You Did What? Avon’s Brenda Himelfarb spent part of the ’70s working with Chris Evert and other tennis greats
Special to the Weekly
Just when you thought you knew every little thing about your Vail Valley friends and neighbors — it turns out you don’t. Eagle County is a melting pot of sorts. And each person has a story. Some you get to hear over a cup of coffee, others need a bit more coaxing.
But all good stories want to be told, and the Vail Daily Weekly likes to do the telling. For the next few weeks the Weekly is going to spill the beans about some of your neighbors and their past lives: What they did. Who they met. Maybe how they ended up here. Things that will make you say, “You did what?” (Know someone who should be featured? Email firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you’re a movie buff, you may have seen the trailer for the recent release “Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, respectively. Their 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match, in which 29-year-old King beat 55-year-old former champion Riggs in three straight sets, became the most watched televised sports event of all time.
More than 40 years later, it seems almost hard to believe how groundbreaking this event was, matching men against women in tennis — a gender-divided sport.
But for one Vail Valley resident, the world of professional tennis in the ’70s was not just something that she watched on television — she was right in the thick of it.
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You may know Brenda Himelfarb as the editor of Vail Valley Magazine, or perhaps as co-founder of the Vail Breast Cancer Awareness Group or in any of her other many outlets as a vibrant member of the community. But did you know that she was also fully immersed in the world of professional tennis in the 1970s, traveling with tennis champion Chris Evert and the World Team Tennis’ Phoenix Racquets?
Repping the Phoenix Racquets
In 1974, Billie Jean King along with others founded World Team Tennis on a concept of gender equity with men and women playing on the same tennis court against each other. It’s also the first professional sports league to feature men and women on the same team. The format highlighted mixed doubles in addition to men’s and women’s doubles and singles teams.
“It was just amazing to see all those tennis stars compete in such a relaxed atmosphere. It was fabulous,” Himelfarb said enthusiastically.
But to explain how Himelfarb got involved with WTT, a bit of background is required. It began when Himelfarb was living in Philadelphia with her family. She was not only a tennis player herself but supported an organization that taught the sport to inner city youth.
“To raise money for the group, some professional tennis players held an exhibition and after the match, my husband and I hosted a cocktail party at our home,” Himelfarb recalls. “It was a different time. All those women and men played for the love of the game.”
In 1973, Himelfarb and her family moved from Philadelphia to Phoenix. That was also the year that Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Tennis Association and one of the first tournaments was held in Phoenix, where Himelfarb volunteered and hosted the players once more.
In 1975, an acquaintance — Jimmy Walker — approached her with a job opportunity.
“He said, ‘I’m getting the Phoenix Racquets (a WTT team). I’m signing Chris Evert. You know all those people. Would you like to do our PR (public relations),’” Himelfarb recalls. “I had not worked in 15 years and I had not done PR before. I checked out books on PR and that’s how I started my job.”
She had always been a writer, Himelfarb said, but now she was plunged into a new world. With Evert on the team, she dealt with not only local press surrounding the team, but also international press.
It was a job that demanded the bulk of her time and energy. Working from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. in the office, she would then pick up her three sons and take them to the stadium where the Phoenix Racquets played — the same place the Phoenix Suns played. There might be team practice, or there could be a match, which would require Himelfarb to telecopy out the scores, sometimes at midnight, to the media — this being the early 1970s, before fax machines.
“We had matches three or four times a week during the three-month season,” she said. “It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun. We had between 4,000 and 12,000 people at each match because of Chrissie.”
Working — and traveling — with tennis’s best
Perhaps the most famous member of the Phoenix Racquets was Evert, but the team was made up of men and women from around the world.
In addition to Evert, Kristen Kemmer Shaw, Stephanie Tolleson, Butch Walts, Andrew Pattison (from Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe) and Tony Roche and Ross Case (from Australia) were also on the team. Players visited from around the world to compete. Even Bobby Riggs made an appearance in the crowd.
“I can’t even begin to tell you what fun we had,” Himelfarb said. “The interaction with the men and women was really fun to watch. Although the competition was sometimes fierce, the players were relaxed and, sometimes, even played to the crowd.”
This love of the game translated to plenty of pranks and high jinks, both on and off the court.
