In the parking lot in front of Bloomingdale’s at King of Prussia Mall, tennis is back in fashion. A temporary stadium has risen from the asphalt, where a multicolored court will showcase the Philadelphia Freedoms for seven matches during the three-week Advanta World TeamTennis season this month. Marquee names Venus Williams and Andre Agassi join the squad for one home date each, while Lisa Raymond, who grew up within earshot of the crowd’s roar and still lives in the area, reclaims her spot on the regular roster.
“It’s nice to play before family and friends, and sleep in my own bed,” says Raymond, who’s back in Wayne after Wimbledon and previous European stops, including the French Open.
Indeed, though Raymond travels the world with the Sony Ericsson Women’s Tennis Association Tour, even a pro gets homesick. “Philadelphia and the Main Line will forever be home,” says Raymond, who admits an affinity for snowstorms and cheesesteaks. “The Devon Horse Show, Eagles’ games, the Phillies—I’ve always loved it here.”
Action and athleticism define Raymond’s personality on the tennis court, where she’s won a combined nine Grand Slam titles (Wimbledon, and the Australian, French, and U.S. opens) in doubles and mixed doubles. In 2000, she first reached the No. 1 ranking in the world in women’s doubles, a level she subsequently regained and held for more than two years starting in early 2006. Now, a month shy of her 36th birthday, Raymond is eyeing that peak again.
“She’s working hard so she can be more explosive in her movement to the ball,” says Raymond’s coach, Raj Chaudhuri, a former assistant coach at her alma mater, the University of Florida. “At this stage of her career, she must stay as fit as possible.”
That career hasn’t been without its low points. Raymond’s exclusion from the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team, for one, was a bitter disappointment. But the hard work has remained constant.
It all began soon after a teacher at Rosemont School of the Holy Child hit a few tennis balls with a young student and promptly referred her to Charles Oliver, longtime coach at Philadelphia Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill. Oliver, who’d led West Point’s tennis team in the 1940s and bested future Wimbledon champ (and Philadelphian) Vic Seixas, saw something special in 8-year-old Lisa. Soon the ex-Army man and the little suburban girl were regulars at Valley Forge Sports Garden, which boasted an ice hockey rink and five indoor tennis courts, on the current site of the SYMS clothing outlet in Berwyn. Patricia Weger, then tennis manager at the facility, made sure the pair had enough court time.
“[Owner] Al Pollard said to me, ‘I have a friend who has a young daughter who wants to bring her pro,’” Weger recalls. “When the boss tells you something, you don’t say no.”
Pollard, a former Philadelphia Eagles running back, had played football with Lisa Raymond’s father, Ted, at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Her mother, Nancy, played several sports at Upper Merion High School. So the genes were aligned for the future tennis standout. But it took coach Oliver’s know-how to shape her game. “Charlie astutely realized that [Raymond] wouldn’t be the size of the Russian girls, and decided to instill in her a one-handed backhand (when most women were adopting the two-handed shot),” says Weger. “That increased her reach and gave her a crosscourt shot with topspin.”
Oliver instilled more than just tennis technique in the young prodigy. “He stressed that I didn’t need to go away [to tennis camp], where my whole life would’ve revolved around tennis,” says Raymond. “He was like a second father.”
When Valley Forge Sports Garden closed in 1985, the Raymond-Oliver tandem moved to Gulf Mills Racquet Club, then owned and operated by Rose Weinstein, who remembers their 6:30 a.m. starts. “Her parents would bring breakfast, then she’d shower and go off to school,” says Weinstein, a tennis advocate and coach, and a former professional bowler.
By this time, the Raymonds had moved to a new Glenhardie home whose back yard bordered Valley Forge National Historical Park. “It was not strange to see five or six deer right outside the fence,” says Nancy Raymond, adding that nature’s backdrop was less important than the property’s size. “We moved because we wanted to build a tennis court for Lisa.”
“I spent a lot of hours out there,” recalls Lisa, who became the region’s top 10-and-under girls’ player in United States Tennis Association tournament competition. “But I really didn’t play a lot of tennis compared to what they play today.”
