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Former University coach Blount hits courts once more

Although it has been more than a decade since Renee Blount, a former University assistant women's tennis coach, last graced the grass courts of Wimbledon, tennis is still very much a part of her life. After a rewarding career on the Women's Professional Tennis Tour, Blount has settled down just 20 minutes east of Grounds in Fluvanna County. Without the stress of maintaining a top-100 ranking in the world, which Blount held throughout her 11-year career, she now focuses on teaching the game she loves. Blount said she and her late-husband came to Charlottesville in 1990 after searching the country for a place that combined the peace and quiet of a farm along with a small, but sophisticated city. "I needed something more than the country after coming off the women's tour," she said. In the winter of 1998 she began construction of an indoor tennis facility on her Keswick farm. Combined with her outdoor court, located atop the picturesque rolling landscape, Blount's newly-constructed facilities allow her to share her extensive tennis knowledge with players of all levels year-round. She said she learned the tradition of giving back to the game while growing up in St. Louis. "St. Louis has a rich tradition of tennis," she added. "At one time, it was discovered that seven out of the top 10 players in the world had come from there." As a junior player in St. Louis, Blount was fortunate to receive coaching from Earl Buchholz, Sr. and Richard Hudlin, who also worked with tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Being the first successful black junior tennis player since Ashe, the young Blount had the opportunity to impact her sport in a big way. She began playing tennis at the age of nine and was a champion-caliber player by the age of 12. Five years after picking up a racket for the first time, Blount was the top-ranked junior player in the highly competitive Missouri Valley Region. But her success did not come easily. Blount said practice sessions that stretched on for more than 10 hours a day during the summer meant that she could rarely put her racket down. And as a black player in a predominantly white sport, she said she faced a small amount of discrimination as a youth. With the support of Ashe, her coaches and her parents, however, Blount was able to successfully overcome the inequalities she faced. "I learned how to focus at a young age, and how to keep my mind on what I was doing and not look around me and worry, even though it did hurt," she recalled. As a junior player, Blount said she remembers dealing with discrimination from some of the white players. "Playing in the girls 12-year-old nationals, down in Little Rock, Arkansas, they would let me play in the tournament, but I was given money to go to the movies and asked not to attend the social functions that went along with the tournaments," she said. "My father insisted that I had earned the right to attend the social functions." After she continued to attend the social functions, Blount said tournament organizers threatened to move its location if she qualified the following year. "I qualified and they moved it to a different place," she said. Once she made it to the pro tour, she said she attributed any contempt that other players showed to her as part of the tour's competitive nature, and not racial prejudice. "Many of the foreign players had not seen many black people before, and I can remember the Czech players just wanted to touch my hair because they were very curious," Blount said. "I did not mind at all." Along with the professional tour came the pressure to continue to succeed at a high level.

"It's so competitive, you can't really be friends with the other players," Blount said. "When I first got into the women's tour, no one would speak to me. I asked why, and they told me it was because I hadn't beaten anybody." She recalled that she was soon able to earn the respect of the other players by beating Chris Everett, 6-2, in the opening set of their first match. Although Everett ended up winning the match two sets to one, she earned the respect of her fellow players. But the burden on any athlete is to maintain a high level of competition day after day in addition to dealing with the pressures of playing a professional sport. "The pressure is what I didn't like about the tour," Blount said. "You'd better keep winning -- if you fall out of the top 100 you can't make the money to make it to the big tours."

Despite this pressure, she said she never regretted her decision to leave college in her junior year at the University of California-Los Angeles to tryout for the professional tour. "I didn't want to look back on my life and have regrets," she added. Least of all, Blount said she does not regret all of the travelling she was forced to do. "It's very exciting because you see a part of the world that you thought you would only read about in books. You get to experience things," she said. "Each country tries to show you the best things they have to offer; things that you wouldn't necessarily be exposed to if you were a tourist. That makes it exciting." Being on the professional tour meant that Blount traveled most of the year, making stops in Australia, Europe, Egypt, France, Italy, Spain and Hong Kong. In one season alone, said that she attended as many as 40 tournaments. Her busy schedule often left her exhausted, but allowed her to meet many people form all over the world. "The thing I really loved the most was meeting the kinds of people I met," she said. "I don't think I would be the same kind of person I am today if I had not had a job that allowed me to travel like tennis did." She added that she feels all Americans should travel to different countries to get a fresh perspective on other parts of the world. "I Saw the Berlin Wall before it was knocked down, the pyramids in Egypt and the floating garden restaurant in Hong Kong. I just see the world differently than I would have if I'd stayed in St. Louis," Blount said. Today, Blount is content to stay on her farm and work to improve the level of junior tennis in Charlottesville. With young and old players coming from as far as Richmond and beyond, Blount stays busy. "All the children like her so much because she is so positive -- she really gets them feeling good about themselves," said Pat Carle, mother of 11-year-old Sara Frances Carle, who comes from Palmyra to take beginning tennis lessons from Blount. In addition to her positive attitude, Blount's students say they enjoy her unique facilities.

"The setting is wonderful," Carle said. "It's much better than going to a huge complex with a large number of courts." Of course, Blount hasn't lost her desire for a little competition. Last month she was able to fulfill that drive by winning the 40-and-over doubles championship at the U.S. Open.

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