Better late than never for Vanderbilt grad Ditty

Updated: November 6, 2007

Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images

Six years after turning pro, Julie Ditty finally reached her goal of a top-100 ranking.

American Julie Ditty has high hopes for 2008 season

It could have been "Rudy" or "Rocky." It could have been "Hoosiers." Take your pick of long-suffering, gallant underdog sports flicks.

Julie Ditty felt like she was starring in her own production after she beat Vania King in three sets to advance to the semifinals of the Bell Challenge tournament in Quebec City last week. "I said to my coach, 'Am I in a movie?'" Ditty said Monday.

If you need an antidote (or a hot shower) after a week in which tennis reeled from a rash of sad, sordid and surreal revelations, consider Ditty's story. It's the age-old tale of someone reaching a goal after years of unnoticed, thankless effort.

When Ditty turned pro in 2001 after graduating from Vanderbilt University, she told herself she was capable of cracking the top 100. This week, she finally did it -- slotting in at a career-high No. 91, which should assure her a spot in the main draw of the Australian Open.

The 28-year-old lefty from Ashland, Ky., had never advanced past the second round at a WTA-level event before Quebec City. She had to come through three qualifying rounds first, and teetered on the precipice in the very first one, saving two match points before she prevailed.

Ditty beat No. 59 Alize Cornet of France in straight sets and knocked out No. 120 Maret Ani of Estonia and King, who has slid to No. 113, before losing to 36th-ranked Julia Vakulenko of the Ukraine in three sets.

For most of the last few seasons, Ditty has faced the weekly decision of whether to play in lower-level professional events or take her chances in qualifying tournaments for WTA tournaments.

"I was a little afraid to take that next step," she said. Most of the time, she opted for the lesser tournaments, which she has had great success in. Ditty's 22 doubles titles and eight singles championships tie her for the record -- for men or women -- on the U.S. Tennis Association's Pro Circuit. Nonetheless, Ditty doesn't want her final screenplay to read like "Bull Durham."

"I've put in a lot of hard work, and it's nice to be recognized for something I worked hard for, but I'm looking forward to playing more WTA events," Ditty said.

Ditty is the fourth-oldest of six kids. Her father, a dermatologist, runs the Ashland Pro Circuit event. He also was her chief support in her first couple of seasons on tour, when Ditty was struggling to make ends meet.

She traveled by herself and on her own dime, without sponsors or a coach. "I just told myself I'd see how it goes, and if I don't really feel like I'm improving, I'll stop," she said. "I really do enjoy traveling and meeting people."

That's fortunate, because Ditty's typical itinerary includes a lot of backwaters along with the great capitals of the world. This season, her busiest and most successful as a pro, she went 49-25 in singles play and 30-23 in doubles while journeying from Bogota to Bali with lots of stops like Hammond, La., and Pelham, Ala. in between. She trains at the Van der Meer Tennis Academy in Hilton Head, S.C.

There were a few seasons in which Ditty lost about as many as she won and wondered if she would be better served by putting her undergraduate degree in early childhood education to work. But she persisted, fueled by stubborn self-belief. "I just always felt like I knew I could do it," she said.

Ditty's confidence was buoyed the past two summers by stints with World Team Tennis franchises in New York and Boston. She decided to hire a fitness trainer this fall and said it made a difference in her Asian swing, during which she played well but ran into a reborn Lindsay Davenport in consecutive tournaments.

A friend, Israeli pro Amir Hadad, connected Ditty with his former coach, Mark Hanson, a teaching pro based in Tacoma, Wash. They've been working together for the past few weeks and "I can't even tell you how much my game has improved," said Ditty, who won a $50,000 USTA event in Lawrenceville, Ga., the week before she began her run in Quebec City. "It's really hard to critique yourself."

The partnership didn't begin auspiciously, as Ditty lost first-round matches in the singles and doubles draws in a tournament in San Francisco on her second day with Hanson. "I didn't know if I was going to be sent home or what," Hanson joked.

Yet his overall assessment of Ditty in their first week together was swift and positive. "She's capable of hitting every shot and playing every game style, but she didn't have a real clear grasp of what her strengths were, how to use them and set them up," Hanson said.

In the past few weeks, Hanson said, Ditty has "started to understand that with the work she puts in, she deserves to win."

"I feel lucky to work with her," Hanson said. "Her personality is really easy. She gets along great with the other players on tour. The tournament administrators all love her. The umpires love her. I still feel like she has a few good years left -- it sounds funny to say that she's an up-and-comer at 28, but I think you're going to see her game flourish."

Ditty has played main draw doubles at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open, but her Aussie Open appearance figures to be her first in main draw singles match at a Slam. She plans to play the Gold Coast and Sydney events beforehand.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to


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