Walton Finds Love of Playing Tennis After Meeting Jimmy Connors
As a child growing up in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Michele Walton watched tennis legends such as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe frequently on TV. And though she wanted to emulate them, Walton dealt with uncontrolled asthma — the one available medicine during the time period didn’t work for her — which drove Walton away from sports and toward theater instead.
Fast-forward to 2003, and Walton — now in her late 20s — remained uninvolved in sports and, as she framed it, “I was not athletic.” A chance plane ride from her then-hometown of Los Angeles to St. Louis, where she now resides, changed that trajectory. One of the competitors she grew up idolizing, Jimmy Connors, was in the front seat of Walton’s flight.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s Jimmy Connors,’” Walton said. “I went up to him. I’m like, ‘Are you Jimmy Connors?’ He goes, ‘Why yes, I am.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh. Can you sign my piece of paper?’
“So he’s signing it and he asks me, ‘How’s your tennis game?’ Now I didn’t play. I never played. I just told him, ‘Oh, well, I don’t really play. I just watch.’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, what a lame answer.’ I decided after I met him and after he asked me that question I need to get myself a tennis game.”
Walton said at the time it really didn’t even dawn on her she could give the sport a try. Connors’s question provided the bump she needed. Six months after the duo’s plane conversation, Walton called the County of Los Angeles’s Parks & Recreation department to inquire if tennis lessons were offered. They were, and Walton was off to the races.
“I fell in love with it. Are you kidding me? I fell in love with it,” Walton said. “I started taking the Los Angeles County Parks lessons, and I played maybe once a week at that time. It just kind of kept snowballing from there.”
Walton got linked up with an organization called the Los Angeles Tennis Players Association, which is still humming along today. The group met and played at California State University, Northridge.
Singles was the activity of choice on Saturday mornings. Walton joined that. Doubles was reserved for Sunday mornings. Walton played then, too. Tuesday evenings featured even more doubles. Walton was in. Some of her friends played on their own, separate from the group. Walton got in on that as well.
“At some point, I started playing like five days a week,” she said.
Prior to Walton moving from Los Angeles back to St. Louis — where she grew up — in July 2010, she was invited to take a tour of the Beverly Hills Country Club.
“I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I toured the club,” Walton said. “The director told us how much it was, and it really wasn’t that much. I was like, ‘Seriously? Sign me up.’ So I became a member of the Beverly Hills Country Club at that time. Which is crazy.”
The Los Angeles Tennis Players Association had some USTA doubles teams, which Walton joined for five years from 2005-2010. When she arrived in St. Louis, Walton was adamant about keeping her USTA streak going.
“I knew I wasn’t giving up tennis,” she said. “That’s a non-negotiable. I am never ever giving up tennis. Part of it was because I love ‘Tennis Magazine.’ I’m going to be a member. I’ve got to keep getting this magazine. I don’t want to not get any issues. I joined right away in St. Louis.”
Walton — who is in her third year teaching math at Ladue Horton Watkins High School and 18th year of teaching overall — plays on multiple USTA St. Louis teams. She competes for Lesley McIntire’s 3.5 team based out of the Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) and Rose Albrecht’s 3.0 squad from Chesterfield Athletic Club.
During the summer months Walton also plays on Albrecht’s 3.0 team as well as Diane Lewis’s 3.5 team. She plays for a mixed doubles 7.0 team out of The Highlands Tennis Center during the summer, too. Walton recently collected a third-place finish at a USTA District Championship in 3.0 women’s singles.
“There are so many reasons I play — just being in love with the game,” Walton said. “The game has everything. It’s got the physical aspects. There are the mental aspects in terms of trying to outsmart your opponent, reading what they’re doing and trying to counteract what they’re doing. You have to do it on the fly.
“A lot of times we don’t know the people we’re playing against. It takes a few games to figure it out. ‘Are they a slicer? Are they a power hitter? Are they good at the net? Are they good at running everything down? What weapons can I use in my arsenal to defeat this person?’ All of that is part of it.”
Walton, who also does some acting work, enjoys how sportsmanship and the expectation of honesty with line-calling are wrapped into the game. And though she predominantly competes in singles for her squads, she enjoys the team aspect and being an upbeat influence on her partner when playing doubles.
“Mistakes are inevitable in tennis,” Walton said. “The last thing I want to do if my partner makes a mistake is be down on them and say, ‘You are supposed to hit the ball this way.’ We all know how to do it. We just screw up the execution sometimes. Instead I like to go, ‘That’s OK, partner. We’ll get them next time.’ I like to stay positive on the court. I like to play with people who are positive. It’s fun all the way around.”
Walton — who spent six years teaching at Hazelwood East High School and nine years teaching in L.A. before landing at Ladue — has forged friendships through tennis that transcend the sport. She goes out to lunch with some of her teammates, especially those who also teach for their career.
Recently, one of her MAC teammates — who has connections to the St. Louis Cardinals — invited the squad to attend a game in a suite. Though she didn’t inform them, her teammates deciphered it was her birthday and surprised her at Busch Stadium with a card and gift card. Walton also noted she has been on squads that get together for a team dinner at the conclusion of their season.
“It’s awesome,” Walton said. “Our captains are very good about doing stuff like that and letting us know how much we are appreciated. It’s good.”
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