INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - Leadership takes many forms. Unless you are deeply immersed in WTA lore, chances are you're not familiar with the late Anna Lee Thurston. But her fingerprints are part of what's made the WTA a $118 million dollar, 54-event circuit and tennis the world's preeminent women's sport.
On Sunday, March 9, a wide range of WTA veterans - including WTA Chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster and Billie Jean King - gathered at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California to honor Thurston's memory at an event orchestrated by another WTA legend, Hall of Famer Rosie Casals. Other tennis notables on-site included former players Sharon Walsh, Tory Fretz, Trish Bostrom, Ilana Kloss, BNP Paribas Open vice president of sales Peggy Michel, Hall of Famer Pancho Segura and Indian Wells tournament founder, Hall of Famer Charlie Pasarell. That the event addressed a wide spectrum of people and ideas spoke volumes to Thurston's creativity, business acumen and pioneer role.
Born in Long Beach, California - King's hometown - Thurston in 1971 was a 20-year-old newspaper reporter. These were also the early days of the Virginia Slims circuit, the likes of King and Casals taking tennis to the streets in every way possible. Clinics, radio shows, newspaper stories, TV pieces; a spectrum of 24-7 media activities that in time needed to be organized. Enter Thurston, who left her newspaper job to join the tour. She rapidly became a significant leadership presence. From those early days and for decades more, Thurston was front and center for dozens of tournaments, as well as such events as the one-of-a-kind King versus Bobby Riggs "Battle of the Sexes" match. Her death in 2007 at the age of 56 left a hole in many hearts. Said Casals, "She was our buddy, a true original. She had such a great personality, was so nice, just had a wonderful way with people." Added Allaster, "People like Anna Lee were leaders, creating new opportunities not just for tennis players, but for all women in all realms of business."
In the wake of Thurston's death, the Thurston Memorial Scholarship Endowment was created. This scholarship is based at the University of Oregon Warsaw Marketing Sports Center, a venue that honors the legacy of another sports marketing innovator, Jim Warsaw. The scholarship offers women the chance to pursue careers in sports and management. Said Casals, "This was a way to put together several pieces and bring something special to life." To date more than $225,000 has been raised.
Each year at Indian Wells, Casals and her mates honor a distinguished woman from the world of sports and business. Past recipients include Allaster, longstanding tennis agent Micky Lawler of Octagon and sports marketing pioneers Marie Patrick and Joann Klonowski.
In 2014 the award was given to Deborah Larkin. Throughout her career, Larkin has had a strong focus on civil rights, gender equity and women's leadership, ranging from executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation to stints on President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports to executive director of USTA Serves, the national charitable foundation of the USTA. She's also an ardent 4.5 USTA player. Said Larkin, "This is very humbling. But it also serves a purpose. We want scholarships like this to help raise the next generation of leaders in the world of sports and business."
Oakland-based Joel Drucker writes for a variety of print and broadcast media, including Tennis Channel, Tennis Magazine and Huffington Post. He met Anna Lee Thurston when he first began covering tennis in 1982.