For Girls’ Champion Lea Antonoplis – Memories Remain Strong After Forty-One Years
Lea Antonoplis returned to Wimbledon, with her husband, Ken Inouye and their daughter, Kristina, over four decades after winning the Junior Girls’ championship…
Looking back at the events that took place forty-one years ago, one thing is abundantly clear – the world was dramatically different. In 1977, Jimmy Carter became the US President. Soon after taking office, he pardoned those who had opted out of the Vietnam War by avoiding the draft. In the Middle East, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel, meeting with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The home computer became a reality. The same year, optical fiber was used to transmit television programs for the first time.
In the world of music, the Supremes performed their last concert in London and so did Elvis Presley, but in Indianapolis, Indiana before dying at his Graceland mansion, later in the year, at the age of forty-two. Led Zeppelin set a record when 76,229 spectators attended the group’s concert at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan.
At the All England Lawn & Tennis Club, Virginia Wade put on a record-setting performance in 1977. She established a standard that has yet to be surpassed. Nine days before her thirty-second birthday she defeated Betty Stöve of the Netherlands, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 to win the Ladies’ singles title in the Centenary Year of The Championships. She was the last British woman to loft the Venus Rosewater Dish.
Forty-one years ago, Lea Antonoplis (now Lea Inouye) also put her name in the Wimbledon record book. The 18-year-old from Glendora, California, was a last-minute addition to the draw. Yet, she played her way to the Girls’ singles title, downing fellow American, Mareen “Peanut” Louie, 7-5, 6-1 in the final.
The semifinals was a test for both youngsters. Antonoplis edged Anne Smith, the US talent who had won the Roland Garros’ Junior Girls’ title, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. Louie was extended to three sets before defeating Sylvia Hanika of Germany, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. (In a historically significant quarterfinal victory, Antonoplis routed Claudia Casabianca of Argentina, a player with one of the game’s most theatrical names, 6-2, 6-2. In September, Casabianca would go on to win the US Open Girls’ Junior championship,)
Antonoplis, an athletic serve and volleyer, was the “Greek Freak” (at 5’5”) before the moniker was bestowed on the 6’ 11’ Giannis Antetokounmpo of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. Blessed with an effervescent personality and an ever-present grin, she had uncanny quickness and hands as skilled as a surgeon’s. Her fiery, bold skill set was highlighted by an ability to play superbly with the Wilson T2000, a racquet that very few players – other than Jimmy Connors – could use to their advantage.
She remembered, “I started playing with the T2000 in late 1975 and used it at both my Junior Wimbledons. It was very heavy (compared to today’s racquets) and powerful. Since I was a serve and volleyer and a pretty flat hitter, it added power to my strokes. It was definitely a big help on the grass.”
Commenting on her good fortune to slip into the 1977 Wimbledon Junior Girls’ championship, she admitted, “I almost didn’t play. I was the first alternate on the US Junior Team. Peanut (Louie) and Anne (Smith) were chosen to play. So, the first week of Wimbledon, I played the Ladies’ tournament and got to the fourth -round and lost to Sue Barker in straight sets. I had a great tournament. But, on the middle Saturday, I was told a player had dropped out and I could play Junior Wimbledon. I moved to the dorms just like the year before. I still had no family with me and no coach to help out. But, once I got into Junior Wimbledon, Sue Bodnar, a lady that I housed with during the Easter Bowl, (when it was played in New York), decided to fly over and watch.”
As Frank Sinatra sang in his epic hit song “Young at Heart” – “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you… If you’re young at heart…”
Always young at heart, Antonoplis played The Championships for the first time a year earlier. “In 1976, I went alone to Wimbledon – No family, no coach, no close friend,” she said. “My family couldn’t afford to go, so they just put me on the plane. Mike Meissenburg, a close friend who I had known since I was twelve, had played the summer circuit in the England, and told me about a place to stay. It was a B&B – the Beaver Hotel – in Earl’s Court near the Queen’s Club. It was great because I could be near the practice courts and the tube. It was also a place I could afford. I stayed there until the end of the first week and then I moved to the dorms where they were housing the Junior Wimbledon players.