Weinstein, however, remembers Raymond “constantly on a tennis court, traveling and playing in tournaments.”
Whatever amount of time Raymond devoted to tennis in those formative years paid off handsomely. She won five U.S. National singles and doubles titles as a junior, and was still 16 when she became the top-ranked 18-and-under player in the country. She was too busy—and, frankly, too good—to play for her high school team at Notre Dame Academy in Villanova. Heavily recruited by colleges, she was “fixated on going to the West Coast and UCLA” before she listened to a friend from the U.S. National team and set her sights south. “She attended the University of Florida,” says Raymond. “I went there and fell in love with the school.”
So it was off to Gainesville and Gator Nation. For a connoisseur of snow, Raymond took nicely to sunshine. Under the tutelage of coach Andy Brandi, she sizzled at UF, becoming the first player to win three collegiate Grand Slam titles in a single season, and twice capturing the NCAA Singles Championship. Her matches were dubbed the “Lisa Raymond tanning hour,” thanks to their brevity and the ever-present Florida sun. She turned pro after her sophomore year in May 1993.
“I’d accomplished everything I felt I could accomplish in college,” Raymond says. “Turning pro was always the goal—it was the path I was on.”
Enter Dennis Alter, tennis enthusiast and CEO of beleaguered credit-card giant Advanta Corporation— now prime sponsor of World TeamTennis and the Philadelphia Freedoms, then host of the Advanta Championships, a high-profile tournament held at the old Philadelphia Civic Center and, later, Villanova University. Nancy Raymond recalls that her daughter, new to the world of professional tennis, wrote a letter to Alter to request a wild-card spot in the tourney scheduled for that November, a week before the season-ending WTA Championships. She wound up gaining both a berth and a patron.
“I loaned her some money—no interest—and asked her to wear an Advanta patch when she played,” says Alter, a nationally ranked seniors player and top man at the Spring House-based company since 1971. “That was our deal, and she dutifully repaid the money. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Indeed, a week before Raymond embarked for Europe in the spring, she was practicing on the clay court at Alter’s home in Fort Washington.
As a pro, Raymond is one of the best doubles players ever, winning 67 women’s titles, including five Grand Slams. She teamed with Aussies Rennae Stubbs and Samantha Stosur for a combined 52 titles, and Californian Lindsay Davenport for nine more. Through April, Raymond and current doubles partner Kveta Peschke, of the Czech Republic, had played in four finals, winning one.
But despite snaring the No. 1 ranking in June 2000—perfect timing for the Olympics—Raymond wasn’t selected to the U.S. team for the Summer Games that year in Sydney. Instead, coach Billie Jean King opted for the top four American singles players: Davenport, Venus Williams, Monica Seles and Serena Williams.
“That was extremely disappointing,” says Raymond, who took the USTA to arbitration but was denied. “I had busted my butt to get the No. 1 ranking.”
Four years later, she did play doubles at the Summer Olympics in Athens. Paired with Martina Navratilova, Raymond lost in the quarterfinals. “Still, that was a little redemption,” she says. “I’ve mended fences with [World TeamTennis founder] Billie Jean and the USTA.”
Raymond’s game today is still evolving. She’s always been one to attack the net, but now she prizes strength as much as aggressiveness. She’s in the gym every day and has been developing a “heavier forehand, because the girls today hit so hard and return so well.” She credits her current coach with enabling her to “hit the ball better than ever.”
“Lisa has a wide variety of shots and knows where the ‘holes’ are on the court,” says Chaudhuri.
Complementing her wicked backhand slice, Raymond has the “best volley of any woman player in the game,” according to Weinstein, who calls the shot the most important one in doubles. That aggressive style of play fits nicely with partner Peschke’s baseline game.
Raymond’s personal baseline remains this neck of the woods. At mirage-like Freedoms Stadium, she’s on display for local fans. Grab a racket, and you might see her unwinding on the courts at Upper Main Line YMCA. Her parents now live in Chesterbrook, and younger sister Stephanie in Malvern. “I adore my three nieces,” says Raymond.
It seems the unassuming international traveler left her heart on the Main Line.
To learn more about the Philadelphia Freedoms, visit philadelphiafreedoms.com.