“At the intro to each match, the players from both teams walked out on the courts, faced each other and shook hands. Laughing all the time, I might mention,” Himelfarb said. “One of the restaurateurs, Angelo, in Scottsdale looked exactly like Ilie ‘Nasty’ Nastase, who was one of the greatest players in the ’70s and had a great personality. I had Angelo put on a Racquet’s uniform and when they walked out on the court, I had placed Angelo face to face with Nasty. Really, they looked like twins! The place went wild.”
The Phoenix Racquets didn’t just play at home: There were matches held across the country. Before a match in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the Racquets played the San Francisco Golden Gators, Himelfarb flew in early to get set up. As a spokesperson for the team, she addressed the Press Box Association beforehand.
“I knew so much about the players, especially Chris,” Himelfarb said. “Everyone loved getting the scoop on their personal lives.”
And while she didn’t tell the full details, it wasn’t that different than today, when everyone wants to know the inside scoop on their favorite players. She was a woman of many jobs, providing color commentary on television when the finals were televised and conducting play-by-play on the radio.
“I was a good player,” Himelfarb said. “Certainly not a professional at all, but I knew a lot about tennis.”
The fact that Himelfarb was a player herself and such a fan didn’t hurt, either.
“At a match held in Tulsa, I was asked how I felt during the matches,” she recounted. “I said, ‘I get so enthused during a match that I have to get up from the press table and excuse myself. I go somewhere else and cheer. When I’m through, I walk back to the table and sit down again.’”
She also accompanied Evert and the Racquets to a landmark match in Plains, Georgia, in 1977. As part of a WTT’s exhibition 44-match country tour featuring six amateur players from the U.S.S.R., a crowd of 4,200 spectators paid up to $100 a ticket to see Evert and the Soviets. Ticket price included a seat at Miss Lillian’s barbecue (then U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s mother) as well as an autographed picture of Billy Carter, Jimmy’s younger brother.
“A capacity crowd turned out for what was billed as the Peanut Tennis Classic with Billy Carter and Miz Lillian serving as hosts,” wrote Barry McDermott in an article for Sports Illustrated in 1977. “While a Dixieland band played, Bobby Riggs threw candy to the crowd, Billy Carter puzzled over a forehand grip on his beer can, Instamatic cameras clicked like locusts, fetching Southern belles swooned and an exasperated Chris Evert got autograph elbow.”
The love of the game
But Himelfarb doesn’t talk about the scores of the matches as she reminisces. Instead, she talks about her friends in the game and the fun they had.
“Chrissie was great fun,” Himelfarb said. “She had a great sense of humor — she still does. I spoke with her recently.”
She remembers a time at the U.S. Open at Forest Hills in Queens, New York.
At practice with the women, they would all stand on one side of the net and put Himelfarb on the other side and hit balls to her — all at the same time!
“They would yell, ‘Why didn’t you hit that, Brenda?’” she said with a laugh.
Or the time that she dressed up like player Tracy Austin in pigtails and a Teddy Tinling (British tennis attire designer) dress and ran up and down the hallways of the Park Lane Hotel in New York, knocking on players’ doors and asking if they wanted to have a “knock up” — which is what the Australians called “going out to hit tennis balls.”
“They were fun,” she said simply. “There was a camaraderie then that, seems to me, no longer exists. Now, tennis has become such big business that a lot of the fun of the game is no longer apparent and, quite honestly, I don’t even watch tennis anymore. I can’t stand the grunting.”
When Evert left the Phoenix Racquets in 1978, Himelfarb left, too.
After two years working with the Phoenix Racquets and WTT, Himelfarb had accomplished a lot and gained immeasurable experience. She went on to work for Rogers & Cowan, an entertainment PR and marketing agency, working with different stars. She moved to Los Angeles and worked motion picture and television public relations.
But that’s another story.
In 1992, for one summer only, Vail had a World Team Tennis team — the Vail Eagles. World Team Tennis is still going strong, turning 40 in 2015 and becoming only the fifth U.S. pro sports league to reach the 40th season milestone. WTT team owners Mark Ein (Washington Kastles) and Fred Luddy (San Diego Aviators) purchased the majority ownership of World TeamTennis from league co-founder Billie Jean King in 2017. King remains involved as a minority owner of the league and majority owner of the Philadelphia Freedoms franchise.
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.