An article about Leigh-Anne Thompson, the pride of Newport News, Virginia
Where Are They Now?: Courting Family Life
December 18, 2005|By DAVE JOHNSON, email@example.com
Back in the day, Leigh Thompson was crossing the globe and trading shots with Chris and Martina. But she'll take this settled-down lifestyle any day over the busy pro tennis lifestyle.
She's a stay-at-home mom, which means she's a chauffeur/cook/nurse/counselor/ you-name-it to her 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. A mini van is her office, the chores are endless and she doesn't get paid a cent. It's fulfilling, but it isn't glamorous.
Then again, she's seen glamorous. Two decades ago, Leigh Thompson was one of the fresh faces in professional tennis.
Before she even graduated Ferguson High in 1982, she left Newport News to see the world. France, England, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, Australia ... all before her 21st birthday. She played on the red clay at Roland Garros, the grass at Wimbledon, the cement at the National Tennis Center.
Her game, crisp and clean, was a thing of beauty. With a slim build and a wicked two-handed backhand, she was part Chris Evert, part Tracy Austin.
"She was so graceful," says Bill Shivar Jr., who began coaching Leigh when she was 11. "I thought she was capable of being a top-10 player."
Shivar's father, who founded Centre Court Racquet Club in Newport News, went even further.
"I've been watching tennis players for 70 years," Bill Shivar Sr. says. "She had the most natural talent I've ever seen. I really thought she'd go on to become one of the best players in the world."
Instead, Leigh developed tendinitis in her right shoulder and arm, which sent her ranking into a tailspin. Six years after her breakthrough championship at the United Jersey Classic, and five years after peaking at No. 27 in the WTA rankings, she was done. She played her last match on July 10, 1988 -- at the age of 24.
Ah, what might have been. We might be saying that, but she isn't. Now Leigh Coss (she was married 13 years ago), she has no desire to go back.
"Oh, my gosh, I've never been happier," Leigh says. "I really don't know how I did that life. I saw the world, and I would have never been able to do that otherwise. I met great people and had great coaches. And I really do believe it's such a great sport. There were so many plusses, but it was so grueling. This is what I want."
Living three time zones away in California, Leigh has not picked up a racket in 10 years. She doesn't even watch tennis on television, except for maybe the final set of a Grand Slam tournament.
"If you didn't already know," says Jon, her husband, "you'd never think she used to be a professional tennis player."
She used to be so good, in fact, that many of her classmates at Ferguson didn't know. She played on the school's tennis team for one spring, as 16-year-old sophomore in 1980. But by that point, she already was well known on the national juniors circuit. She turned pro at 17, though she still managed to graduate with her class in '82.
After winning three qualifying rounds, Leigh played in the U.S. Open in September of 1981 -- four months shy of her 18th birthday.
She beat Sandy Collins and Kim Shaefer, each in straight sets, to advance to the third round. She was up a set over 12th-seeded Bettina Bunge, but her ride ended with a 2-6, 7-6, 6-3 loss.
Had she won, Leigh would have played a fourth-round match against Evert on center court. It would have been a Welcome to Tennis moment, to be sure.
"Ohhhh," she says. "I wasn't nearly ready for that."
After playing in two finals, Leigh won her first championship in August of 1982. The United Jersey was a hard-court tune-up for the U.S. Open, and although the field did not include top-flight players like Evert and Martina Navratilova, it was a pretty big deal.
Unseeded and 18 years old, she knocked off No. 1 seed Andrea Jaeger in the second round. She dropped one set in six matches and defeated Bunge for the championship.
"It was completely surreal," Leigh says. "My average paycheck at that time was something like $9,000. This was $22,000. But it wasn't the money, it was the thrill of winning my first tournament. I was surprised but elated."
The elation was brief. Less than a week later, Leigh lost to unseeded Elise Burgin 6-3, 6-3 in the second round of the U.S. Open. In her next three tournaments, she failed to get past the second round. That's professional sports for you -- up one minute, down the next.
The United Jersey turned out to be the pinnacle of Leigh Thompson's career. She made it back to the third round of the U.S. Open in '85, where she lost to Catarina Lindqvist. But by that point, the tendinitis was getting worse. The constant travel didn't help.
Leigh gave the Open another try in 1986 but lost in the first round to Patty Fendick. She played two International Tennis Federation events over the next 21 months, and that was it.
"She was really gifted," Shivar Jr. says. "I mean, there were times when she made it look so easy. She would make somebody who was really good look really bad. But she just didn't get to play long enough to reach her potential."
Leigh had her moments. Some of the bigger names she beat included Evonne Goolagong, Helena Sukova and Jaeger. She was 0-3 against Evert and Navratilova, who in that era seemingly only lost to each other.
While she had incredible talent, Leigh acknowledges she didn't always have that edge every athlete needs.
"It fluctuated," she says. "Sometimes I wanted to win more than anything -- but not always. I didn't have what it took to be one of the top five players in the world. The injury, that set me back a little bit. But I was pretty much so sick of travel when that happened, anyway. It was sort of a life-saver for me."
Her playing career over, Leigh enrolled at the University of Maryland and taught tennis on the side. She met Jon, a former tennis player himself at the University of North Carolina, and they were married in 1992.
Tennis is part of her past. The last time she and Jon played, the match ended after he did a celebration dance after winning a point. Leigh is a stay-at-home mom and proud of it. She cooks, she cleans, she volunteers at her children's school. When she has free time, she prefers hiking to anything involving a racket.
Life is nothing like it was two decades ago. And that suits her fine.
"We just got back from a family vacation in Italy," she says. "And all the way over there, I was thinking, 'How did I do this for so many years? This flight is killing me.' I mean, 14 straight hours! I wouldn't go back if I could. I don't miss that life at all." *