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Columbia tennis teacher overcomes blindness, cancer and bad luck to lead kids and adults

January 19, 2016 02:03 PM

By Jonathon Braden, USTA South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. – On a warm December day, six boys and girls await instruction from one of the state's most resilient tennis teachers.

The kids, ages 10-12, line up near the baseline on court 3 at the Murraywood Swim & Racquet Club. On the other side of the net stands Anne Reynolds, the club’s youth tennis leader.

Reynolds, who has overcome blindness, cancer and bad luck en route to becoming a tennis instructor, is about to help the boys and girls better approach the net.

“Finish your stroke!” she will say to one boy.


During these clinics, Reynolds, the club’s assistant tennis teaching professional, is the expert. Throughout the year, parents will pay thousands of dollars for her to work with their kids.

But 13 years ago, when Reynolds started playing tennis regularly at the age of 40, she was a scared beginner. She wouldn't let anyone watch her play. She'd also accidentally bloody her face with her own racquet.

Despite her struggles, though, Reynolds kept playing. Now her office is a tennis court, and she gets paid to help kids and adults play a game she loves.

“There’s nothing about me as a tennis player that’s natural,” Reynolds said. “It’s all brute force and repetition.”

She certainly was not born ready to play tennis.

As a 6-month-old baby, Reynolds’ eyes were so severely crossed she was legally blind. She’d eventually need three surgeries to correct her vision.

Seeing properly, though, didn’t jump-start her tennis career. She never played organized tennis in high school or college.

It wasn’t until January 2003 when Reynolds began playing tennis regularly. She and her husband, Tony, were looking to spend more time together. About a year earlier, Anne Reynolds had endured four months of chemotherapy because of breast cancer.

The family also wanted to get more out of their membership at the swim and racquet club.

So at 7 or 8 most Saturday mornings, when no one else was around, Anne Reynolds and her husband would go to the hard courts farthest away from the road at Murraywood and hit tennis balls. They'd hit around for an hour or so, or until someone walked their way.

At the first site of anyone, even the club’s maintenance man, Reynolds would halt play, pack their belongings and stride to the car.

“If I could have worn a disguise I would have,” Anne Reynolds said.

About 10 months and many weekend hitting sessions later, Reynolds finally felt confident enough to join a group of ladies in taking lessons from Murraywood's director of tennis, Sean Northcott.

But during one clinic a few months after they started, Reynolds grew angry. She had whipped a forehand so hard the ball had hit the net and bounced back to her. A frustrated Reynolds thought she should crush the ball one more time even harder.

She wound up and whipped at the ball again. Only problem was she missed.

Instead of hitting the ball, she hit herself. She pierced her skin and broke her nose.

Blood slipped down her face as her teammates, wary of the children on nearby courts spotting a woman covered in blood, quietly wrapped their arms around her and led her to the bathroom.

“You’re going to scare the children,” Reynolds remembers her friends saying.

Her rough luck continued. A year later, in fall 2004, Reynolds and her friends played on a USTA League team. They finished 0-11.

Reynolds didn't start playing tennis until she was 40. Now she helps kids and adults experience the game. (USTA SC photo)

Reynolds, though, kept hitting around with her husband and taking lessons from Northcott. She always made sure she understood each lesson correctly, too, asking questions of Northcott during and after the sessions.

Northcott, meanwhile, was facing a perennial problem for tennis facilities: He couldn't keep an assistant tennis teaching pro longer than six months.

His assistant pros were typically college students or collegiate tennis players looking for about 10 hours on court a week. But once they would graduate or find a full-time job teaching tennis, they'd leave.

“Sean, we gotta get someone to teach!” Reynolds kept telling him.

But Northcott already had someone picked: Reynolds, the persistent player who loved learning about the game.

In 2007, Reynolds started teaching tennis at Murraywood. She later became professionally certified to teach tennis through the U.S. Professional Tennis Association.

Now she teaches about 15 hours a week and runs the club’s 10 and Under Tennis program, which uses lower-bouncing balls that help kids enjoy tennis right away.

“I’ve never seen anybody who is better with the kids,” Northcott said.

Reynolds also looks out for beginner adults to help.

About a half hour into her December clinic, the boys and girls were picking up balls, and Reynolds drifted over to the fence, where a few parents and grandparents, including Melinda Petruzzi, were watching.

Petruzzi hit with Reynolds and others one time last summer. But since then, she hadn’t been back on court, so Reynolds encouraged her to hit in the near future.

“I’m not sure I could hit the ball back,” Petruzzi said.

Reynolds, who not long ago also was a doubting beginner, knew Petruzzi could do better. “You’re not giving yourself enough credit,” Reynolds said.

Talking weeks after the clinic, Reynolds said she wished more people would dive into tennis like she did 13 years ago. She offered a guess as to why people might be hesitant.

“I guess no one’s as stupid as I am to just go in and go for it.”