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Tennis / Lisa Dillman : Although Gurney Stays Put, She Isn't Left Out

November 16, 1986|Lisa Dillman

It sounded awfully tempting to 17-year-old Melissa Gurney.

Come on, Melissa, go to Puerto Rico. Pick up some easy points against an easy field. Forget playing in Chicago. There, you might draw Martina or Hana or Pam in the first round. Then you can forget about qualifying for the $1 million Virginia Slims Championships in New York.

Hmmm. Chicago can get pretty cold in November.

The Slims Championships are the women's equivalent of the Masters--where the top 16 point-winners of the past season meet for prestige and paychecks. Entering the final week of the 1986 tour, Gurney was one of five players competing for the final two berths in the Championships.

For Gurney, who is from Palos Verdes, she could travel to a low-profile tournament in Puerto Rico, where Lori McNeil was top-seeded, and where points would be easy pickings. Or, she could play Chicago--where the top names include Navratilova, Mandlikova and Shriver.

Before play started in both tournaments Monday, American Terry Phelps was in 15th place in the rankings with 741 points, Raffaella Reggi of Italy was next with 739, Robin White of the United States had 735, Gurney had 725 and Argentina's Laura Gildemeister had 718.

White opted for Puerto Rico, where she was seeded No. 2, and Reggi pulled out of Chicago to enter the easier tournament. Both seemed wise moves.

Gurney was also entered at Chicago--but she decided to stay. At Chicago, one victory could weigh as heavily as three at Puerto Rico. Maybe she'd get a good first-round draw.

She wound up with 15-year-old Mary Joe Fernandez, whom Gurney had never played.

"That match was potentially very nerve-wracking," said Melissa's mother, Carolyn. "Melissa's younger sister (Cinda) had beaten Mary Joe before in juniors."

So there was more than a berth in the Championships at stake. Family pride, too.

That was enough as Gurney had a relatively easy time, winning 6-4, 6-1.

"Oh no, I never thought about it on the court," said Gurney in a telephone interview from Chicago. "I just wanted to do well. I wanted to beat Mary Joe. I wasn't even thinking about the Slims. It was kind of like a reward for me. That's so much added pressure."

Later Gurney said: "Well, it may have been way in the back of my mind."

Meanwhile, White's tactics didn't pay off because she was upset by Lilian Drescher in the first round. Reggi's did, as she advanced far enough at Puerto Rico to qualify for New York.

"When I heard they were going to Puerto Rico, I kind of said, 'I wish I could go,' " Gurney said. "But I'm lucky I stayed with Chicago."

Even though she lost in the second round to Mandlikova, Gurney had enough points to qualify. She will play No. 7-seeded Manuela Maleeva of Bulgaria in the first round of the Championships.

Until two weeks ago, Gurney was unaware she even had a chance to make it. Then, at a tournament in Indianapolis, several players told her she had a shot. With that knowledge, Gurney reached the final, eventually losing to Zina Garrison.

Thus, what was originally to have been a one-and-a-half-week hiatus from school has turned into a four-week absence. Gurney, a senior at the Chadwick School, has toted her books from Indianapolis to Worcester, Mass., to Chicago and now to New York.

It is definitely an unexpected development from a player who was ranked in the 80's at the beginning of the year. At one point, she slipped into the 100's. Then came back-to-back tournament victories last summer, which included a win over long-time rival Stephanie Rehe.

"I'm 24th in the world now," Gurney said. "My goal for this year was to get into the top 25. And now, I guess I'll keep re-setting my goals."

They call the Wightman Cup a competition, but for nearly a decade, it has been anything but. The British women haven't defeated the Americans since 1978, back when Tracy Austin and Pam Shriver made their Wightman Cup debuts.

After the United States' recent 7-0 victory, it leads the series 48-10. Great Britain has one victory in the last 11 meetings. And the United States has two straight shutouts to its credit.

What in the name of Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman is going on?

It's simple. Women's tennis in England is in a sorry state. People might complain about the lack of Americans at the top--but that's been going on for years in England.

This year, there was no Chris Evert Lloyd, Navratilova, Shriver or Garrison playing at London's Royal Albert Hall.

Instead, the junior varsity was dispatched to England. Kathy Rinaldi, Bonnie Gadusek, Anne White, Elise Burgin and Rehe, represented the United States.

On the opening day of competition, Rinaldi beat Sara Gomer and Rehe defeated Annabel Croft. After Rehe's victory, there apparently was some mild jeering from the well-heeled crowd at Royal Albert Hall.

The combination of the loss and the jeers drove Croft to tears.

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