Athletics & Recreation / Current Issue / DU History / Magazine Feature

DU tennis celebrates 100 years

A mid-1960s DU tennis team poses for a portrait. Photo: DU Archives

A century ago, the University competed in four intercollegiate sports — football, basketball, baseball and tennis. Today, while basketball flourishes, football has been scrubbed and baseball sent down to the minors as a club sport. Tennis, meanwhile, enters its second century quietly racking up accolades with forehands, backhands and serves.

In nearly every decade since 1910 — the acknowledged beginning of DU tennis according to the athletics department — DU net stars have notched championships and captured awards. They’ve earned athletic and academic All-America honors, won titles in prestigious state and national events, pioneered and promoted the sport, and been inducted into DU and Colorado halls of fame.

All this in a century in which the sport of tennis struggled against race, gender and opportunity barriers, adjusted to major changes in equipment, rules, dress and comportment, and became internationalized to the point that last season only 25 percent of DU’s varsity tennis players hailed from the United States.

Adam Holmstrom of Sweden, perhaps DU’s top player ever, finished his DU career in 2007 as the 37th best college player in the nation. He earned Division I All-America honors for the first time in school history and dominated the record book for career singles wins (112–23), doubles wins (100–27) and winning percentage (.828).

Holmstrom’s era was a far cry from tennis in its early days, when the game was primarily an elite East-Coast activity played on grass courts in exclusive private clubs and dominated by the Ivy Leagues. At DU, it was a pedestrian pursuit on rough courts donated by The Denver Post. Even so, the University excelled, fielding a strong enough team to capture the Rocky Mountain Conference from 1917 to 1921.

Conference affiliations shifted frequently over the decades, but DU was always at the top of the game, winning titles in the Big 7, Colorado Tennis, Colorado Athletic, Continental Divide and Skyline conferences, the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the Sun Belt Conference, in which DU competes today.

“We had three concrete tennis courts,” recalls Alvie Willis (BSBA ’55, MA ’70), whose legendary 1950s-era team dominated the decade. “No lights, no indoor facilities, white balls, wood racquets. I used Jack Kramer and Davis Tad [racquets] until they quit making them.”

Willis, who continues to win 75-and-older tournaments even today, was DU’s No. 1 in 1954 and ’55. His doubles partner, Clayton Benham, dominated as DU’s No. 1 in 1951 and ’52 and was inducted into the University’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.

Another member of that ’50s team, No. 2 Jack TerBorg, went on to win six major Colorado singles titles. And the team’s No. 5 player, Irwin Hoffman, became a teaching pro and helped develop a junior program that today attracts thousands of Colorado youngsters annually. Both were inducted into the Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame.

Another Colorado hall of famer, Carlene Petersen Chrisman, coached DU’s first women’s team, starting in 1974 and continuing for 10 seasons.

“It was a rough beginning,” she recalls. “The first season we shared warm-up [outfits] with the women’s gymnastics team. They’d take them off and clean them up and we’d wear them.”

The team had money for balls, travel and an occasional meal, but nothing for footwear, racquets or strings. A team mother sewed uniforms, and the weeds on the courts sometimes were so bad that opposing teams refused to play.

“But I got encouragement and support from the University and wonderful students to work with,” she says. “What was special was that women were given the opportunity to compete, and they hadn’t been given that before.”

Under Chrisman, the Pioneers won the Colorado Tennis Conference, the AIAW district title and the Continental Divide Conference. In October, she’ll be inducted into the DU Athletics Hall of Fame.

Today, DU has state-of-the-art outdoor courts at its Stapleton Tennis Pavilion—completed in 1998—and competes on a national level. The women’s team in 2009–10 was ranked as high as 34th in the nation and the men 25th.

The Ivy League’s best men’s team finished 65th.


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