Julie Ditty Sportsmanship Award honors late USTA Pro Circuit star
Julie Ditty Qualls won a record 38 titles on the USTA Pro Circuit, but her greatest impact may have been off the court. In honor of her life, the Circuit introduced the Julie Ditty Sportsmanship Award for the 2022 season, to be given annually to one male and one female player who best exemplifies the spirit of sportsmanship.
"Julie has quite a legacy with the Pro Circuit, and we wanted to make this small gesture in honoring that," said Pro Circuit senior manager Idelle Pierre-Louis.
Ditty Qualls passed away on Aug. 31, 2021, at the age of 42. After a long battle with breast cancer, she passed at the start of the US Open—an event she competed in during seven different years as a WTA player.
A former Top 100 singles player, the Atlanta-born Kentuckian earned most of her professional success on the USTA Pro Circuit, where she won nine singles and 29 doubles crowns.
But despite the accolades—which include a Fed Cup tie-clinching doubles victory for Team USA in 2009—Ditty Qualls’ legacy extends far beyond the trophies. In her post-playing career, Ditty spent much of her time coaching youth tennis, continuing to do so remotely until two days before her death.
"Julie was extremely well-liked everywhere she went. Anyone who knew her loved her," Pierre-Louis reflected.
"She was always the first to volunteer her time for any pro-am events or any kids' days on the Circuit," Pierre-Louis continued, recounting a story of Ditty Qualls declining an appearance fee for attending one such community-based event.
A longtime resident of Ashland, Ky., Ditty Qualls retired from professional tennis in 2011 with no regrets before making the transition to coaching.
“I was ready,” she told the Daily Independent of Ashland. “I feel like I’ve given everything I have. I’m ready to help other people. The last few weeks, I coached kids at my house. I love it. I can’t tell you how much fun I’m having… I love working with kids.”
Looking back on her professional career, she added: “The experiences are more valuable to me than the records, or wins and losses. The memories, seeing the world and the friendships you make, those are the main things. I could go to any city in the world and find somebody I played tennis with. Tennis is such a small world when you meet people. It’s been an awesome experience.”
Ditty Qualls’ impact on the professional game was evident in the emotional responses of many players. Among others, Alison Riske, John Isner, Shelby Rogers and Tom Gullikson tweeted their memories.
“When I visited my sister at Vanderbilt, [Julie] made me feel like I was part of the team at 10 years old,” said Riske. “Her cheerful personality and love for everyone she crossed will always be remembered.”
Rogers added: “She was such a joy to be around, always smiling and her laugh was contagious! Couldn’t help but be happy when she was in the room. Grateful to have had the chance to know her and see the way she impacted so many lives!”
Isner echoed those sentiments, calling Ditty Qualls “so kind and always a joy to be around,” while Gullikson said she was “a class act on and off the court.”
Prior to her pro career, Ditty Qualls enjoyed a Hall of Fame career at Vanderbilt University, where she was a three-time All-American and led the program to its first NCAA final in 2001.
A star at the Nashville school from 1998-2001, Ditty Qualls set then-program records for both season (31) and career (114) singles wins; she’s now fourth on the all-time wins list. After graduating with a degree in early childhood and elementary education, she later returned to the school as a volunteer assistant for the 2012-13 season.
"We have lost a legend," Ditty Qualls’ former Vanderbilt coach Geoff Macdonald said in a statement following her passing. "Her contribution to Vanderbilt Athletics is simply remarkable. She was an ever better human being than she was a tennis player, and she was one of the Top 100 tennis players in the world."
Current Vanderbilt women’s tennis head coach Aleke Tsoubanos, a former teammate, added: “To say her passing is devastating would be an understatement. Julie was a teammate and an incredible friend. During my freshman year, Julie led us to Vanderbilt’s first ever national championship match, which was a journey with a team I will never forget. I am so grateful for our time together.”
Ditty Qualls left a mark on the game of tennis at every level, from the young children she coached to the college game and the professional tour. Her on-court successes remain in the record books, but it’s her kindness and joy—carried on in the collective hearts of the tennis community—that define her life.
Ditty Qualls’ legacy also lives on with the newly created Julie Ditty Qualls Foundation.