Lisa Raymond, the doubles standard

Lisa Raymond and Mike Bryan won bronze medals in mixed doubles at the London Olympics. It was the first Olympics for Raymond, who is 39.
Lisa Raymond and Mike Bryan won bronze medals in mixed doubles at the London Olympics. It was the first Olympics for Raymond, who is 39. (AP)
Posted: January 14, 2013

Donald Trump isn't out here. There are no visible supermodels or former Seinfeld cast members taking in the scene at Court 4 at New York's USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

The people who are here want to be here, leaning against trash cans and standing on bleachers. Many are straining for a look at the full court. A determined security guard ("Hey!") holds back more from getting close. Most of the 1,000 or so onlookers are dressed as if they are playing themselves - bald men in fraying caps, women in tennis skirts. Most probably have doubles games scheduled back at the club.

They know the game, and when to be impressed.

A shot is volleyed over the net, to a place where neither of the women on the other side, a Greek and an Australian, even takes more than a step forward to try to reach it . . . perfect drop volley. A woman in a pink polo shirt blurts out, "Oh, my God."

Lisa Raymond, who grew up in Wayne and recently bought a house in Media, hit that shot during last year's Open. Earlier in the year, Raymond reached No. 1 in the world in doubles, becoming the oldest woman to reach No. 1 in doubles or singles. The 39-year-old has earned more money from doubles than any woman in history.

Even as the age gap with her rivals widens, Raymond has no plans to stop. Play begins Sunday night (Eastern time) in the Australian Open, the 81st Grand Slam tournament of Raymond's career. She has a new partner, a 25-year-old Russian, Maria Kirilenko, ranked 14th in the world in singles.

Of her own early contemporaries, Raymond said, "There are players who have quit, coached, and quit coaching already."

The volley - putting your racket on the ball before it bounces - has become a lost art. That helps explain how a 5-foot-5, 20-year vet can keep up with younger and taller and stronger players hitting tennis balls at speeds not seen before in the women's game.

"I stick my volleys," Raymond said last week. "A lot of girls guide their volleys. They tend to float more. When I get hold of a ball, I put some juice on it."

Doubles turned out to be Raymond's path to a legacy. In her career, she has won 72 WTA doubles titles in 18 countries in addition to five singles titles, and has earned more than $9.5 million. When she won the U.S. Open doubles in 2011 - her third Open doubles title - she became the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam doubles title. (Martina Navratilova won a mixed doubles title at 46.)

Last year, Raymond earned $561,867 by winning doubles titles in Paris, Doha, Qatar, and Dubai, and domestically in Philadelphia and Palm Springs, Calif. She didn't add any Grand Slam women's doubles titles but won Wimbledon in the mixed doubles, her 11th overall Grand Slam doubles title, including titles at each of the Grand Slams.

Maybe her career highlight, she said, was standing on an Olympic podium in London last summer after winning bronze in the mixed doubles at her first Olympics.

A former top 15 singles player, Raymond has earned more money in doubles than any player in history. Her overall earnings are far more than any female professional athlete in any sport from the Philadelphia area.

Now 28th all-time in women's tennis earnings, Raymond should soon pass the likes of Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati (a former junior doubles partner) as she gets closer to the top 20 all-time. That puts her pretty far up the list of career earners in all individual sports. For instance, only six LPGA golfers in history have made more money.

'She just knifes it'

That Olympic medal didn't come easily. Just 45 minutes earlier, Raymond had lost the bronze in women's doubles in three sets, one of the toughest defeats of her career. The mixed doubles came down to a 10-point tiebreaker after Raymond and Mike Bryan split the first two sets with a German pair.

"That's a ton of pressure - it's almost an unfair amount of pressure," Bryan said. "Basically a coin flip for an Olympic medal."

The Americans won the first five points.

"She took it to another level in the breaker. She just came out of the gates - she basically lit them up from the first point," Bryan said, remembering the tiebreaker ultimately won 10-4 by the Americans. "I think she hit a great return to start it off, and two great serves. She's capable of doing that, winning a match solely on her racket."

Bryan, who also won Wimbledon last year in mixed doubles with Raymond - and is part of the top-rated men's doubles pairing in the world with his twin brother, Bob - said Raymond was the top volleyer he had ever seen in the women's game.

"Her backhand knife, inside-out, is pure as the driven snow," Bryan said in an interview at last year's Open, referring to Raymond's one-handed backhand. "I mean she really crushes it. She has so much variety in her game. Her volleys have always been strong, but she's taken her sticks to another level. If that thing comes to her, she's putting her opponents on the defensive right away. She just knifes it."

Eric Riley, Raymond's former full-time coach who still works with her when she is home, said he coached Pam Shriver when she played doubles with Navratilova, the player usually considered the greatest volleyer in the history of the women's game.

