tomorrow, we would pick up right away, even if we had not seen each other for years. Evonne used to live in Hilton Head, where I live, and it was so easy for us to pick up then. I have attended the reunions in Charleston and New York. We just have the best time when we get together, and it is so special. We have a lot of laughs and do a lot of reminiscing. It is great.
Flink: You played at a time when the women’s game was exploding during the ’70s and left when the sport was in good shape. But did you see women’s tennis having the status it does today, and do you feel you played a part in it?
Melville Reid: I definitely feel I played a part in it. When I retired, it was definitely starting to boom. I knew women’s tennis was in a good place, but I never would have believed it would have gone to where it is today. The game is so professional now, and everybody has their teams that they travel with. I think we probably had a lot more fun when we played, but it is more professional now. It is great to see it, and I love to watch it. In the last year or so, there has been more variety in the way people play. I like that. It is more like the old days. I hope it continues.
Flink: How much tennis do you watch?
Melville Reid: I always watch, especially the big tournaments. I love Roger Federer and Dominic Thiem. They are my two favorite men players. With the women, I like Ash Barty. She is just a true sport, and it is fun to watch. I enjoy watching them all, and they all have their attributes. Coco Gauff is a lot of fun. With the virus, they are all having time off now, but there are always great players coming up that I like to see.
Flink: You have raised two daughters. What are they doing?
Melville Reid: We exposed them to tennis, and they liked it, but they were very good athletes. My older daughter, Kati, played soccer at Clemson, and my younger one, Kimi, played a nice game of tennis. But they got interested in other things, including music. They live within six miles of each other now in Seattle, and they are married. Raz and I are lucky to have three grandchildren. Even though there is no travel now, we see them on FaceTime.
Flink: Have you and Raz retired?
Melville Reid: We were the pros here in Hilton Head for about 10 years at Long Cove after I retired from the tour. Then he got an opportunity to go into the fly fishing business, into the reps part of the business. He was lucky enough with his timing to get the best fly fishing rods. He has been the southeastern fly fishing rep for more than 20 something years. I run the office and do the computers and go with him when I can. He loves it. It has become our life, which is crazy, but it has been really good for us to still be working—although not right now because of the coronavirus.
Flink: The 50th anniversary of what was a seminal moment in the history of tennis, with the first Virginia Slims tournament in Houston… what does it mean to you?
Melville Reid: Our group happened to be there at the right time. I am just honored to be one of the girls. We all stuck our neck out, and these were all really good players. I am happy I am one of them. I still can’t believe what happened. It makes me so proud. Billie Jean was the great spokeswoman. We were lucky she was around back then. If she had not done it, we would not have. She and Gladys Heldman were needed by all of us. I am a fairly quiet and shy girl, but I am really happy I signed the contract in Houston. It is great for my kids and my family to be celebrating this 50th anniversary. My girls always get excited when we have reunions like we had in Charleston and New York.
Flink: It crystalizes what you have done when you get together as a group.
Melville Reid: Yes, it does. My daughters got to meet Billie Jean, and they loved it. They said to me, “Mom, Billie Jean King!” And Billie Jean remembers their names when she sees them. Kati is 39 now, and Kimi is 38. There is only 18 months between them.
Flink: How saddening is it to see what has happened to the world this year with the virus and the cancellation of so many tournaments and everything coming to a halt?
Melville Reid: It is, like every other sport. As Raz was saying to me, there is not one sport that is going on right now. No cricket, soccer or anything. It is so weird to experience this, and I just hope we can conquer it. It is going to take a while. I hope we can have the US Open this year, but if it doesn’t happen, things could start up again next year at the Australian Open.