Catching Up With... Wendy Turnbull

Wendy Turnbull was born of the best Aussie sporting traditions, and spent more than a decade amongst the elite.

Published February 18, 2011 09:15

Catching Up With... Wendy Turnbull
Wendy Turnbull

Australia's Wendy Turnbull is a four-time Grand Slam doubles champion and five-time mixed doubles champion. In singles, she reached three Grand Slam singles finals, finishing runner-up to Chris Evert at the 1977 US Open and 1979 French Open, and to Hana Mandlikova at the 1980 Australian Open. Ranked in the year-end Top 10 for eight consecutive years (1977-84), the player affectionately known as 'Rabbit' peaked at No.3 in singles and No.5 in doubles. All up she won 10 WTA singles titles and 54 doubles titles, and partnered Liz Smylie to the bronze medal at the Seoul Olympics.

We caught up with Wendy after the WTA Asia-Pacific Alumnae & Friends Reunion held in Melbourne during the Australian Open.

First of all, Wendy, did you enjoy the reunion last night?
WT: I love catching up with people I played with. I think everyone has a different perspective on things all these years later, so it's nice… you're not as competitive! I saw people there last night that I hadn't seen for a long time. One of the Aussies I used to play with, Cynthia Doerner, was there. I remember after we played the French Open, I think it was 1976, we got back to the UK and rented a car. Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody was a hit at the time and we were playing it on the radio. All these years later I still can't hear that song without thinking of Cynthia! We were laughing about that.

Back to the beginning: how did you get into tennis?
WT: My parents loved all sports, and played social tennis. In particular my father, who played Aussie Rules for Queensland, loved it… he loved watching all the great Queenslanders like Rod Laver and Roy Emerson. I had three older brothers and three younger sisters and we were all encouraged to excel. Our neighbors had a tennis court, so we'd play Cowboys and Indians and then run on to the court in our bare feet and pick up a racquet and start swinging. My brother, Harold, and I ended up playing mixed doubles at Wimbledon together - until I got a better partner! My other brothers both played Aussie Rules for Queensland, one of my sisters played women's cricket for the state, and another represented in secondary school tennis.

What were your strengths as a player?
WT: My speed around the court was definitely a huge asset. My groundies weren't a huge strength, nor my serve, but my volleys and overhead helped me. And, once I believed in myself - got the powers of positive thinking right - that made a big difference, because the mental side of the game is so important. I also consider knowing what is right for you as a player, in terms of schedule on the tour, to be a strength. I was never a great practicer, so if I took several weeks off, it took me a few tournaments to get back into it. I found that playing more was better for me.

You acquired one of the great nicknames, Rabbit. How did that come about? Did you like it, or did it ever annoy you?
WT: No, it didn't annoy me at all - you know Aussies, we all get nicknames, it doesn't matter who you are! I've had several nicknames in my lifetime, but Rabbit was the one that stuck. Ion Tiriac came up with it when I played World TeamTennis with him. The second day of practice, he said, 'You're pretty quick around the court… for a woman. You're like a rabbit, so now I call you Rabbit.' Then people would make nicknames out of my nickname. Some would call me Rabbit Rabbit, John Lloyd would call me Young Rab, Chris Evert would call me Rabby or Rabbi. And when my nieces and nephews were younger they liked to call me Auntie Rabbit. My mother didn't like that, but they thought they were being quite cheeky!

What are your early memories of life on tour?
WT: The first year I went overseas, I just played in England and on the Continent. I won the second tournament I played in England, and that sort of established me… they didn't have computer rankings then, so you had to do well there to get accepted into Wimbledon. When I first went to the States, I played a lot on the Futures tour. You had to get to the semifinals before you could move up. I was one of those people that lost in every quarterfinal! So I struggled for a while there. But then one year I decided that instead of playing World TeamTennis I'd play in Europe before and after Wimbledon. I played a lot on clay, and that improved my game a lot… my fitness, my speed and my ground strokes especially. I won the Austrian Open at the end of the clay court season that year, and I started to play better.

