It All Began in 1968 – 50 Years of Tennis for the Z Sisters!
Long before the Williams Sisters were even born, there were two young girls who loved sports. We played outside and with any balls we could find! We loved competing! Our younger brothers liked playing sports too, but not to the degree that Carrie and I did. It was a bond that we shared way back then and still do to this day, 50 years later.
As we grew up, my mother kept the five of us kids very busy during summer vacations. She signed all of us up for swimming lessons each year to make sure we were water safe and because she was never a strong swimmer herself, she wanted that for us. We learned in the local public pool (Pat McCormick Pool) at the Simon Bolivar Park in Lakewood, CA and then later in Thousand Oaks, CA at the TOHS pool.
The group swimming lessons were held in the mornings and we would often be treated to powdered sugar donuts after our lessons! We lived in Sunny Southern California back in the 1960’s, but started many of those lessons in cold foggy conditions. The levels of swim instruction were Beginners, Advanced Beginners, Minnows and Swimmers. The sessions were two weeks long and the last Friday was test day, where you could show how much you learned and improved. It also was the day that we all got to jump off the high diving board into the deep end! However, once we reached the Swimmers level we stopped enjoying the repetition of the lessons and told my mother we wanted to try something else.
In the summer of 1968….
we began our group tennis lessons through the Conejo Valley Parks and Rec Department at the TOHS tennis courts. The lessons were in the mid afternoon and my mother would drive to pick my sister Carrie and me up at the local park, where we were playing baseball with the boys. Carrie was 9 1/2 years old, almost 10 and I was 11 1/2 years old so we were put into different age group beginner’s classes. Carrie’s first teacher was Carole Ramsey, an 18 year old tennis player working as a tennis instructor during summer vacation. My first teacher was Ron Hedin, a science teacher from TOHS. Later we had a super energetic teacher named Terry B. Having fun was the name of the game!
We needed rackets for our lessons, so my mother saved up her “Blue Chip Stamps” from the grocery store and redeemed them for two wooden tennis rackets. I don’t remember the brand on them, but they were not top quality by any means, just for beginners! None the less, were very excited to have our own rackets and took them along, with a can of tennis balls each, to the tennis courts.
This is how I remember my first lesson: We bounced a ball on the ground and that was called “DOWNS”. We bounced the ball off the strings into the air and that was called “UPS”. Then we kids stood in a short line at the back fence and when it was our turn, we ran up and gave the teacher our three balls and ran back to the baseline. The teacher pitched a soft underhand ball to us and we hit it over the net and then ran to pick up our three balls and get back into line. This seemed completely fine and statisfying to me. It was so easy to hit the shot over the net. The more difficult part was keeping it inside the cyclone fence surrounding the court. It was such a light ball compared to a baseball that it really sailed when you hit it! And it was colored white! Ah, the olden days!
My personal all-time record was hitting fourteen shots over the fence, which was way outside the lines of a tennis court. Of course, I had to retrieve each of those balls and yet, it was fun none to be “playing tennis”. My mother had signed us up for the whole summer, back in 1968. It’s hard to believe that it has been exactly 50 years since we started playing the game known as “The Sport of a Lifetime”. It sure has been that for both Carrie and me. We still play today and became tennis teaching professionals as our careers!
We were so excited to be entered into our first tournament that summer: The LA County Championships. Carrie was entered into the Girls’ 10 and Under Singles Novice division and I was in the G12 and Under Singles Novice draw. It was quite an accomplishment that Carrie made it all the way to the finals, mainly because she didn’t even know how to hit a backhand yet. We could hit a serve and forehands, but backhands and volleys hadn’t been taught to us yet.
I won my first match and lost my second one. I remember calling the score outloud before each point, whether I was the server or the receiver. We also reminded our opponents that it was game point, set and match point when those scores applied. We weren’t rubbing it in, it was a fact to be shared, ever so innocently! It was all so exciting and we had a blast with all the other young tennis players from our lessons. A memory that I still have, is driving to the tourney in Carole Ramsey’s baby blue VW Bug. She was an older teenager and seemed so mature and cool. How did my mother let us drive with someone so young? It might have been because we only had one vehicle in our family and my dad took to work into Los Angeles.
We continued our lessons through the fall and started up again the following Summer of ’69. By now we had joined the USLTA (United Stated Lawn Tennis Association) and began to enter the So Cal sanctioned tournaments. I can’t remember exactly how many 6-0, 6-0 matches I lost that year, but it’s a testament to how much I loved tennis that I kept playing even after such disappointing results. It was a thrill a few years later, to beat one of those same opponents by the same score of 6-0, 6-0 in the Girl’s 18 CA State Championships in San Jose! Tennis players never forget!
In Carrie’s first 12 and Under age group tourney at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, she drew an unknown (at least to the tennis world at large) tiny, blond girl in pig tails who was only seven years old. My parents and I and the girl’s mother, sat on the bench at the off site court location in Griffith Park, and watched a three set battle take place between Carrie and her young, but scrappy opponent. Carrie lost that match, even though she fought hard to win the second set 6-0. Her opponent that day was future legend and US Open champion, Tracy Austin! Many years later, we shared that story at a book signing with Tracy and she wrote in her inscription: “Dear Carrie, You may have won the middle set 6-0, but remember, I won the match! Love, Tracy Austin”.
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Our tennis lives continue from those early days of lessons and junior tournaments. We’ve met many of our original tennis idols like Billie Jean King and Chris Evert. Carrie and I both had success in college tennis and then both became USPTA tennis teaching professionals. We played senior events beginning at age 30 and won National Championships on grass and hard courts. Doubles is our game! We play in a weekly game with fellow pros Lisa Barry Berg and Teri Goodman and laugh and laugh as we play our version of “hit and giggle” tennis. The sport has given us so much and I want to recognize our mom, Dorothy Acton Zarraonandia, who started us on our tennis journey, by signing us up for our first lessons and encouraging us with her smile, even when we lost. She saw our potential in participating in the Sport of a Lifetime and knew that tennis was a great game, especially for girl athletes! Looking back to 1968 – the year tennis became Open (amateurs and professionals could compete together), I would never have imagined all the fun and wonderful experiences that tennis would give us. We may not be Venus and Serena, but we share a love for the same game! “Your serve, Carrie!”