"I can say unequivocally, Lisa is the best volleyer in the history of the [women's] game," Riley said last week. His reasoning is that the game has evolved since Navratilova played, and Raymond has evolved with it. "Obviously, the ball is coming a lot quicker now than in the '90s," Riley said.

Raymond's signature volley - "the shot she is able to make her mark off," Riley said - is the transition volley, from around the service line in the middle of the court. A shot with maybe the highest degree of difficulty in the sport.

"She can pretty much hit it as hard as she can, with unbelievable pace, depth, and control," Riley said.

At the net for more standard volleys, "she can normally finish the point on one shot. I coached the Jensen brothers," Riley said, referring to Luke and Murphy Jensen, who won the 1993 French Open men's doubles title. "Her ability around the net - she volleys better than those guys put together."

Late-career renaissance

Raymond's singles career was solid. From 1995 to 2004, she was a steady presence in the top 30, reaching 15th in 1997. She could never quite get to the next level. She reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2000 and the Australian Open in 2004. In 2006, she won only one Grand Slam singles match. Her ranking dropped to 128th that year.

"I had to choose whether I was going to play in the semis or finals of these doubles events, or did I want to go and play qualifying in order to get into the singles draws?" Raymond said.

Asked about regrets she had about her singles career, Raymond said, "I think I probably relied a little bit too much on my talent, and not really putting my head down and grinding, and not putting the hours on the court and in the gym that I probably could have."

And, Raymond said, she was a little hardheaded.

"Maybe listening a little more to coaches, and to some of the older players who tried to give me advice maybe I ignored a little bit," Raymond said. "I'm sure there were times I took it for granted, thinking there was always going to be another next year. There would be another Wimbledon - I'm only 25, whatever it is - then the next thing you know you look in the mirror and you're 31 and you wonder where those last six years went."

Raymond believes she got other aspects of her development right. She doesn't regret going to the University of Florida after graduating from the Academy of Notre Dame instead of turning pro as her junior rivals were doing.

"I'm sure if I was pushed at an early age, I'd been on a practice court five or six hours at age 11, I would not be playing tennis today," said Raymond, who remembers playing junior doubles with Capriati, who is three years younger but has been retired for eight years.

Even as the tour put in age limits, Raymond believes junior players are far more narrowly focused than even two decades ago.

"I think it's gotten worse because there's so much more at stake now," Raymond said, referring to the greater prize money. "Kids are home-schooled now. Without question, it's gotten worse. You never, ever hear of top kids going to college."

Her own late-career renaissance almost never happened. As recently as two years ago, Raymond said, she was very close to retiring.

"And I take full responsibility for that," Raymond said. "I'd let myself get very out of shape. My personal life was in a bit of funky place. It was all affecting me. And I take full responsibility for that."

Worse, she said, in doubles, it affects someone else.

"Rennae Stubbs is actually the person who called me out on it," Raymond said. "We were partners at the time. We lost a match early in a tournament [in 2010]. She's one of my best friends. She literally said to me, 'What are you doing? You need to make some changes here.' . . . I was hysterically crying afterward. But it was something that I needed to hear."

That night, Raymond said, she got on a treadmill. She vowed to change her nutritional habits. "Everybody who knows me knows I love to eat," she said. She resolved to give it one more shot, get a workout in before she hit, not just afterward, "running those extra 10 or 15 sprints."

"I just think I got to the point where it was almost like I was relying too much on talent, or my name maybe, or a reputation," Raymond said. "It wasn't good enough anymore. Everybody's too good. You have these whole new crop of young girls. . . . Everybody hits a bigger ball. It's so much more of a physical sport now, and I was kidding myself to think I didn't have to be in great shape to dig out volleys, to fend off big returns."

Riley hasn't been on the road with Raymond in the last half-dozen years, but he suggests Raymond's definition of being a slacker is different from your average person's.

"Lisa is an extraordinary athlete," Riley said. "Her athleticism has really been a part of her success. She also is a very, very good student of the game, very coachable. In professional tennis, you need extra discipline. They don't have an offseason. She's been extraordinarily disciplined. Anytime there's a practice, she's always 15 minutes early. In all our time together, she never missed a practice."

Despite the Olympic medal and the Wimbledon title in mixed doubles, Raymond didn't win a 2012 Grand Slam in women's doubles. Her ranking slipped to sixth by the end of the year. She is hopeful that her new partnership with Kirilenko will prove fruitful.

"It may not happen this week or next week," Raymond said last week over the phone from Sydney, Australia, where she was playing in a warm-up tournament. "Most of my successful partnerships have taken a while to hit stride - and when it does, look out."

She'll keep hitting one-handed backhands, Raymond said, as long as she has a chance to keep winning. There will be no regrets. She recently bought a new treadmill for her basement. No excuses. If all those club players who turn out to watch doubles can still do it, why not her? And they aren't the ones causing some lady in a pink polo shirt to blurt out, "Oh, my God."

"It's not about the money anymore," Raymond said.


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @jensenoffcampus.

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