USTA Northern Spotlight
Lisa Mushett | May 15, 2017
When you see the former Kathy O’Brien, now Kathy Alex, standing on the court, you can feel the passion and love she has for tennis.
One of seven kids, Alex’s mom would round up the brood and take them to the local rec center while she played tennis. Alex wanted to play, but her mother told her she couldn’t until she was able to hit 10 in a row. Up to the challenge, Alex hit against the wall for hours a day and soon received that invitation.
When Alex was 15, her father, who was a professor at UC-San Diego, moved the family to Switzerland for a year. It was there Alex, who was also a gymnast and played softball, saw her racquet sitting in the closet, collecting dust, and had a revelation.
“I still remember that moment so distinctively,” Alex said. “That was the day I decided I really wanted to PLAY tennis. ADVERTISEMENT It was like God had put tennis in my heart from that point on.”
They returned from Switzerland in May. She immediately started practicing 5-6 hours a day and “got good pretty fast,” but with seven kids and busy parents, Alex had to take it upon herself to find hitting partners and matches.
“I rode my bike everywhere hoping to find people to play with me,” Alex, who started playing pro tournaments when she was 16, said. “I did not have a coach and never really learned proper technique, but I played a lot of sets and matches. When I could not find anyone to hit with me, I was hitting against the wall.”
Luckily for Alex, she lived down the street from tennis legend Karen Susman – winner of the Wimbledon’s Ladies Singles Championship in 1962, and a three-time Grand Slam doubles titlist with partner Billie Jean King during her career. Susman would hit with her often.
“She did a lot of favors for me,” Alex laughed.
At that time, Alex was playing tournaments 52 weeks a year and was one of the top-ranked juniors in the country. She played on the USTA Junior Federation Cup Team for three years and competed in the World University Games in Mexico City. Trying to figure what to do next, her father had always stressed the importance of education and really wanted Alex to attend UCLA.
“My dad always instilled in me that I could do anything I put my mind to. It became my dream to play tennis at UCLA.”
A science major, she became the first four-time All-American in Bruins history, led her team to the NCAA title in 1981 and earned finalist honors at the 1982 NCAA Championships in doubles.
She went on to play professional tennis, achieving a career high of 158 in singles and 30 in doubles. She played doubles in the US Open main draw four times and Wimbledon once. One of her mostmemorable matches occurred when she and partner Terry Holladay played Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver on Center Court in the round of 32 at the 1983 US Open. Navratilova and Shriver were in the middle of their record-long 109 match winning streak, when Holladay and Alex took them to a third set before falling 6-2.
“I remember thinking, ‘We should have beaten them,’” Alex said.
It was not long after that match when Alex decided she had had enough of pro tennis at the age of 24.
“The pro tour was uncomfortable and lonely,” she said. “It was such a grind and I did not have the finances to keep going.”
Alex soon returned to UCLA and finished her degree. She taught high school chemistry for a year before being hired as the head tennis coach at Marymount University, where she coached for 15 years. Also during that time, she met her husband, Chris, and they went on to have nine kids – Rebekah (30), Johanna (28), Rachel (26), Kosta (24), Abraham (21), Luke (19), Petro (16), Christo (13) and Emmanuel (11).
In 2002, Kathy and Chris, who is Greek-American, decided to move the family to Greece so they could experience their father’s heritage first-hand. While in Greece, Kathy was hired to teach tennis at a high-performance academy where she was introduced to the European progression of developing champions with red, orange and green balls.
“Teaching in Greece was a game changer. I started focusing on technique and learned how to develop kids. I saw 6 year olds playing with red balls on smaller courts and rallying. Not just taking a lesson, but actually playing the game.”
After 10 years, the family moved back to the United States and landed in the Twin Cities, where Alex is now the Head Coach of 12U Development at InnerCity Tennis in Minneapolis, working with many of USTA Northern’s best players that age. All nine of her kids play tennis – some recreationally and others more seriously. Johanna and Abraham played in college. After playing football and basketball, Luke came back tennis his junior year of high school and played in the state tournament. Petro, Christo and Emmanuel are all highly-ranked in the USTA Northern junior system. Her husband served as a ball kid at the Indian Wells tournament for years and is a self-admitted hacker. This year, it was Christo’s turn to shag balls at Indian Wells.
Alex also achieved another milestone last year as she led the Mahtomedi High School girls to their first-ever Minnesota Class AA State Team Championship, defeating 19-time defending champion Edina along the way. Johanna and Abraham served as her assistant coaches.
“Honestly, tennis has brought so much to my life on all different levels,” Alex said. “To be able to give back to the community and give kids a chance no matter their economic or social position, is what is so special about InnerCity Tennis. In my family life, my goal was to give the kids something they could do recreationally with their friends as they got older, while keeping physically fit. Tennis is something they can do their entire lives.”