Journeys: Flo Blanchard
Sep 23, 2013, 6 a.m.
Women’s Tennis Association hall of fame referee
Let there be light: Since Blanchard started playing and refereeing tennis, lights have been introduced to tennis courts. Before court lights, players would quit as soon as the sun went down to head to late-night parties. Now they play through the night.
Game changer: Blanchard says the greatest improvement in the game came when the tiebreaker was instated. When network TV showed interest in broadcasting tennis, the game had to be shortened to two or three hours. This turned it into the fast-paced, action-packed game we see today.
Keeping it in the family: Blanchard’s children grew up around tennis, so they never had much interest in the game, she says. Her great granddaughters, however, have followed in her footsteps. At ages 6 and 9, the two girls are taking lessons.
The future of tennis: Blanchard says the European invasion of tennis has been largely due to the fact that children are started out on the game from a young age. She looks forward to seeing the U.S. Tennis Association attempt to gain the interest of young American children to compete.
Flo Blanchard was audacious before it was an acceptable quality in a woman. And although it could have worked to her disadvantage, staying passive and silent would have never led her on the path that made her a well-respected name in the tennis community.
The now 92-year-old Phoenix resident didn’t understand tennis when she began playing. She had barely seen a racquet and she definitely didn’t understand how the game was scored. But when she married her husband, Mike, in her early 20s, she didn’t have much of a choice but to be exposed to the game.
Mike traveled the world as a tennis referee, presiding over several U.S. Open championships before he passed in 1996. Back then, refereeing didn’t pay much (if anything), so it was a labor of love for the couple. When Flo married Mike, she also married tennis. It was part of her life now, whether she liked it or not.
Luckily, she did like it.
One morning the newly married couple’s phone rang at 6:30 a.m. “Who the hell is that,” Mike said as they lay in the bed of their Boston home.
On the other line was a member of the Boston Symphony who needed a fourth player in their threesome. Flo immediately volunteered, even if she wasn’t quite prepared.
She quickly caught onto the game and became a well-known player in her own right. By the time she was a senior, she was ranked in the top 10 women’s senior players in the country.
But it wasn’t playing tennis that landed her in the Women’s Tennis Association hall of fame. Following in her husband’s footsteps, she began refereeing games and by 1973, she was the tour umpire of the USTA Women’s Circuit.
“I learned to umpire through osmosis,” Blanchard says. She was immersed in the game and the lifestyle surrounding it, so learning the intricacies was easy, she says.
Her umpiring career led her all over the world. In 1975 she won the McGovern Award as the top umpire in the United States. A serious elbow injury has prevented her from playing tennis and her other favorite game, golf, for several years, but Blanchard still keeps her racquet and putter near the front door to her apartment. Now the hand-eye coordination she learned from the game is channeled in a virtual way.
She plays Wii bowling at her Phoenix 60 plus retirement community, The Terraces. She spends her time watching Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic slam the ball on TV and perusing the latest tennis news in magazines. Keeping active has been a major factor in Blanchard’s longevity, and she’s not about to slow down anytime soon.
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