By Cathy Lacombe
Serving at 5-4, Jill Davis had a chance to take the opening set against Martina Navratilova, then the #1 player in the world. It was September 3, 1982, Davis’ first time on Stadium Court at the U.S Open at the U.S. National Tennis Center in New York City. “I had goose bumps,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh please don’t let me choke!’”
The supportive roar of the crowd was deafening. “I grew up in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, and an enormous number of people rented a bus to come watch me play. My parents, who had yet to see me play in a professional tournament, were also there.” Navratilova won the match 7-6, 6-1, but Jill had done something that only a few who pursue a career in professional tennis ever have the chance to do—play a #1 player on a center court in a Grand Slam.
Success One Point at a Time
Davis’ pursuits in competitive sports began at an early age in swimming. By the time Jill turned 12, she was her age group’s backstroke champion in her home state. “I wanted to go to the Olympics,” Jill states, recalling her grand plans at the time—plans that changed, however, the day Davis sat courtside for a match featuring American tennis legend Billy Jean King.
Davis immersed herself in tennis and emulated King’s aggressive serve-and-volley style. Every night she played an entire match in her mind before she went to bed. During the day, she pounded balls against the garage door for hours on end. The first summer Davis played competitively, she lost every match 6-0, 6-0. “I was terrible,” she remembers, “but I loved it!”
A local tennis pro took Jill under his wing, and because there weren’t any girls at her level of play, Jill played with the boys on a regional team. Playing with boys would make her stronger. She remembers suffering through excruciating drills that included volleying at close range and blasting balls at each other. She recalls, “Each day, I was covered with bruises. But I got better.”
Davis’ tennis skills soon expanded to a level beyond that of the local club environment, and she moved several times to receive specialized coaching. She eventually won a tennis scholarship to Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas where she played #1 singles as a freshman and compiled the best record in school history. Following her freshman year, she decided to turn pro, but Davis quickly learned that there were dues to pay before breaking into professional tennis
Advantage Davis: Her First Big Break
A player needs a ranking obtained only through professional play, but to get professional play, one needs both a reputation and connections. To generate a ranking, Jill set up shop in Australia, where she won every junior tournament in that country. Based on this bona fide accomplishment, her former coach at SMU, who was coaching in Australia at the time, managed to “sneak” her into the bracket for the Western Australian Open that she went on to win. That win alone secured her a world ranking.
Over the next decade, Davis’ aggressive style of play propelled her to the top 50 in women’s singles worldwide. No simple feat! Davis qualified for and played in the U.S. Open 10 consecutive years, beginning in 1978, at the age of 18 and reached the quarterfinals in doubles in 1983.
But the tennis memory that stands out most for Jill was a match with her idol Billie Jean King in a warm-up tournament prior to Wimbledon. Jill won a hard-fought match that day.
Competing after an Injury Time-out
Davis was only 28 when she retired from professional tennis. “I was in a tournament in Florida and trying to get more height on my serve, when something in my lower back ripped.” She received a shot of cortisone and went back out to play, which proved to be a mistake. “I couldn’t stand up straight for six months.”
“I needed to move on, but I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I’m a person who needs to be active constantly, and I just felt lost.” She played a little tennis for fun and ran one marathon, but found that the only sport her body could tolerate was cycling. “Pounding on concrete for hours and hours ruins your body.”
In 2004, Jill purchased a condo on Pintail Knob in Eastman, where her parents lived. She fell in love with the community and she subsequently discovered her calling for the next phase of her life. She signed on with the Grantham F.A.S.T. squad, a first-aid stabilization team, working in conjunction with the local fire department. “I like giving back to the community,” she says.
Her passion for helping others prompted her decision to enroll in medical school, where Jill began to reshape her life. She enrolled in the University of Vermont and then the University of New England to study osteopathy, a field with which she was well acquainted from her days as a young athlete.
Working as a resident at Bay State Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, Jill loved the 25-mile bike ride down Route 202 en route to her home in Holyoke. One late Friday afternoon in 2011 was especially sunny and beautiful. “I remember looking at the sky and marveling at how incredible it looked that day.”
She never heard the vehicle coming up behind her.
Sideswiped by a large van, Jill was thrown off her bike and into a telephone pole. Her left leg was a mess, her knee broken and her ankle fractured. In that one minute, all of Davis’ remaining hopes and dreams were shattered.
Jill was hospitalized for five days. It took the former professional athlete two months to manage the use of a walker. The simple task of putting on her socks brought excruciating pain.
A tall woman with striking silver hair and a likeable, casual manner, Jill seems comfortable and well suited for a recreation-based lifestyle. However, the athleticism that once came so naturally has been a continuous struggle.
When the doctor said she would never ride again, Jill thought, “How do I not ride? If I don’t ride again, the hit-and-run driver wins.”
Another Chance in Her Life
Due to the extensive pain Jill was experiencing, she spent all of her time alone, pacing. She thought a dog would be a wonderful companion, so she called Pyrs and Paws, a dog rescue and referral agency in Croydon, and went to look at a specific dog she had seen on the website.
“But when I drove up the driveway, another dog was tied up out front. She was smaller, horribly skinny and dirty, but she kept looking at me, and I was immediately drawn to her,” Jill recounts. “I stood there for almost an hour petting that dog that came with the name of Chance.”
Chance was eight years old, with a horrible history of abuse. She had what Jill called “doggy PTSD.” Chance came to live with Jill two weeks later. “I worked with her 24/7 to help her get over her fears.” At the same time, Jill dealt with her own fear and started taking short bike rides along Eastman’s network of trails until she felt comfortable out in traffic.
Most summer days one can spot Jill walking about East Lake with her rescue dog Chance or riding her bike. “The thought of being out of shape is scary,” Jill says. “I don’t know how to stop. Sometimes I wonder, though, if I should have stuck with swimming.”
Cathy Lacombe is a retired elementary school teacher who worked in the Lebanon, New Hampshire school district for 31 years. Cathy is a regular contributor to Eastman Living. She also chairs the Eastman Community Garden Coordinating Committee.