“Since my first Wimbledon was a little intimidating and overwhelming, I can’t say I remember that much about playing Natasha (Chmyreva of Russia). I do recall that she was physically imposing and had gotten to the fourth-round in the Ladies’ tournament, so I didn’t think I could win our quarterfinal match. We played on the court in front of the big clock and it was packed, because she was a big deal and I had made a name for myself by getting to the third-round of the Ladies’. Many people thought it would be a good match.”
The Russian won, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2, but the result really belies Antonoplis’ “it was pretty good” comment. She continued, “It was hard to break her serve, it was just like my match with Martina (Navratilova) in the Ladies’ event. Two matches later, Natasha won Junior Wimbledon for the second year in a row. That final was the last match she ever played at Wimbledon. I never got to know her because they kept Natasha pretty secluded. This was right after Martina had defected and the Russians clamped down on Natasha. She stopped playing in 1978.”
(An aside is needed because most tennis fans have no idea who Natalia “Natasha” Chmyreva is or how extraordinarily talented she was. In 2014, Natalia Bykanova, an outstanding Russian tennis journalist and a long-time personal friend, wrote a detailed story about Chmyreva titled “The Champion That Tennis Lost.” In it she describes how a one-of-a-kind talent, whose career came to an end after reaching No. 13 in the world as a teenager, was literally brought to “heel” by the old Soviet system. It is a must read – http://tennis-buzz.com/tag/natalia-chmyreva/)
As mentioned, Antonoplis made “a name for herself” when she lost to Martina Navratilova 6-1, 6-4 in the third round of the Ladies’ competition at Wimbledon. “Martina was always a gracious person and I got to know her as a player and later, I worked with her when I was on the WTA board,” the former Junior Girls’ Wimbledon winner said. “Since it was so hard to break Martina’s serve, playing her was about holding your own serve. If you didn’t serve well and didn’t get into the net, you couldn’t win. For me, playing Martina was ‘who could get to the net first?’ She had a bigger serve than me and was quicker, so my odds of winning, like everyone else’s, were low.”
Her Wimbledon success made 1976 very special, but there was more to come. “I came home and because I wasn’t a pro or a member of the WTA, I played all the summer junior tournaments,” Antonoplis recounted. “Since I was already in the US Open singles, I needed to play a warm-up tournament and I decided to go to the Tennis Week Open in Orange, New Jersey. Most of the players boycotted (the event) because Renée Richards had entered. A lot of low ranked pros and juniors played. No one in the Top 50 for sure. But, the press was there in force. I got to the semis and that is when I played Renée.”
The 17-year-old triumphed 6-7, 6-3, 6-0. Looking back on the encounter, Antonoplis said, “I can still remember playing that match like it was yesterday. She was so nice. There was no way to think of her as a villain, like the press was making her out to be (and the WTA was too). She was so soft spoken and intelligent. I never felt nervous about playing her, plus after watching her matches, I knew I could win. After I did, the WTA and the press started changing the narrative. They said that if a junior could beat her, then Martina and Chris (Evert) could for sure. Then, they let her into the US Open a few weeks later. She was well liked by almost everyone, and I credit her for raising the awareness of women’s tennis that needed a boost at that point to move forward.”
Though Marise Kruger of South Africa defeated her 6-3, 6-2 in the singles final, Antonoplis, besides admitting that she is still in touch with Richards, added, “I must say that was the most incredible summer of my tennis career.”
Having drawn attention at The Championships, the year before, her “she’s a player with a future” creds were validated when she reached the fourth-round in Ladies’ play, losing to Sue Barker of Great Britain at Wimbledon in 1977.