What did you make of World TeamTennis?
WT: Actually the following year I went back to TeamTennis, playing with Bjorn Borg for the Cleveland Nets, and the experience helped me a lot. I was supposed to play in Boston, but Martina didn't want to play in Cleveland, so she went to Boston, and I went to Cleveland! At the time I was really upset, because I would have been playing with Emerson and Tony Roche in Boston, but it ended up being the best thing for me. I was the No.1 singles player, which meant playing people like Chrissie, Martina, Billie Jean and Virginia Wade all the time, and I started playing better and better against them. I learnt a lot from being around Bjorn, and Marty Riessen, who was coach of the team, would give me these pep talks that really taught me to believe in myself. So what I thought was a bad thing became one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Do you have strong memories of the struggle to get a better deal for the women?
WT: Oh, yeah. I started traveling in '72, so I wasn't even on the tour when Billie Jean King and those girls broke away, but of course I had read and heard about everything that was going on. When I went to America for the first time, they had the Slims Circuit and the USLTA had a circuit. Actually, Cynthia was playing the Slims Circuit and I asked her what I should do. She said I should go and play the USLTA circuit, which is what I did. But I was totally aware of the struggles, very aware of the differences. Billie was always encouraging the younger players to get involved, whether it was on the board of the WTA, or on a committee. So I got on the board very early on, '74 or '75.

Did you ever feel the off-court stuff was a distraction or a negative for you game?
WT: No, I didn't feel that, because everyone else was doing it as well. You'd hear the stories about Billie and Rosie and the other girls practically begging people to come and watch them play… and I'd think, oh my god, I couldn't have done all that and played tennis and won. So, yeah, I could go to some meetings and not feel hard done by. Sure, you'd get discouraged - sometime you wouldn't agree with what was going on - but it was a real learning process. It is sort of disappointing not to see all the top players involved these days. When I was on the board, most of the top players were involved in some way. And you knew which ones weren't!

Who was the toughest opponent for you?
WT: That's pretty easy. It was Chrissie. I only beat her once, whereas I had a much better record against Martina, especially in Grand Slams. I beat Martina in the semis at the US Open and Australian Open. But they had totally different games… trying to get to the net against Chrissie's baseline play was… aargh! And while Martina got better and better, at first Chrissie was so much stronger mentally than Martina. Chrissie was just such a great competitor. Martina… became a great competitor.

What do you consider the best singles match you ever played?
WT: Probably one of the best matches I ever played was against Martina in the semis of the US Open. People talk about being in the zone, and I remember coming off that match and feeling like I was in the zone. Because it was a tight match but I felt like I could win and that I was going to. I don't think I could say that about another match against a top player. It's sort of hard to explain… it was like being above the ground. Everything was just perfect. Sorry, Martina! But she got me back lots of times.

Some of your biggest wins were in doubles and mixed - which victories have stayed with you?
WT: In mixed, John Lloyd and I won the French Open in '82, and it was a so-so match. At Wimbledon after that we lost in the final, so it was very disappointing for John. But the next year we played Steve Denton and Billie Jean in the final, and there was only one service break in the match. It was in the last game, and we won. So that's definitely my favorite mixed match.
My favorite doubles match has to be when Kerry Melville Reid and I won the Wimbledon doubles in '78. It was sort of unexpected… we were a good doubles team, but not favored to win, and we struggled in a lot of our matches. We'd usually lose the first set and it got to the point where Kerry's husband, Raz, would say, 'You guys should go out there and think that you're already down a set!' Also in that final, we were actually down match points and we came back and won, so everything about it was sort of special.

Kerry and I ran to each other and were jumping up and down, and then my racquet hit her in the lip, so she had a fat lip. I remember going in to the locker room afterwards and Billie and Rosie were there and I remember Billie telling us to enjoy the moment… you remember things like that. I think your first Wimbledon title is special, and also I grew up admiring Kerry, so it was a thrill to win with her.

