Alice Tym, 79, McDonald, Tennessee
Alice Tym has been known by many people for different things. Tennis fans knew her as a rising star of the ‘60s, challenging other rising stars like Billie Jean King and ascending to a #13 world ranking in 1969. Teammates at the University of Florida knew her as the woman who started their women’s tennis team so they could all play. Scores of younger women knew her as “Coach Tym” as she carved out a hall of fame coaching career at UT-Chattanooga and Yale. Other college students knew her as their geography instructor. She’s also been known as a knowledgeable writer for tennis and pickleball publications through the years.
Currently, she is known as “that lady you don’t want to play” in Senior Games. Alice has always exhibited determination, courage, skill and competitiveness, and it’s no different now as she gives it her all playing table tennis, pickleball and badminton at the National Senior Games level.
We wanted to know a little more about the woman behind the whirlwind on the court, and while Alice was all business in fielding questions in the following edited interview, she revealed a deeper current of caring for others, advocating for fairness in sport, and making good decisions leading to her better quality of life. She played as a pro for six years and could have continued, but the path she chose has been rewarding as she raised a family and poured her energy into coaching and teaching. She’s still called on to coach others to elevate their game, and she’s happy to do it for love of the sport and the people who live it.
Alice had the skill and the opportunity to chase her tennis dream but was always aware that most other girls her age did not have organized sports in school. She had to fight to start a tennis team to play her college level, and there would be many more fights as Title IX brought sweeping changes for equal access to sports. Read on to learn how she was personally impacted as a college coach.
It seems like it has been second nature for Alice Tym to pursue her own Personal Best for a lifetime, and she is enjoying the rewards for taking care of herself, keeping active and persevering through life’s challenges, still ready for whatever comes next. Wanna play?
When did you start playing tennis? You were so good you were probably born with a racket!
Actually I started late, in the summer before my senior year of high school. I played baseball (not softball) and it reached a point where your father would like you to do something more ‘lady like.’ [Laugh] Maureen Connolly came to Illinois and gave a tennis clinic. I just took one look at her and thought, ‘That’s what I want to be’ and I started playing tennis. Several years later in Miami, someone was needed to give a clinic with her and they asked me to do it. I was just thrilled to tell Maureen what she had meant to my life.
I learned how to play practicing on the brick wall of my next door neighbor’s garage. I went on to the University of Florida and they didn’t have a women’s tennis team. So, I started the women’s tennis team at the University of Florida.
You say that so nonchalantly. This was almost a decade before Title IX came in. You must have faced some resistance.
At that time Florida was the men’s university and FSU was the women’s university. Florida became co-ed shortly before I entered, and I don’t think they felt particularly threatened by having a women’s team because we really didn’t get very much money. I’m not sure anyone saw what was coming on the horizon either. And yes, there were tremendous barriers. Our PE teacher Miss Pie drove us to matches in her station wagon. We didn’t have all of the money that the men did.
It’s good you had the talent and opportunity to pursue tennis to a high level. Not very many girls were fortunate to have organized sports in those days.
Title IX impacted me most as a coach after my playing career. I started coaching tennis at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga in 1974 and we won the national championships 3 consecutive years. Yet I made exactly 10% of what the men’s coach made at the same university and he barely won conference championships. The woman who followed me sued them and gained parity.
I went on to Yale where the woman before me had sued and won. So, I walked from one of the lowest paid into the highest paid tennis coaching job in the country because of somebody else. So yes, I’ve got a Title IX attitude as well.
You are a relentless and passionate competitor, and you must have been a fierce advocate for equality.
Oh, you had to fight so hard. There were many real courageous women and there was always a fight. My daughter says that I just like to fight, and I do. But if I didn’t, then what was going to happen?
Billie Jean King must be a role model for you. Did you know her back then?[Laugh] We have the exact same birthday, and I was actually just reading her latest book All In. I have hundreds of stories about Billie Jean.
When I first started, I was chosen for the Western Junior Wightman Cup team and she roomed right across the hall. I was really a beginner and Billie Jean was already really good at 18. She treated me and all the players that were coming up really well. There are a lot of athletes that don’t take the time for the lesser players. I remember at Wimbledon, Billie Jean took Cici Martinez to another court and worked with her during Wimbledon to help her. She really was classy about that. Everybody helps the stars, but she helped the lesser players.
Let’s stay in those days for a moment. How did your tennis career take off?
Bill, my husband-to-be, played number 1 at Florida and he had worked with a good pro and helped me with strokes and stuff. I always wanted to travel because I had never really been anywhere, so every summer after school I would go to Europe and play. That competition really helped me. I got to play all the players. In those days men and women traveled together and I played all over the world, year after year.
At your peak you were ranked 13th in the world and played at Wimbledon. Must have felt like a dream.
That was in 1969. I graduated in 1964 and got my Master’s in 1966. I played all those years, and then I started playing all year. In those days, you could buy an annual ticket on Pan Am for $1,200. You had 52 weeks to travel, but you had to go back to where you started so you had to progress in the same general direction. I would start in Chicago, play San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, then jump over the Tokyo or Hong Kong or Taiwan, then drop down and play the Australian circuit for two or three months, and then back up to the Indian circuit for two or three months, and then you could play the Israeli circuit in the Middle East, drop down to Africa for two or three months or you could come into Europe and there were tournaments all over. One or two every week.
