Melissa Gurney was one of the elite 16 at the fall version of the Virginia Slims Championships.
Next Generation Of Women Stars Getting Its Sneakers Dirty
November 09, 1986
WORCESTER, MASS. — Mary Joe Fernandez was two weeks old when Chris Evert Lloyd reached the U.S. Open semifinals for the first time in 1971.
Melissa Gurney was 2 years old.
Fernandez was 6 and just beginning to play tournament tennis when Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon for the first time in 1978.
Gurney was 8 and had already been swatting tennis balls for four years.
Now, eight years later, when Evert and Navratilova glance over their shoulders to check who is chasing them this time, they see Mary Joe Fernandez, Melissa Gurney and a kiddie corps anxious to follow the Yellow Brick Road to Centre Court at Wimbledon.
This past week, Fernandez and Gurney chased Navratilova to the $250,000 Virginia Slims of New England, with familiar results. Fernandez and Gurney were ousted in the first round, while the 30-year-old Navratilova breezed into the semifinals. "Martina is just too good," Gurney said, a trace of awe in her voice.
Navratilova, who won the inaugural Virgina Slims of New England last winter at the Centrum, has won more than 1,000 matches and $10 million in her career.
Evert, who bypassed this event, has won more singles titles than any other tennis player in history. She or Navratilova has held the No. 1 ranking since the Women's International Tennis Association computer went on line in 1975 [sic].
No wonder most of the young players in this newest wave of talent don't even dream of upsetting the Top Two.
"Most of us are rivals with each other," Gurney explained. "Steffi Graf leads the way. She has shown that if you really work hard, you can do it. She`s 17, and she`s No. 3 in the world."
Graf, the West German wunderkind, has won eight tournaments this year. She beat Evert in the final of the Family Circle Cup last April at Hilton Head, S.C. She defeated West Germany's Claudia Kohde-Kilsch in the final at Amelia Island. She buried another teen prodigy, 16-year-old Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina, in the final of the U.S. Clay Court championships. And she stunned Navratilova for the German Open championship.
Graf also lost to Evert in two finals before her smashing victory at Hilton Head and pushed Hana Mandlikova to three sets before losing in the quarterfinals at the French Open.
In the U.S. Open semifinal, Graf beat Navratilova in the second-set tiebreaker and then dropped the third-set tiebreaker 10-8.
"She's soooooo good!" Gurney exclaimed.
Catarina Lindqvist, Graf's latest victim, said, "I think Steffi can become No. 1 very soon, even while Martina and Chris are still playing." Graf considered playing this tournament, but she decided not to.
Sabatini reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, where she ran into Navratilova and lost. She also dropped semifinal decisions to Pam Shriver in New Orleans and Kohde-Kilsche at Amelia Island.
"I don't talk to Graf or Sabatini a lot. They're so much into tennis," Gurney said. Two other stars of the "Tennis 'R' Us" brigade who were in Worcester were Katerina Maleeva of Bulgaria, 17, and her sister Manuela, 19. Both lost in the second round.
Gurney's career took off in 1984, when she won the U.S. 18-under championship, earned a wild card to the U.S. Open and reached the third round. Agents from Advantage International in Washington and International Management Group in Cleveland courted the high-school girl from Palos Verdes, Calif.
"When you're thinking about turning pro, everybody wants you. It's so exciting," Gurney said. "It's kind of a whirlwind. They're always trying to be with you. They would take me or my family out to dinner. It got hard when I actually had to make a decision. Advantage or IMG. I hated that."
Gurney chose Advantage International and turned pro June 23, 1985.
For a high-school girl, life on the tour isn't always bright lights and five-star restaurants.
"Adjusting to school while being a pro was difficult," Gurney said. She attends two classes at Chadwick School in Palos Verdes and studies on the road while traveling with her coach, Robert Lansdorp, who coached Tracy Austin, or her mother.
She wants to make the top 25 by the end of the year. She was ranked No. 27 in mid-October.
"Eventually I'd like to be in the top 10 and hold it. Then we'll see what happens."