Harrison made Thalhimer Cup his own

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Harrison made Thalhimer Cup his own

Back in the day, the Thalhimer Invitational was regarded as one of the top tennis tournaments in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Many of the best players in Richmond, as well as those from around the state and the Maryland-D.C. area, descended on Byrd Park for a week of intense competition that delighted the large galleries who showed up to watch.

The winner had his name etched on a gleaming silver bowl, named for William B. Thalhimer, and got to keep it for a year.

The tournament had been started in the 1940s by the legendary Sam Woods, and many of his Byrd Park proteges – Gene Wash, Del Sylvia, Bobby Payne and Bobby Bortner – won the event at least once during its successful run.

“I remember, when I was growing up, that some of the great players would come to town and play in it,” said Fred Bruner, a member of the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame. “The Goeltz brothers, Ron Goldman. Some of the very best people from Maryland.

“It was really amazing to have that level of tennis coming here to town to play.”

It was initially known as the Cavalier Invitational and drew nationally ranked players from across the eastern U.S., according to information supplied in a chapter of “Richmond: One of America’s Best Tennis Towns.”

“It was a little before my time [when it started] but I was told that Sam Woods wanted to get good players in here to play against his team,” said Lou Einwick, who recalled going to Byrd Park to watch the matches in the early 1960s.

“They had pretty big crowds out there,” said Einwick. “It was pretty tough tennis and everything. You really had some competition.”

Among the two-time winners were Phil Neff of Washington, D.C., Sidney Schwartz of New York and Sylvia.

And then there was John W. “Bitsy” Harrison, who never lost a match in the Thalhimer Invitational.

Harrison, the former city and state champion, was playing on the national circuit in those days and was ranked as high as 18th in the country. His big serve and powerful ground strokes carried him to wins over some of the best players around.

The deal was if you won the tournament three times in a row, you got to keep the trophy. So whenever someone managed to win back-to-back titles, the organizers would bring in a “ringer,” or someone from outside the city who would dominate the field.

“They would bring in this ringer if you won it twice because they didn’t want it retired,” said Harrison. “They brought the guys from the Canadian Davis Cup team down one time when somebody got close. Norm Perry, a real good nationally ranked player from California, they brought him here.”

So when Harrison won consecutive crowns in 1964-65, the tournament summoned Perry to try and end Harrison’s win streak. But somebody knocked off Perry before he got to Harrison in the draw, and the Richmonder collected his third straight title by beating O.H. Parrish in the final.

“I was delighted to win it, I tell you,” said Harrison. “I came in off the circuit to play in that tournament because I really wanted to win it.”

The victory allowed Harrison to take the trophy home – and this time he didn’t have to return it.

“I’ve got it sitting here in my living room now,” said Harrison, who makes his home in Deltaville, which is located on the eastern tip of Middlesex County some 70 miles east of Richmond. “I think it’s probably one of the nicest trophies in the state of Virginia.”

Parrish, who was also a city and state champion, agreed that the Thalhimer Invitational was quite an event.

“I would compare it to the Carolina-Virginia tournament at the Country Club of Virginia,” he said. “That was a real good tournament and had a good field. This [Thalhimer] was as good as that, back in that day.”

Harrison had grown up on clay courts at CCV but the hard courts at Byrd Park were perfect for his game.

“I loved the number one court down there,” he said. “It was fast as lightning … really suited my game. It wasn’t that big a difference in terms of who you might beat. I didn’t feel it was any tremendous advantage to me but I loved it.”

Parrish can attest to Harrison’s proficiency on Byrd Park’s show court.

“He beat me pretty good,” recalled Parrish. “He served and volleyed me right into the ground.”

After Harrison retired the trophy, the tournament ceased to exist in its current form.  When the city tournament moved from CCV to Byrd Park in 1967, Thalhimer took over sponsorship of that event, which was limited to those living in the Richmond area.

Harrison said he spoke with Charlie Thalhimer several times about giving up his trophy if the Thalhimer family would agree to sponsor a junior tournament for the best 18-year-olds in the region but nothing ever materialized.

Nothing similar to the Thalhimer Invitational has ever been held in Richmond before or since.

“It was a good tournament,” said Harrison. “The best tournament, in terms of the quality of the fields, that I know of, that Richmond had.”