Then you move to Wimbledon. I would stay after and play the Irish championships on grass before going back to the U.S. Tennis Championships. And then I would go back to Chicago, buy another ticket and then start over again. That was from ’66 to ’70.
Wow! Just the constant travel is challenging. Did you realize you couldn’t keep it up forever?
Actually, I never realized I can’t do this forever. My husband wanted to settle down. He had been hurt and couldn’t play anymore so we moved to The Bahamas and I had to make the decision either to go to the women’s tour or to stop and have a family. That was the time that Billie Jean and Rosie Casals decided to sign contracts and became pros.
Then, Alex Guerry, who was important in southern tennis, asked my husband to come teach his children to play so we moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. That is where I had my children, and I did nothing but kids sports for 25 years. They played every sport and I was too busy taking them everywhere. My daughter showed horses all around the country. My son Danny had a credit card at nine years old and played soccer and ended up playing professional tennis. And Billy skied. I loved having kids, they were so much fun and they still are. The only match I ever missed while coaching was when I gave birth to my daughter, but other than that I was at every game.
You have succeeded as a coach with an elite background. Some like you find it difficult to communicate and teach what comes naturally for them. Was that a challenge for you?
That’s a great question, and you are absolutely right. The USTA made that mistake when they brought in a lot of coaches right off the tour and it wasn’t the same.
I really think it is an academic attitude. I was very fortunate that my husband learned from a good coach and he was very observant. I went to a lot of clinics, and then a lot of trial and error. I taught 90 hours a week for years and you learn what works if you want to be successful. As far as coaching goes, if you want to win, you gotta find a way. Frank Ryan of the Cleveland Browns was my athletic director at Yale and we were on the same wavelength. We wanted to win.
Coaching women is much more difficult than teaching men. All guys think they can do it and think that they are great. Women have to believe if they are going to be any good. You have to make them believe that they deserve to win. For example, you can have them run so they can be fit and if they are fit then they won’t quit. They believe they earned it. Same with lifting weights. At Yale, I had them lift weights but I always picked the time that the cute boys, like to hockey team, would be lifting weights. One of the girls married one of the hockey players. That was when people thought that their uterus would fall out if they lifted weights, but they were willing to do it because of the guys. Coaching women is a hard job. [Laugh]
When did you get back to playing as a senior?
I happened to be in a store one day and Yvonne Stevenson came up to me and asked me to come play at the Wyatt Recreation Center and to partner in the Tennessee Senior Olympics. We won table tennis doubles in the state together and became good friends. She was a classy lady and one of the great joys of playing. That is how I got into it. Someone just walked up to me in a store and told me about it. [Laugh]
I went to table tennis because back in those days, you couldn’t play a sport if you were considered a professional in that sport. So I couldn’t do tennis and started playing table tennis. There was badminton at the club so I started that, and then they brought in Pickleball.
You’re in for anything with a racket. What are you playing in this year’s National Senior Games?
I’m playing pickleball and table tennis – singles, doubles and mixed doubles. The difficulty for me is not everyone wants to travel to different places for meets so I have different partners all over the country.
What did you think of Pickleball when it first came out?
I think pickleball is so easy that it makes it possible for people to play who aren’t able to play other sports. I think it’s fabulous. I would like to see them put it in urban areas where kids can play. It has tremendous potential.
I am competitive about everything, so it fit right in with me. It is much simpler than tennis, but if you want to be successful at the sport then you have to learn the strokes. You can’t be a tennis player on the table tennis court and be a good player. Having tennis strokes and tennis mentality has helped, though. It is chip and charge and that is the way grass tennis is. That is how pickleball is, but it has its own nuances.
You are a fierce competitor by nature, Alice. Is there anything you do to intimidate your opponents?
No, I think you do it with your paddle or with your racket. I grew up where you wore white, you spoke multiple languages and you acted like you’d been there before. You try to be a class act. I wouldn’t want to trash talk someone else because I have as much respect for my opponent as I hope they do for me. You don’t always know what people are going through either. Billie Jean was classy.
I like Senior Games the most because they really respect the seniors. I have made tremendous friends through them, and some have become very dear friends. I think that is true for a lot of us.
What about tennis? Still play?
It’s sad. I don’t. I decided to stop because when I would play tennis, I would see how far I slipped. But when I play table tennis, I can see how far I have come. Mentally, I just couldn’t handle being crappy.
That’s an honest answer. Are you coaching seniors now?
I try not to, but I do that all the time because people ask. [Laugh] We have a little group that goes and gives clinics and exhibitions in pickleball, and I run drills whenever there is a club that wants me. It’s not a formal thing, but it’s the right thing to do. So many people don’t realize that they need to drill and they need to learn. If I don’t do it, who will?
You wrote about tennis for years and continue to write for Pickleball magazine. You were also a geography instructor while you were coaching in college. Do you still teach?
No, I retired about 5 years ago. I loved teaching but I tell you, I haven’t been back since the day I retired. I was so busy with all the other connections that it was seamless. I know people that miss it and they come back. I just went from one life to another. I do think that happiness is a choice and I think your life is a choice.
You’ve made a lot of good choices, Alice. Thanks for joining the Senior Games Movement!