After a stellar junior career that brought 17 national titles, American Jane ‘Peaches’ Bartkowicz worked her way into the nation’s Top 5 and was just 21 when she signed her $1 pro contract to play in Gladys Heldman’s revolutionary Virginia Slims Invitational in September 1970. As well as making history as part of the Original 9 at that Houston event, the dedicated baseliner won titles at Cincinnati and Toronto, was twice a quarterfinalist at the US Open, and never lost a match – singles or doubles – when representing her country in Fed Cup or Wightman Cup.
wtatennis.com: How did you get into tennis?
PB: At the age of seven I found a cracked racquet in the bushes at the park next to my house in Hamtramck, Michigan. I immediately developed a compulsion to hitting the ball against the wall and was attracted to the sport. Quite quickly I started playing, and winning, local tournaments. At the age of eight I was able to start travelling – I remember that my first trip was to Boston. I realized that tennis would allow me to travel, which was very appealing and something I still enjoy doing.
How would you describe your style of play?
PB: I’d say I had a steady baseline game and tended to stay away from approaching the net! I’d say I had a wicked double-handed backhand – which was very unusual at that time – and a unique ability to return serves. I prided myself on being accurate with regards to ball placement, and my work ethic and determination was second to none.
Did you have any personal rituals when playing tennis?
PB: My rituals included never crossing lines in between points – I was a bit superstitious about doing that. Also, I would bounce the ball a certain amount of times between each serve. But I would only decide my ball bouncing regime ahead of each match!
What was your favorite tournament to play?
The US Open at Forest Hills. Great atmosphere, played in the United States, well-run tournament, and I had many friends in New York. It felt comfortable to me, so I played my best there of all the majors.
What did you enjoy most about competing?
PB: The best part of competing was challenging myself, and overcoming obstacles faced during each match. Having to adjust my game, based on how I was playing, was exciting to me as a player. I’ve always had a great sense of pride in everything I do. I enjoy the feeling that successful accomplishments give me and I came to enjoy the recognition that sport provided me. Also, playing doubles taught me a great life lesson – the importance of teamwork and working collectively to complete a common goal. Competition challenges one mentally, emotionally and physically and tests an athlete’s technical, tactical and mental capabilities. I enjoyed this when competing simply because success leads to an improvement in self-esteem.
Who do you look up to, and why?
PB: Billie Jean King. For her greatness on court – 39 Grand Slam titles. For being a crusader for women’s causes and gender equality, starting with equal prize money. She staked her career with eight of us to form the Virginia Slims Circuit and her iconic win over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes had such a positive impact on women’s self-respect. She worked so hard as a promoter and ambassador for our sport, she was the founder and first president of the WTA and founding partner of World Team Tennis, which as a co-ed league in the 1970s was such an exciting concept. Her charity work, through the Women’s Sports Foundation and support of other organizations like the Elton John AIDS Foundation is so inspiring, and she continues the fight to this day.
What did you do after leaving the pro tour?
PB: After retiring from the circuit in my early 20s I taught tennis at several clubs in Michigan. I then worked for 24 years, up until retirement, for the US District Court in Detroit. I’ve had some health challenges, including a bone marrow transplant in 2015. I’m a grandmother to a wonderful granddaughter, who I enjoy spending time with as often as possible.
Speaking to your younger self, or someone just starting out in the sport, what would you say?
PB: First and foremost, love what you do. If you don’t have a passion for the game – or anything else you do – you’re less likely to be successful. Work hard, get to the court early and stay late. Do what you have to do to get a competitive edge but play by the rules. Stay focused. Finally, surround yourself with positive people who are similarly driven and have your best interests at heart.
What advice would you give today’s players to maximize their careers on the WTA Tour?
PB: It is so important to look after your mental health, for the brain is the engine that governs the body’s actions, and without that connection and proper balance, you won’t be successful. There will be tough times and during those times, you will have to dig deep and stay motivated. Also, know your opponents, as that’s who you are competing against first. But your next adversary during any match is you – so know yourself and stay strong! Enjoy the journey and remember to make time for the things you enjoy outside of the sport.
What is your favorite movie about sports?
PB: Rocky. I’ve always related to and rooted for the underdog. The character of Rocky as played by Sylvester Stallone trained extra hard, had positive people around him who provided good support, and he was determined – proving that anything is possible with hard work.
Interview by Adam Lincoln.