Veteran Suffolk team becomes part of new national champions!

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 24, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

What would you do if you’d just won a national tennis title? Scream for joy? Do a cartwheel? Take a ton of pictures of yourself with the trophy and send them to your friends, family, and maybe even the local newspaper?

Most of us probably would. But after Whitney Saunders was part of the team that brought home the 50-and-over United State Tennis Association National Doubles Tennis Championship on Oct. 12 in Palm Springs, Calif., he wasn’t thinking much about cheering, acrobatics, or wild celebratory antics.

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&uot;They gave us all a complimentary bag of ice and an opportunity to visit the trainer!&uot; he recalls, a grin of fond memories creeping across his face. &uot;And yes, they did give us a trophy.&uot;

It was only one more in a multitude of awards that Saunders has received after about three decades on the court. And for most of these bestowments, Harry Cross has been right there with him.

&uot;We’ve been playing doubles together for longer than we want to admit!&uot; says Cross, Suffolk’s other representative on the USTA-winning team (the squad’s other six members were from Virginia Beach).

As most of Suffolk’s top tennis players in the past 50 years have, the pair got their start in the Howard Mast tennis program. At Suffolk High School, they played under the tutelage of legendary tennis coach Bill Peachy. Saunders played tennis at Swarthmore College; Cross, who has won several single Suffolk city championships, was a member of the William and Mary team.

Since then, Cross admits, &uot;We spent most of our time raising kids.&uot; (both have three children). But they’ve still managed to take part in many USTA events at several local tennis facilities.

Over the past summer, however, things got a bit more serious. At the Virginia Beach Racket tennis club, Cross, Saunders and the rest of the Tidewater squad took part in six matches, winning enough to qualify for state competition, which was held Richmond in September.

They kept winning, moving on to the sectional contests. In late September in Newport News, the group took on 16 other teams from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

Heading into the final day of competition, the Tidewater men found themselves having to win three consecutive matches to get past a West Virginia squad. Not that they were nervous.

&uot;It wasn’t something that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to win,&uot; Saunders said. &uot;It was just another tennis match.&uot; It was a match that they won, charging through the three victories to head far west to the Golden State.

As the national games started, the men knew they were in for a fight. &uot;I had to play six times in three days,&uot; Cross said. &uot;I usually play about six times in a month!&uot; There were four groups of teams, with four teams in three of the groups, and five in the last one; the Virginia team was in the five-team troupe. Still, they persevered, winning their first four matches to move to the semifinals against a team from Cleveland. It took a pair of tiebreakers, but the Tidewater team won, 3-0 to reach the finals.

By now, Ibuprofin was becoming the invisible team member, especially for Saunders, whose knee problems had kept him out of some of the tournament matches. But after coming so far, literally and figuratively, losing simply wasn’t an option for the local fellows, who defeated a Northern California team 3-0 to climb to the top of the nation.

&uot;We never had an easy match,&uot; Saunders said. &uot;It was all very congenial. There were great sportsmen and sportsmanship at its best. I knew we had a chance, but there were 17 other really great teams.&uot;

When asked if they planned to go for a repeat title next year, both men offered emphatic negatives (it must be noted that a title-winning team is legally allowed to have only three players return for a consecutive year). But their time of the Suffolk tennis courts is far from over; the men still team up on an almost weekly basis in small events.

&uot;The reason that people call tennis a lifetime sport,&uot; Cross said, &uot;is because you can always keep playing.&uot;