“When I got into the tournament, the adidas representative, (Claus Marten), came to me and asked if I thought I could win Junior Wimbledon and I said, ‘Yes’,” Antonoplis recalled. “So, I was given outfits to wear for the whole tournament. I never before had a clothing sponsor. It was super cool to be a kid and get that much stuff – clothing, shoes, bags, sweats, everything. It sounds funny today with all that players are given at such a young age, but it was really big then.”
Playing for a championship, as prestigious as Wimbledon, can be both exciting and nerve-racking. “Before our final, Peanut and I were moved to the Center Court waiting room before going to play on Court 1,” Antonoplis said. “Virginia Wade and Betty Stöve were also in the waiting room. It was amazing to see how nervous Virginia, who was about to play the biggest match in British history, was. There was a Ficus tree in the room and she was pulling off the leaves as she paced around. I was just amazed to be in there with them.”
Inspired by “the act of adidas believing in me” and having Claus (Marten) and Sue (Bodnar) watching, Antonoplis was on a mission. “I really wanted to win for them,” she said. “We played next to Centre Court and it was really noisy with every point Virginia won. We finished about twenty-minutes before they ended, and I got to see the last game and watch everyone sing ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.’ The Queen, who was celebrating her Silver Jubilee, and Margaret Thatcher were there. It was one of the more memorable moments I have ever seen at Wimbledon. That day was one of the greatest of my life.”
(Tennis administrators are a breed unto themselves. This was very apparent in 1977 when the USTA selected Louie and Smith to play the Wimbledon Girls’ tournament and made Antonoplis a US alternate though she was higher ranked than they were and would finish the year as the No. 1 junior in the world.)
Thatcher is part of another recollection. “I remember being picked up (for the Ladies’ tournament) by the Wimbledon transportation service,” Antonoplis said. “Everyone around my B&B (the Beaver Hotel) was amazed. At that time, the cars dropped you off right in front of the steps that lead to Centre Court entrance. I felt like a queen because all the fans watched to see who would get out of each car. In 1977, I was in a car coming into the grounds and there was a Bentley in front of us. Margaret Thatcher got out and stood on the steps for a minute. I got out and was right next to her for fifteen seconds. That couldn’t happen today.”
Analyzing her career, she offered, “I think I played my best tennis from 1976 to 1985. After that, I had ‘off and on’ injuries that made it hard to stay in shape. I was a serve and volleyer, with a good backhand. As I lost foot speed with age and injuries, my singles game dropped off and I played a lot of doubles with a lot of success. I made it to the WTA Championships in New York one year and was seeded at the Grand Slams. I played with Barbara Jordan mostly.”
After playing intercollegiate tennis at USC, she became a regular on the pro tour. Following her retirement, she spent a couple of years coaching Alycia May, (a talented junior from Beverly Hills, California, who competed at UCLA for season, before joining the professional ranks). When May stopped playing, after two years, Antonoplis was approached about becoming the Head Professional at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. She took the job, and the rest is history…
“I taught at lot of people including Hollywood movies stars and million-dollar financial advisors,” she said. “After two years, I wanted to make a change and one of the financial advisors offered me a job. I took it and have been a financial advisor for twenty-four years. I always loved studying the stock market. As a teenager, I would spend a lot of time reading about companies and investing. I started buying my first stocks when I was 18-years-old. I still enjoy it today. I think having to make quick and educated decisions while playing tennis gave me confidence to help others decide on their investments. I trust my instincts and my research. Tennis gave me the confidence to do that.
“This Wimbledon will be the first time I have come to the tournament since I retired in 1989. I played singles, doubles, or both from 1976 to 1989. So, it’s forty-one years since I won Junior Wimbledon and twenty-nine years since I last attended the tournament, and I am really looking forward to it.”
Additional Wimbledon memories are sure to ensue as Lea Antonoplis Inouye, shares her “look back” adventure with her husband, Ken and daughter, Kristina.
A visit to The Championships is guaranteed to do that.