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Hall of Famer Pat Purcell Loves Teaching, Competing in Tennis
As part of Women’s History Month taking place in March, USTA St. Louis is highlighting Pat Purcell, a USTA Missouri Valley Hall of Famer who has taught tennis for 46 years.
After standout careers on the USTA junior circuit and at Washington University in St. Louis — where she spent two years on the men’s tennis team before the passage of Title IX — Pat Purcell decided to take a leap of faith.
Purcell didn’t get into med school on her first attempt and elected to get a bit more education at WashU’s graduate school in public health before applying again. Though grad school was going well and Purcell was on a path to become an ear, nose and throat surgeon, she felt something was missing.
An ad in the back of “Tennis Magazine” caught her eye. Peter Burwash International was seeking tennis professionals in Hawaii. Purcell typed up a resume, sent it in, interviewed and was offered a position to join the team.
“I went in and talked to the dean at WashU,” Purcell said. “He said, ‘Boy, that sounds like a great opportunity. I think I’d do that.’ And I did. I didn’t know if it was going to be long-term. But once I started, I realized that’s who I wanted to be.”
Purcell packed her bags for Hawaii at the age of 22 and never did finish that master’s degree at WashU. She spent one year teaching with Peter Burwash International before returning to St. Louis to work at Forest Lake Tennis Club. Now 67 years old and about to begin her 46th year of coaching tennis, Purcell knows she made the correct life choice.
“I was definitely going in a different direction,” Purcell said. “I’m very grateful with the career tennis has provided me with. I went the right direction.”
Purcell actually started as a speed skater at the age of 7. Her father loved skating and would take his three kids to Steinberg Skating Rink in Forest Park. But when Purcell was clipped in a race, landed on her head and was knocked out cold, her father pivoted to find the safest sport he could for his children.
With Forest Park offering free lessons and the Purcell family living near courts, tennis was the clear-cut choice. Purcell began playing some tournaments when she turned 9 and developed an affinity for the sport. With no indoor facilities at the time Purcell played on the fast wooden courts at The Armory during the winter, with a membership costing just $30 a season.
Purcell excelled and became the No. 1-ranked junior-circuit player in both USTA St. Louis and USTA Missouri Valley. She attended Rosati-Kain High School, an all-girls Catholic school near where she lived. Rosati-Kain didn’t offer tennis or any other sports until Purcell’s senior year, which finally allowed her to join the newly instituted basketball team.
WashU didn’t have a women’s tennis team when Purcell began her collegiate career there in the early 1970s. With a rigorous courseload and tennis providing a much-needed reprieve, Purcell decided to hop onto the men’s team where she played No. 5 or No. 6 singles and No. 3 doubles. She particularly enjoyed the limited travel opportunities and getting to stay in her own room at the Motel 6.
Title IX’s implementation in 1975 enabled the creation of a women’s tennis program at WashU. Purcell promptly joined and became the team’s No. 1 player in both singles and doubles. She lost just one singles match during her two-year stint on the women’s squad and earned a letterman jacket with a “W” on it for her efforts as a four-year student-athlete.
“The funny thing about the women’s program is they’d issue us a warmup suit at the beginning of the season,” Purcell said. “It was green. It was nice, well-made. But at the end of the season, you had to turn the warmup suit back in because it would be used by somebody else the next season. We were OK with that. We were just excited to play.”
Purcell then ventured into her tennis teaching career, which has included stops at several St. Louis indoor clubs. She’s spent the most years at Chesterfield Athletic Club and coaches there currently. Purcell was once a part-owner of Westchester Tennis Club, which has since been turned into a soccer facility.
In addition to teaching at CAC, Purcell runs the four continuous St. Louis league seasons of the co-ed Impact Team Tennis. Purcell has directed ITT — which recently rebranded from its previous title of World TeamTennis — since the early 1990s. Though she spends the winter months in Florida preparing for and competing in tennis tournaments, Purcell returns to St. Louis in April to begin running the ITT’s outdoor leagues.
When Purcell began teaching tennis full-time in her 20s, she planned to participate in tournaments again when she turned 35. But with the demands of her job she decided to push off that dream another 20 years. After Purcell played in her first tournament in multiple decades as a 55-year-old, she said: “Every part of my body hurt. It was absolutely incredible how badly I felt.”
So Purcell took a year to improve her conditioning. Success soon followed. Purcell has captured 14 prestigious USTA Gold Balls and two World Cups (55+ and 60+) for the United States. In 2011, she was named USTA Missouri Valley Player of the Year (55+) and Professional of the Year. She was selected as USTA St. Louis Adult Player of the Year in 2016.
Purcell is enshrined in three Halls of Fame: the St. Louis Tennis Hall of Fame (2016), the Washington University Sports Hall of Fame (2018) and the USTA Missouri Valley Hall of Fame (2018).
Purcell said she believes the HOF recognition is for her playing but also her teaching career. She served as assistant coach of the WashU women’s tennis team from 1994 to 1999. And she has captained and coached dozens of USTA St. Louis league teams dating back to 1988.
“I remember the 2.5 women who went to sectionals and played until their feet bled,” Purcell said. “I remember the little 110-pound woman who I taught to poach, and I saw her go flying across the court and make a poach at sectionals on a very important point. You remember moments where your students just show greatness. It keeps you around. Because you know what you taught them, they got it.”
Purcell enjoys the competition that comes with participating in tournaments as a senior-level player. She said preparation is critical, as the latter stages of tourneys become a battle of wills and working to stay healthy. As an example, a tournament she recently entered in Florida had her play nine matches in four days.
“I was walking out there, and I just finished a match which took two hours,” Purcell said. “We have an hour break to clean up and eat. I’m walking on the court again to play my second singles match of the day. I’m looking over at her, and she’s looking at me. And we’re each hoping one of us would chicken out. But neither of us chickens out. We’re out there another two hours, because her resolve was just as strong as mine. Neither one of us wanted to give up.”
Purcell said she still plays tournaments for health benefits, the incredible challenge they present and because she feels she hasn’t reached her potential quite yet in singles action. She watched four ladies in their 90s ecstatically compete in singles and doubles at a tourney and has set a goal to still be playing tournaments as a 90-year-old.
“The most remarkable thing about senior tennis I see is the ability to keep going forward and to not get to the point where you say, ‘I’m too old for this sport,’” Purcell said. “I’m still standing. I still want to play tournaments. I still want to run tournaments. I still want to teach. I still want to do what I do.”
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