COLUMBIA — The women on the Missouri tennis team might be considered amateurs in the broader scheme of tennis, but to several older Columbia women who are members of the Green Tennis Center where the Tigers play, they’re pros.
Sunday afternoon, eight women had the opportunity to play tennis with members of the team in the Tiger Pro Am, an event that pairs the center’s women tennis members with a Missouri tennis players for doubles competition.
The event, which for the first time was offered in both the fall and spring because of increasing interest, is the team’s effort to reach out to center members, who are the majority of the team’s fan base. While the team accepts donations for the event, Missouri coach Blake Starkey said the event is not a fundraiser. Instead, the focus is on creating relationships between players and fans.
“A lot of the ladies will come watch our matches and we want to have (the connection) a little deeper,” Starkey said. “If they feel like they know you, they’re not necessarily going to root harder, but I just think that connection’s a little deeper.”
Starkey also said he thinks players seeing these women at their matches will inspire them to “fight a little harder the day of the match.”
“A lot of these faces we see at our matches, so it’s nice to play with them because they support us,” freshman Kaitlyn Ritchie said.
Becky Smith, 52, of Sturgeon said that it helps getting to know the players personally so that when she comes to matches she can cheer them on by name. Smith, who played both high school and college-level tennis, participated in her second Pro Am.
“I like (the players’) sportsmanship, their camaraderie,” Smith said. “They’re a really energetic team, they’re very together. They’re just very likeable and very gracious to play with us older people.”
Starkey also tried to foster relationships by placing players with specific women.
For example, junior Sofia Ayala, who was born in Ecuador, got to play her first set with Judy Elliott, another native Spanish speaker. The two spoke in Spanish on and off the court.
Ayala said that after the two tennis matches the team played on Saturday, the thought of playing more on tennis on Sunday was exhausting, but after playing for a little bit with the ladies, she was getting into the matches and having fun.
“Once you’re here and you see that there’s a lot of people here that support you and love you, you just want to have fun with them and interact with them,” Ayala said.
Sophomore teammate Kaitlin Dunham agreed.
“It’s relaxing, just fun,” she said. “Out here, you can just goof around.”
In all of Dunham’s matches, she was shouting and laughing with whomever she was paired with on the court. Her favorite, she said, is Barb Glenn.
Glenn, 53, of Columbia said she thinks she’s only missed one Pro Am since the program started. She started playing tennis about 17 years ago and said that playing with the team members makes her game look better.
“It’s fun to watch (the players) really fiercely compete out here with their game faces on and then to be as feminine and beautiful and nice as they are with us,” Glenn said. “I really look forward to this.”