Lisa Raymond: The Great Unknown
The Great Unknown [philly.com]
How Lisa Raymond became the best Philly athlete you've never heard of
BY MOLLY EICHEL
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
A couple of years ago, I saw Chase Utley in a restaurant. When it became obvious whom it was, no one in the place could keep it together, from the patrons sitting near him to the waiters taking his order. There was a buzz about the place, as if we were being treated to something special, even though for Utley, one would assume, eating a meal happens at least three times a day.
But when I sat with Lisa Raymond at Wayne's Gryphon Café, one of those suburban coffee shops decorated with just enough kitsch to remind patrons they aren't sitting in a Starbucks, there was no buzz, no whispers. Nobody stopped by the table. Nobody cared. As far as the other patrons were concerned, we were just normal women, even though one of us is an abnormally fit 38-year-old. (Spoiler alert: That's not me.)
But why was the deafening absence of buzz so palpable? Because Lisa Raymond isn't just an abnormally fit 38-year-old. She's also one of the most accomplished tennis players in the history of the game. Over a career that has spanned two decades, she has won 74 doubles titles, including five grand slams. In fact, she's one of just 13 women's doubles players to have achieved a career grand slam, which she got by winning the French Open with former partner Samantha Stosur in 2006. Twice ranked as the No. 1 women's doubles player in the world (in 2001 and 2006), she's taken home more than $9 million in prize money.
"As a doubles player, she's as good as it gets," says Jon Wertheim, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who has known Raymond for 15 years.
What's even more remarkable about all this is that, in a sport in which most flame out in their 20s, Raymond, even at 38, is still among the world's best.
"A 20-year career is one out of a hundred, or one out of several hundred," says Pam Shriver, the former pro and current TV analyst who played her final singles match against Raymond 15 years ago. "You can only think of a handful of players who have done that. I had 19 years between my first and last tournaments, and I probably overplayed that by a couple of years."
And yet Raymond still isn't satisfied. This week, she will participate in her 19th Australian Open, where a title would help her once again regain the top doubles ranking, a spot she hopes to share with the current occupant, partner Liezel Huber. "She's like the .290 hitter who plays 20 seasons," says Wertheim. "She's the Chase Utley in a world of Manny Ramirezes."
Despite those accomplishments, though, Raymond remains less well-known in her hometown than the average TV meteorologist. Or as her mom Nancy puts it: "A third-stringer for the Eagles is more recognized than Lisa is."
There's a difference, of course, between fame and accomplishment. Having few people know your name, hound you for autographs and interrupt a perfectly good chat over coffee doesn't lessen anything that Raymond's done. But that's hard to remember when so many people with such thin resumes are mobbed by the paparazzi, or have their dating lives documented in the same gossip rags that chronicle the similar exploits of actors, musicians and Kardashians.
The fame-vs.-accomplishment equation is particularly skewed when it comes to women's sports. Anna Kournikova - the Kim Kardashian of women's tennis - is still riding high off her celebrity, most recently appearing on the 12th season of "The Biggest Loser." Yet Kournikova won just two grand slam doubles tournaments (the Australian Open in 1999 and 2002) before quickly flaming out. But because Kournikova looks like Anna Kournikova, though, I'm pretty sure I would have witnessed a different scene had she walked into the Gryphon Café.
Part of the problem is also with tennis itself. Philadelphians are inherently a part of the sports scene just by living here, whether we want to be or not, and even the most ignorant among us can name a member of the Phillies or Eagles. But to know the heavy-hitters of tennis you have to elect to be a part of that world. "Tennis is hamstrung for a number of reasons. One of them is there is no home team," Wertheim says. "[Raymond] competes all over the world and people know her name on seven continents, but there's no home team who is selling her jersey."
As a result, there are rarely more than a few players who enter the public consciousness. "Tennis players aren't appreciated when they're [ranked] No. 30, and that's what gets me irritated," says tennis legend Billie Jean King. "If you're No. 30 in the NFL or baseball, you'd be an all-star. If you're ranked out of the top five, no one really appreciates them."
Raymond agrees. She motioned to the other coffee drinkers sitting near us, paying us no mind, and said that most could not name three out of the top 10 tennis players in the world. She predicted that most could land on Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal and the third would be Serena Williams, except Williams isn't in the top 10 (she's No. 12).
Tennis players who specialize in doubles are even more anonymous. Raymond's current partner, Huber, says she gets more recognition for her Cypress, Texas-based Huber Tennis Ranch than for her actual play on the court.
Not that it matters much to Raymond. She repeated it over and over again throughout our conversations: It doesn't matter that other people know about what she's done; it only matters to her that those who love her know. When asked about what she's like off the court, King, Huber and Shriver all echoed the same sentiment - that her family is a huge source of pride. "I have a good perspective on what's important," Raymond says. "Family, friends - and all the rest is gravy at this point."
When Raymond is referred to in the local media, she's always "Wayne's Lisa Raymond," as if her hometown is part of her first name. In a sport in which players are constantly traveling, in which they can live anywhere in the world, Raymond maintains deep roots in the area, continuing to return here because this is where her family lives.
Unlike most tennis stars, Raymond didn't attend an out-of-state tennis academy where it would be all tennis, all the time.
"Her father and I didn't want to give her up," Nancy Raymond says. "It broke my heart when she went to [college]. We couldn't have dealt with her being away."
"A lot of parents don't allow their kids to do that anymore. They throw them to the lions a little bit more," Raymond says. "You're 12 or 13, so let's try pro tennis and forget about the juniors. Forget about college."
