Saturday, March 5, 2016

Discovering the ITA Women's Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame

ITA Women's Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame entrance
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
While covering the Charlottesville Challenger last fall, I took a side trip 120 miles east-southeast to Williamsburg, Virginia to visit a monument to an underappreciated segment of the tennis world: the ITA Women's Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame.  I arranged ahead of time to meet with Millie West, the museum's official curator and a legendary figure in the College of William and Mary athletics world, who graciously gave me a tour of the facility and sat down for an interview.

I wasn't sure what to expect; after all, few tennis fans I'd talked to about it had even heard of the facility. Turns out, it's quite nice -- in fact, I'd argue it's a must-see for any fan of tennis history.

The Hall of Fame is located on the second floor of the multi-million dollar McCormack-Nagelsen tennis center at the College of William and Mary. The tennis center is home of the William and Mary Tribe men's and women's tennis teams, and its six indoor courts are also available to the general public. (The Tribe's outdoor courts, about a mile and a half away, are named after West herself.)

The artifacts are nifty, from the Ted Tinling gowns, a couple of cases of shiny trophies (including two of Louise Braugh's four Wimbledon singles trophies), and a library of Billie Jean King-related books. Adorning the walls are photos of all the ITA team and individual champions over the decades and individual displays on each of the 72 inductees, giving you a fascinating tour through (primarily American) women's tennis history.


But how did the Hall of Fame end up in Williamsburg? It's not like William and Mary is particularly noted for its women's tennis heritage, and it's not like tennis was part of the colonial American history that has made this otherwise smallish college town a tourist mecca.

As West tells it, in the 1980s, William & Mary President Paul Verkuil was visiting the University of Georgia, and saw the ITA Men's Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame (constructed with financial help from Kenny Rogers ... yes the Kenny Rogers). He asked Dan Magill, the legendary UGA tennis coach and Men's Hall of Fame curator, "Where's the women's hall of fame?" to which Magill replied, "Well we don't have room for it. If you're interested in that, get in touch with David Benjamin," the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's longtime executive director.  Verkuil did just that and in 1988 the ITA gave William and Mary the right to establish the Hall of Fame, putting West in charge. But without much money (beyond some early funds from ITA sponsor Rolex) it was a slow process.

Fast forward a few years. IMG founder Mark McCormack (William and Mary Class of 1951) had expressed a desire to help improve his alma mater's tennis program. He and his wife, former Top 10 pro Betsy Nagelsen, became the major donors that helped the tennis complex and Hall of Fame to finally open together in 1995. After McCormack's death in 2003, Nagelson has continued to be a major Hall of Fame supporter. (Although she's far from the only one. "We've had good friends who've helped us and been very loyal to carry on the spirit and financial end of the Hall of Fame," noted West.)

A trip through an amazing past

The first thing that struck me was how many true legends of women's tennis were represented in the Hall of Fame. For decades, college has been considered a less fruitful route for players serious about a pro career. But in the pre-Open era, when nearly all women still played as amateurs, it was quite common for women -- American women, at least -- to balance higher education with playing at the highest levels.

Helen Wills Moody (University of California Berkeley). Althea Gibson (Florida A&M - an historically black university). Billie Jean King (California State Los Angeles). All of these women went to college while playing grand slams. However, they weren't playing "college tennis" as we know it today, as women's sports were a decided afterthought in the world of intercollegiate athletics. It wasn't until 1958 that Darlene Hard of Pomona College won the first-ever nationally sanctioned intercollegiate tennis championship -- 75 years after the first men's intercollegiate champion, Harvard's Joseph Clark, was crowned. She would go on to win three grand slam singles titles.

In the late 60s and early 70s, women's tennis experienced a sea change: the Open Era started, the WTA was formed, and tennis became more and more internationalized. Despite the passage of Title IX, it became increasingly rare to find female tennis prodigies make their way to college. Why would they, when teenagers were making major finals, and earning a tidy sum in the process?

One of the nice things about the ITA Women's College Tennis Hall of Fame is that it tells so many different stories about women's tennis, and measures success in different ways. Too often, tennis aficionados focus on grand slam singles titles as the sole lens for viewing history. But many of the honorees here didn't play professional tennis, and still had incredible careers in the tennis world.

Here, the march for equality and respect is told. The incomparable Hazel Wightman (University of California, Berkeley, Class of 1911) gets her own corner of the museum. You can learn more about the revolution brought on by Title IX. ("I was a real die-hard about Title IX, I was on the stump every day, and I created a lot of enemies," remembers West.) Read about programs, such as Rollins College in Florida, whose remarkable heydays have since passed.

(Even if you can't make it in person, the Hall of Fame's timeline page is worth perusing.)

Coaches are here, too. In 2012, longtime University of Florida coach Andy Brandi was inducted alongside his most successful player, Lisa Raymond. "It was an honor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame," Brandi told me. "I was very fortunate in all those years that I had tremendous players there that made my life and job easy and I was able to accomplish a lot because of them." Brandi said being inducted with Raymond was "icing on the cake." He added, "It was a joy to watch her over those two years, then as a professional continuing her career and success. She's like a daughter to me, so it was very touching to be inducted at the same time."

West recalls the first induction ceremony, in 1995, with fondness. "Well it was classic, really. Because of the two things together -- Mark and Betsy, we had a lot of those charter members back, and it was combined with the [tennis center] opening. Mark's grandfather [Dr. T. J. McCormack] dedicated Blow Gym on our campus, in 1925. So it was very meaningful to him. Mark brought in a lot of tennis pros to do an exhibition. So we had an exhibition, we had the opening, we had a dinner at the Lodge."

The most recent induction took place in November 2014, and featured, among others, current USTA president Katrina Adams.

Inductee Katrina Adams (r) with Betsy Nagesen McCormack of the ITA Women's Tennis Hall of Fame
Posted by Intercollegiate Tennis Association - ITA on Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Erica Perkins Jasper, ITA's Chief Operating Officer, was an assistant coach at William and Mary in the mid-Aughts. "Millie is an unbelievable contributor to women's college athletics. To be around someone like her for two years was incredible. The way she's built up the Hall of Fame makes the ITA and college tennis proud. The memorabilia, the building, it's a beautiful facility. And it's of cool to have the Hall of Fame in such an historic city like Williamsburg."

Every tennis fan would do well to check out the ITA Women's Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame. If you're near Williamsburg or plan to be, definitely make a point of it. I guarantee you'll come away with a renewed appreciation for this lamentably overlooked section of our great sport.

(For more photos, check out the On the Rise Facebook album.)

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