With 128 titles during her career, Tina Karwasky is a legend in masters tennis
In celebration of International Women's Day, espnW presents "In Her Shoes," a series of essays and features highlighting women, their journeys and perspectives on sports.
Tina Karwasky's first tennis tournament was painfully brief.
"I lost 6-0, 7-5 and I was getting into it in the second set," she recalls of her debut match. "I lost the second set and the girl came up to the net to shake my hand and I'm like, 'What? The match is over? I was just starting to play good!' "
She says nerves got the best of her in that 12-under event in Los Angeles. She had trouble keeping the ball in the court and was devastated by her performance. She thought, "I can do better than this."
More than 50 years later, Karwasky, 66, laughs about that quick exit, but she was right. She's been much better, succeeding at every level since. She played No. 1 at Cal State Los Angeles (finishing as national singles runner-up in 1973), played on the professional tours for eight seasons (appearing in all four Grand Slams), coached collegiately at her alma mater for 21 years and is still a force nationally and internationally as an age-group player.
She's coming off a 2018 season in which she won the U.S. Tennis Association's Gold Slam in both singles and doubles for ages 65-70, meaning she won season titles on grass, clay, hard-court and indoor surfaces. Since winning her first USTA age-group championships in 1993 (singles and doubles grass), Karwasky has won 128 total championships in singles, doubles or mixed doubles, and has four singles and two doubles Gold Slams. Karwasky also has three International Tennis Federation singles championships in her age group, five doubles titles and has been on 24 winning U.S. teams in ITF cup competitions.
The USTA awards champions a trophy with a gold ball, which comes in a wooden box. Karwasky has those trophies and boxes displayed on a shelf above a fireplace in her Glendale, California, home.
"I'm afraid I am running out of room," she jokes. "Maybe I should get a bigger house with a bigger shelf."
Yet she has no plans to put her racket down. She intends to pursue more titles this year and beyond. As long as her knees hold up, she wants to keep playing. She enjoys traveling, seeing her friends and adapting to whatever the game throws at her. She loves challenges, and that's what tennis gives her.
"You have to be really motivated to take on challenges," says Karwasky, who still teaches tennis two or three days a week. "What if I do this or that, can I be better? Can I do this better? I'm very competitive ... You have to be the kind of person when things aren't going well on the court, you've got to think, what can I do different? ... It's like a jigsaw puzzle you're trying to solve all the time."
Says her doubles partner, Jan Kirkland-Cochran, of Atlanta: "She doesn't like to lose a point. She's a dog out there. Very friendly -- she'll be friendly off the court -- but on the court she's all business, you know? She's a competitor."
Karwasky has evolved along with the game. As a girl and in college, she used a wooden racket, knew nothing about the value of weightlifting and stretching, and ate a less-than-winning diet.
"I didn't think twice about going to Bob's Big Boy and having a hamburger and fries when you played, and then you wondered, 'Why can't I move on the court?' " she says.
Today, Karwasky works to stay in shape, spending time on the stationary bike, in the gym, stretching and eating a healthy diet. If she wants to keep playing, she has to stay injury-free.
"At our age, that's the total fear is getting injured," she says. That, says Kirkland-Cochran, is one of Karwasky's strengths. She's fit and fast on the court because she works at it. "Senior players are always having their body parts breaking down on them, and Tina is very diligent about her workouts in the gym and on the court."
Kirkland-Cochran is also amazed at her partner's enthusiasm. "She stays excited about playing the game and that's very unusual for somebody who's been out there as long as she has," she says.
Karwasky's experience at Cal State Los Angeles laid the foundation for her later success. As Tina Watanabe (her maiden name), she played No. 1 singles all four years in the early 1970s, before women's tennis was an NCAA sport. Under the umbrella of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), Cal State L.A. played regularly against bigger schools such as UCLA and USC, and as a junior she reached the AIAW national singles final, where she lost to defending national champion Janice Metcalf of Redlands.
After college, Karwasky taught high school for a while before trying professional tennis. At her first event, an Avon Futures Tour stop in Bakersfield, she had to play nine qualifying matches just to get into the main draw -- and then she lost. But the experience sparked her to give it a shot as a pro, and she wound up playing eight years, eventually ranking as high as 79th on the Women's Tennis Association circuit.
"It was scary turning pro," she recalls. "You're used to having that monthly check come in from teaching in school, and then you're like, 'What, I've got to pay my own benefits? If I don't win, I don't get paid?' So you take things very seriously."
Playing then under her first married name, Mochizuki, she beat the likes of Kathy Rinaldi, Alycia Moulton and Bonnie Gadusek in WTA play, and she knocked off future stars Monica Seles and Steffi Graf in a couple of warm-up tournaments.
The straight-sets win over Rinaldi, then the fifth seed at the 1984 Virginia Slims of Florida, was sweet, but then they met again at the 1985 French Open, and Rinaldi brought her coach.
"Oh, I think she wants revenge," she recalls thinking. The 13th-seeded Rinaldi won 6-4, 6-0.
By 35, Karwasky was ready to step away to a more stable life. She returned to teaching and eventually landed the job as head coach at Cal State L.A.
"It was good, great; I have no regrets," she says of her life as a pro. "I got to play in all the grand slams. I saw the world. It was just tough. I played maybe 28 tournaments a year, so that's a lot of traveling."
As head coach, Karwasky took her team to the NCAA tournament eight times until stepping away after the 2009 season. She enjoyed the teaching part of her job -- everything from strokes and conditioning to etiquette, teamwork and how to budget time as a student-athlete -- and says she got particular satisfaction seeing her athletes graduate and go on to success.
It was while she was coaching that she began to play in national age-group tournaments, giving her an outlet to play the game she first learned at age 8, when her mom signed her up for the first of many free parks and recreation classes.
Fifty-eight years later, Karwasky still has a passion to not only play, but to get better.
"It's the joy of hitting the ball well," she says. "You have to put it all together to make a point, to build a point, to hit just the right shot."