Raymond attended the Rosemont School and the Academy of Notre Dame. (She skipped out on playing tennis for her high school team, though, as her best friend played in the No. 1 spot and Raymond did not want to take that away from her.) She honed her skills at the Gulph Mills Tennis Club and the Philadelphia Cricket Club, where she could many times be found hitting the ball before school. She still likes to practice in the wee hours of the morning. Her parents still live in the area, as do her younger sister and her three nieces, whom Raymond said she's "obsessed with." She just bought her "first official big home" in Media.
In her 2 years at the University of Florida, Raymond dominated her competition, becoming the first person to win three collegiate grand slam titles in a season and winning the NCAA championship in 1992 and 1993. Raymond chose college rather than immediately going pro because she wanted to be a part of something. She wanted to be a member of a team.
"I think that's part of the reasons I've done so well in doubles, that love of working together with somebody and being on a team," Raymond says. "That's something [in] professional tennis that you don't get that often."
She turned pro at 19, and started out strong by reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon. But reality quickly set in. For the first time in her life, Raymond wasn't dominating. She reached the high point of her singles career, ranked No. 15 in the world, in October 1997. Over the next few years, she dutifully plugged along, successful enough to stay on tour but never able to rank among the world's elite singles players. By the time she hit her 30s, Raymond's ranking was dropping.
Then, when she was 32, she lost a match she didn't think she would have a year before. That's when she decided she'd had enough. If she couldn't be the best at singles, she didn't want to do it anymore. "I was thinking I don't want to be a shell of myself," she says. Instead, she decided to fully dedicate herself to doubles.
Raymond started playing with Huber in April of last year. "Our first introduction was when we played against each other," Huber says, laughing. "I'm sure she gave me a beating."
Many were hesitant about the Huber-Raymond pairing. Their combined age is 73, and the partnership started shaky. They had hardly practiced together before their first match. But this September, at the U.S. Open, they defeated defending champions Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova to win the women's doubles title. That win propelled Huber back into the No. 1 doubles spot and allowed Raymond to break a record held by King as the oldest grand slam women's doubles champion.
Raymond, by her own admission, had to rededicate herself to doubles after a lull in her career in 2009. She fell 10 spots in the rankings in a single year.
"I had a 'Come to Jesus' moment with my career," she says. "I had put on a lot of weight, I wasn't happy in my personal life, I was struggling with doubles partners. It was about stopping or deciding what the hell am I doing here because I had let myself go a little bit."
Her partner at the time, Rennae Stubbs, whom she still calls one of her best friends, took Raymond aside and told her to put up or shut up. That night, she was back on the treadmill.
"After that, I recommitted myself and I'm probably the fittest I've ever been in my career," Raymond says. "I think that that has made a huge difference in the last year. I think I'm a better doubles player than I was 3 or 4 years ago. I almost lost those couple years. It's almost like they didn't count. I still have a lot more in me."
"She's looking now like she did when she was in her early 20s," says her coach, Eric Riley.
When Raymond is at home, during tennis' short offseason, she goes to the gym every day, more often than she goes to the court. "If I take a few days off from hitting tennis balls, I'm not going to forget how to do it," she says. "But when I do, I'm up at the crack of dawn so I can enjoy being home with my family and friends."
"When you're older, you appreciate things more as an athlete because you're getting near the end," King says.
Raymond doesn't see herself retiring anytime soon, though.
"She could still play for another 5 years if she felt like it," Riley says. "Lisa has a lot of energy in the tank."
Raymond, at this point, has her eyes set on one thing: an Olympic medal. "You'd have to call me a liar if I didn't say that wasn't my goal. That's the one thing left," she says, knocking on the table. "I wouldn't end my career because I'm not finished, but it would be a nice thing to add to the trophy case."
The U.S. Olympic tennis team generally consists of three of the top-ranked American singles players, with the fourth spot going to the top-ranked doubles player.
"Her making the team is almost as big a challenge as actually winning," Wertheim says. "There's going to be a pitched political battle. If she gets on the team, she's got a good chance, but if the Williams sisters say they want to play doubles, they're going to. What Serena wants, Serena gets."
In 2000, King, who was then the captain, chose Serena Williams, the fourth-ranked singles player, over Raymond, even though Raymond was the top-ranked doubles player at the time. Raymond sued.
"You don't fight your butt off to be the No. 1-ranked doubles player in the world and not get chosen to go to the Olympic Games," Raymond told the New York Times. "How that's not good enough, you tell me."
But the arbitrator who decided the case, Richard Jeydel, ruled against Raymond. "I've always felt really bad that she hasn't won a medal," King says. "She really got deprived to go. It was really terrible."
In the 2004 Olympics, she did make the team, partnering with a then-47-year-old Martina Navratilova. They made it to quarterfinals, losing to Japan's Shinobu Asagoe and Ai Sugiyama, and missed out on the medals by one round.
As any mom would, Nancy Raymond thinks her daughter deserves more recognition than she gets. "In her sport, she has achieved a very, very high level," Nancy says. "Come on! Who else in the area has those credentials?"
But, like any good mom, Nancy also understands her daughter, that she doesn't want any of that. "If she's at the mall and someone recognizes her, she'll put her head down and say, 'Yeah.' " she says. "Like, 'Please don't tell anyone else.' "
Nancy constantly used the word "unassuming" to describe her daughter. It's the right word, but it also underplays Raymond's confidence. Riley says it's one of Raymond's best characteristics as a player, and it's not hard to feel it even while sitting across the table from her.
And even Nancy understands that fame isn't important to Lisa. "I had a reunion with some friends from high school, and my sister asked if I told them about Lisa," Nancy says. "I said, 'Of course not. They didn't ask about it.' We don't do that.
"To me, she's my daughter. She's Lisa. And then she's the tennis player."