40 LOVE Icons: Renee Blount
Published December 09, 2013 12:02
KESWICK, VA, USA - Renee Blount made her dream come true by playing at the WTA level from the late '70s to late '80s, competing against greats like Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert - but since retiring from the tour she has focused her energy on making others' dreams come true, teaching tennis to children with disabilities at the Keswick Tennis Foundation. But she was sparked by someone...
We recently caught up with Blount for a Q&A - here she is in her own words...
How did you get started in tennis?
"I got started in St. Louis, Missouri. My coaches were the ones who coached the late Arthur Ashe. When he was younger Ashe came from Virginia to St. Louis, and now I'm right around the corner from where he grew up - I thought that was interesting! I wonder if fate had already been written. Anyway, St. Louis has a rich tennis history. Jimmy Connors was one of the people I used to see hitting. We'd hit at the Armory downtown - I would be on Court 3 with my brother and Jimmy would be on Court 1.
"I kept working, hoping one day I'd be able to play some of the top women players in the world."
Who were your idols?
"I was always impressed with Billie Jean King and Evonne Goolagong. Billie Jean King was my idol. I read her book when I was younger and saw her struggles. As for Evonne, her game was so beautiful."
Talk about playing at college.
"I played with the men at Hampton, because there was no women's team at the time - I played No.6 for the men's team there. They ended up Division 3 champions. Then I made it to the ranks of UCLA and played there for a year - I was an all-American, playing No.1 singles and doubles. It was just great.
"I just kept struggling and praying I'd one day find myself as a qualifier at a WTA tournament."
When did you break through to the WTA level?
"My first main draw match was against Chris Evert in the UK. I was determined not to lose because I didn't want to go back and play qualifying again - I won the first set in 20 minutes, 6-2, but ended up losing 6-3 in the third. I think I earned some respect though. Other players started acknowledging me.
"I played some more tournaments from there. I played some of the top players in the world. I loved it."
What were some of your other most memorable matches?
"I had match point on Martina Navratilova at the Australian Open, when it was held on grass. It was in the second round. She served and I sliced the return at her feet - and she put the ball in the corner. That's when I knew what a magnificent athlete she was. I never had another chance - sometimes you really do only get one chance. Even though I didn't win, it was one of my greatest highlights."
What was your game style?
"I would consider myself an all-court player. I liked to serve and volley, and I liked playing on grass. My best results were on faster surfaces. My serve was a strength - I could hit it about 105mph, which was big back then but wouldn't be considered that fast now! I also had a slice backhand - and one-handed.
"I felt like I was a player who could do well against the top players. I was able to raise my game."
How do you look back on everything now?
"Sometimes when you're in the moment you don't realize how significant it is, and how much a part of you it becomes. Even now, to this day, I look back and miss it with all of my heart. Seeing Peachy and Jean Nachand and everyone, the security I felt from being on the women's tour, I think we all take it for granted to some extent. When I look back at all of it now, I see what an ultimate experience I had.
"You were around the brightest minds and the best athletes. It was an inspiration. I miss everyone. I wonder how they're all doing. I've heard nothing but good things - I'm very happy for everyone."
On how Arthur Ashe changed her life...
"Before Arthur died I talked to him, and he gave me some very inspirational information. I'll never forget it. He said, 'When are you going to stop working for and owning?' I had never thought about those things. Until then I was just working, but then what he said was making sense to me, about owning.
"I thought about what I could do to pay tribute to what he said. That's when I built my own courts - four Har-Tru courts. I was the construction manager for one of them - the women's tour made me self-sufficient and strong-willed. I already had plans for a foundation and was going to use the courts for it.
"My late sister, Kay, had a disability, but she could still play tennis. When I came to Virginia in 1999, a mother called me and asked me if I could teach her son, but she was crying because she said he had autism and none of the other pros in the town would. She didn't know I understood so well. I told her to bring him over. I had done an autism community project in high school and also took psych at UCLA - it's funny how things work out sometimes. It went well, and she referred me, so I started working with more and more kids with disabilities. Things evolved to a point where I put a bubble up later that year.
"It makes me feel like I'm bringing awareness to a problem in our society. I'd see my sister having to 'go over there' to hit. You can turn your eye and pretend it doesn't bother you, but it wasn't fair. So I'm trying to incorporate all children together. When they all grow up, they'll have greater awareness.
"Autism is one of the fastest growing disorders in the country. They can't explain why it's growing like this. And soon we'll see adults with it - we need to incorporate everyone so that when children with autism pass 18 we don't just drop the gauntlet. We just need to keep trying to incorporate everyone.
"Arthur was very, very significant to what I'm doing - not just as a player, but as a person."