From the mid-1980s until the late 1990s, playing the Missouri women’s tennis team meant one thing: an easy victory.
That changed when coach Blake Starkey arrived.
Missouri abandoned the women’s tennis team in 1983. When it was revived in 1986, it lacked financial support, so the team was composed of walk-ons.
This, coupled with a tough Big 8 Conference schedule, led to 70 consecutive regular season losses in the Big 8 from 1986-1996, when the league expanded to 12 teams.
The team needed help.
It got some when the athletic department decided to drop the men’s tennis program in the mid-1990s and allowed the women’s program to give scholarships.
But the program also needed a leader, and Starkey fit the bill.
Starkey learned a lot about coaching when he played for Tom Higgins at Eastern Kentucky.
“He might not have been the best tennis coach, but other coaches couldn’t hold a candle to him in terms of building us as people,” Starkey said.
Higgins would hang out with his players, teaching them how to marinate chicken or play pool down in his basement. If his players lost a tough match, it didn’t matter to Higgins. He still cared about them the same.
“I realized while at Eastern Kentucky something I think I already knew, and that is that when you are happy, you play much better,” Starkey said. “I enjoyed my time under coach Higgins and played the best tennis of my life.”
After graduating, Starkey began working with up-and-coming junior players at the John Newcombe Tennis Academy in New Braunfels, Texas. He was there until 1992, when he got an unexpected call.
Jim Laitta, Starkey’s former doubles’ partner at Eastern Kentucky and now the head coach of Maryland, lost his assistant and wanted Starkey to fill the void.
Starkey helped turn Maryland into a top-30 program.
While at Maryland, Starkey developed a reputation as a good recruiter, which he would later bring to Missouri. He had a good relationship with many junior players and coupled that with a great work ethic.
“I had other offers from LSU and NC State,” Missouri senior Mary Barry said. “But I wanted to play for Blake because I could relate to him.”
So when Missouri was looking for a coach to help its team rise out of the Big 12 basement, it targeted Starkey.
“When I interviewed him and showed him around the facilities, I don’t think I could have driven any faster past the outdoor courts,” former Missouri athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “I didn’t want Blake to see the cracks in the courts there because I figured it would turn him away from the program.”
But in January of 1997, Starkey decided to accept.
“I knew it would be tough, but I think I was naïve when I came in here,” he said. “I didn’t realize how good the competition was.”
But things began to turn around as Starkey brought in some top recruits. The Tigers picked up Biljana Pawlowa, who was the Big 12 Newcomer-of the Year in 1999. They added Urska Juric in 2000, who went on to rank first in career doubles wins and second in career singles wins in school history. Then, they added Katka Sevcikova, who teamed with Juric to win two Central Regional doubles’ titles.
Starkey and his players have turned the Tigers into a force in the conference. In 2002-2003, they went 6-5, became one of only three teams in Big 12 history to beat Texas and qualified for the NCAA tournament.
Although the Tigers didn’t do as well this season, they recorded a respectable 15-9 record and went 4-7 in the conference.
During his time at Missouri, Starkey has become a different coach. As his children, Samuel, 6, and Emily, 10, began to grow up, he realized that he needed to be more fair to his players.
“I realized the huge responsibility I had because everyone on my team was someone else’s Emily,” Starkey said.