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It Happened in Jersey: Tennis



LAThompsonBackhand Drive

Anytime you attend a tennis tournament, you hope to see something that’s never happened before. That’s exactly what happened at the 1982 Volvo Women’s Cup in 1982. The August tournament—held at Ramapo College in Mahwah—was a popular tune-up for the US Open, and a chance for New Jerseyans to catch the likes of Chris Evert, Virginia Wade, Hana Mandlikova, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova, all of whom won the championship in the 1980s.

It was also a great place for newly minted pros to test their skills against the game’s best. One of those up-and-comers was Leigh Thompson, a wiry-but-graceful 18-year-old with a wicked two-handed backhand. She had enjoyed a good career as a junior in Virginia and declared herself professional before graduating high school. In 1981, she won three qualifying match to earn a spot in the US Open draw. Riding a wave of momentum and adrenaline, Leigh defeated her first two opponents and was up a set on West German (we are still in the Iron Curtain Era) star Bettina Bunge, but lost a second-set tiebreaker and dropped the next set to lose the match—denying her a chance to face Evert on center court.

A year later, at the 1982 Volvo, Leigh was an unseeded entry in a field of 32 players. That meant she would be tested early, and she was: #1 seed Andrea Jaeger was her second-round opponent. Leigh upended the heavily favored teenager, who had reached the finals at Wimbledon and the French Open earlier that season. Leigh continued winning and each night she called her coach, who had picked this particular week to go on vacation. She continued her roll and defeated Wendy White in the semifinals.

Leigh’s opponent in the final was Bunge, who at 19 had already won two tournaments in 1982 and had crashed into the Top 10 in the world rankings with much fanfare. Bunge was a lovely girl with an exotic background—born in Switzerland to German parents and raised in Peru—who had quickly become a crowd favorite on the WTA Tour.

Leigh had a bad case of nerves for much of the first set. This was not unusual. She was jittery at the start of every match—so much so that she would not drink Coke, coffee or iced tea the morning of a match. Leigh’s serve failed her early against Bunge. She was down 2–5 when Bunge hit a drop shot. Leigh got her feet tangled as she raced in for the shot and completely whiffed on the return. She could hear the chuckles in the crowd.

“At that point, I figured You’re gonna lose anyway, so at least hit the ball hard.”

Leigh began banging deep shots, moving Bunge back behind the baseline and keeping the ball away from her opponent’s own deadly backhand. Within minutes, she had seized control of a match that looked like an impossibility. Leigh won that first set 7–6, capitalizing on five unforced errors in the tiebreaker. She beat Bunge soundly 6–3 in the second set to win her first career title. The winning shot was blistering two-hander that hugged the line and left Bunge flat-footed at the net.

Leigh received a $22,000 check for the victory, which was about double the sum total of her career earnings to that point. During the center court presentation ceremony, the emcee asked he what she planned to do with the money.

“I’ll probably buy a convertible Volkswagen,” she said excitedly, realizing as the words crossed her lips that the check was being awarded by Volvo.

After her victory, Leigh climbed to #27 in the world rankings. The following year, she began experiencing pain in her right shoulder and elbow—what turned out to be a career-killing case of chronic tendonitis. She never won another tournament and retired from tennis before turning 25.


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