Athletics & Recreation / Current Issue / DU History / Magazine Feature

DU tennis celebrates 100 years

A mid-1960s DU tennis team poses for a portrait. Photo: DU Archives

A century ago, the University competed in four intercollegiate sports — football, basketball, baseball and tennis. Today, while basketball flourishes, football has been scrubbed and baseball sent down to the minors as a club sport. Tennis, meanwhile, enters its second century quietly racking up accolades with forehands, backhands and serves.

In nearly every decade since 1910 — the acknowledged beginning of DU tennis according to the athletics department — DU net stars have notched championships and captured awards. They’ve earned athletic and academic All-America honors, won titles in prestigious state and national events, pioneered and promoted the sport, and been inducted into DU and Colorado halls of fame.

All this in a century in which the sport of tennis struggled against race, gender and opportunity barriers, adjusted to major changes in equipment, rules, dress and comportment, and became internationalized to the point that last season only 25 percent of DU’s varsity tennis players hailed from the United States.

Adam Holmstrom of Sweden, perhaps DU’s top player ever, finished his DU career in 2007 as the 37th best college player in the nation. He earned Division I All-America honors for the first time in school history and dominated the record book for career singles wins (112–23), doubles wins (100–27) and winning percentage (.828).

Holmstrom’s era was a far cry from tennis in its early days, when the game was primarily an elite East-Coast activity played on grass courts in exclusive private clubs and dominated by the Ivy Leagues. At DU, it was a pedestrian pursuit on rough courts donated by The Denver Post. Even so, the University excelled, fielding a strong enough team to capture the Rocky Mountain Conference from 1917 to 1921.

Conference affiliations shifted frequently over the decades, but DU was always at the top of the game, winning titles in the Big 7, Colorado Tennis, Colorado Athletic, Continental Divide and Skyline conferences, the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the Sun Belt Conference, in which DU competes today.

“We had three concrete tennis courts,” recalls Alvie Willis (BSBA ’55, MA ’70), whose legendary 1950s-era team dominated the decade. “No lights, no indoor facilities, white balls, wood racquets. I used Jack Kramer and Davis Tad [racquets] until they quit making them.”

Willis, who continues to win 75-and-older tournaments even today, was DU’s No. 1 in 1954 and ’55. His doubles partner, Clayton Benham, dominated as DU’s No. 1 in 1951 and ’52 and was inducted into the University’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.

Another member of that ’50s team, No. 2 Jack TerBorg, went on to win six major Colorado singles titles. And the team’s No. 5 player, Irwin Hoffman, became a teaching pro and helped develop a junior program that today attracts thousands of Colorado youngsters annually. Both were inducted into the Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame.

Another Colorado hall of famer, Carlene Petersen Chrisman, coached DU’s first women’s team, starting in 1974 and continuing for 10 seasons.

“It was a rough beginning,” she recalls. “The first season we shared warm-up [outfits] with the women’s gymnastics team. They’d take them off and clean them up and we’d wear them.”

The team had money for balls, travel and an occasional meal, but nothing for footwear, racquets or strings. A team mother sewed uniforms, and the weeds on the courts sometimes were so bad that opposing teams refused to play.

“But I got encouragement and support from the University and wonderful students to work with,” she says. “What was special was that women were given the opportunity to compete, and they hadn’t been given that before.”

Under Chrisman, the Pioneers won the Colorado Tennis Conference, the AIAW district title and the Continental Divide Conference. In October, she’ll be inducted into the DU Athletics Hall of Fame.

Today, DU has state-of-the-art outdoor courts at its Stapleton Tennis Pavilion—completed in 1998—and competes on a national level. The women’s team in 2009–10 was ranked as high as 34th in the nation and the men 25th.

The Ivy League’s best men’s team finished 65th.

3 Comments

  1. kenneth miron says:

    Do not gorget the 1959-and 1960 team,2nd best only to utah in the skyline conference.
    With don shirk from california,pepe castenet peru,and gary spitzer –denver. All three played no.1 during those years, they were very -very good. Iam fimiliar with the team ,i should be i played 4years.I. WENT from 2 to 5 thats how good the 3 i mentioned were.

  2. Dear Richard,

    Congratulations on a great article. We didn´t take pictures when I played on the DU team from 1975 to 1977 or I would send them to you for your archives. Gaeton Lion was No.1, Tom Carson No.2 and I played 3 or 4. Gaeton, originally from Switzerland, lives in Northern California. I´ve lost track of Tom, but last time I talked to him in 1988, he was still in Denver. Is there a record of those years in your files?

    Best regards,

    Lee Mays BA 1979

  3. David Hunt DU'62 says:

    Editor- UD Magazine vol 11 no 1.

    I just read and enjoyed the entire issue and especially the article “Advantage DU” by Richard Chapman about the history of tennis at DU. Not to be critical but just to set the record straight and to give recognition where due to a great DU tennis legend of the early 1960s, Pepe Castagnet, DU class of 62.
    Please read the following which is from http://rockvilleracquet.net/pros.html
    Sincerely
    David Hunt DU BA’62

    PEPE (JOSEPH MICHEL) CASTAGNET – Pepe is well known throughout Long Island as a result of his distinguished thirty year career as a tennis professional. He began his teaching career at Port Washington Tennis Academy under the direction of Harry Hoppman, former coach of the Australian Davis Cup team whose students included such tennis greats as John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, Peter Fleming, Peter Rennert and Mary Carillo. Pepe excelled as a junior player and as a college player for the University of Denver. His recognitions include representing Peru in International Junior and men’s singles and doubles competition. He was the Peruvian Junior National Champion for ages 10 through 18, the Peruvian Double’s Men’s National Champion and represented Peru in the Pan American games. Pepe has also been a U.S. Open qualifier. He played first singles and first doubles for the University of Denver where he was winner of the Midwest Singles Conference Championship. Pepe graduated Denver with a BA in Business Administration. Pepe has served as Tennis Director at Middle Bay Country Club and served at Seawane Country Club. He was instrumental in starting ETA sanctioned tournaments for twenty five and under players on Long Island. Pepe procured sponsors for and organized the Island Cup Tournament, a tournament for the best USTA level 5.0 or above player at each country club on Long Island.

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