Was the prospect of retirement something you dreaded?
WT: In the early '80s I was starting to get a little tired of traveling and playing… at least I thought I was. But then I got tennis elbow and it made me realize, wait a minute, I don't want to stop playing! It took an injury to make me realize how much I loved the game. After that I started playing some of my best tennis. It was a bit of a wake-up call, and fortunately I got rid of tennis elbow after a couple of years. Then when tennis became a medal sport at the Olympics in Seoul in 1988, that kept me going.

How did you find the Olympic experience?
WT: I love the saying, 'Once an Olympian, always an Olympian: Never former, never past.' To be there in Seoul with everybody, marching into the stadium with all the athletes from the other sports, was one of the biggest thrills. When Liz Smylie and I won our quarterfinal doubles match we were so excited, because we knew we were assured of a medal. It's bronze, but I've taken it to schools and shown it to juniors. People always get a kick out of seeing it. I also took part in the torch relay ahead of the Sydney Games - I ran through the suburb where I grew up. I think I was related to everybody in some way! Most of what I achieved, I was somewhere else. Everybody was there that day, lining the route, and I felt like I'd been able to share something with the people who really count. That really touched me.

Was the transition to retirement difficult for you?
WT: After the Olympics, I wanted to play singles at Wimbledon one more time, which I did. But it was getting harder and harder…. I wasn't totally ready to retire, but happily I had doubles to fall back on, and that gave me another year. Then, I started playing the invitational events at Wimbledon and the US Open, did some television commentary and a lot of corporate outings, and we had the Virginia Slims legends series for a few years. So I was just as busy - it wasn't like I was sitting at home wondering what to do. Of course, as you get older, they want you less and less, but at least it's a gradual thing. We are lucky, because there is so much going on in our sport compared to most others.

Who do you like to watch among today's players?
WT: Well, you have to say you love watching Federer and Nadal. And I have to say David Ferrer. I sort of relate to him in a way, because he works so hard on the court, which I had to do. He doesn't have a big game but he's solid and he's got a huge heart. Among the women, I like watching Kim Clijsters. She's such a great role model. And they're still trying to claim her as an Aussie! She's very gracious about it and that's why I like her. How can you not like her - what you see is what you get. And I like Serena. I think she's good value for money. She's a great personality out there and I like to watch her because she's a champion.

Is there anything you don't like about the modern game?
WT: I can remember playing Fed Cup for the first time, thinking what an unbelievable honor it was. That was before I'd broken into the Top 10… I was low man on the totem pole. After that I played Fed Cup every year, and after I retired became captain/coach of the Australian team. When I see players not playing Fed Cup because it doesn't suit their schedule, I get so disgusted with them.

What's your idea of a great day out, a perfect day?
WT: Going somewhere I've never been before, experiencing new things. I like to go to different places each year… this year I'm going on a cruise to Alaska. But if I was at home and not fortunate enough to be out there, it would be something nice and relaxed, like chatting with friends. Nothing stressful. A day without TV or radio… a great day would be a day when I don't hear of anything bad happening in the world. The important thing is to really enjoy life, because it's too short.

You've lived in the US for many years… do you ever think about moving back to Australia?
WT: It goes through my mind quite a bit. I come back for seven or eight weeks every year around Christmas time. It's the best time to come, with the holidays and the tennis, and I get to catch up with everybody. I have a place up on the Sunshine Coast and I have real estate in Queensland, so I've got to come back and file my tax return. But if I couldn't come back every year, I think that would change my thinking. I don't think there's an Australian who lives oversees who doesn't think about coming back. Right now, my answer is I don't know. But I think I'm a very proud Australian. I still start crying when I hear I Still Call Australia Home. That song gets every Australian.

- Interview by Adam Lincoln, January 2011

Keep up with Wendy and all the other greats of women's tennis at the official WTA Legends Facebook page!

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