Harrison: the ‘pied piper’ of Richmond Tennis

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Harrison: the ‘pied piper’ of Richmond Tennis


RICHMOND–Whenever Sarah Townsend Harrison took the court, she wore a gold necklace or a set of pearls and a sweater.

It didn’t matter how warm it was, she always had the sweater on to intimidate her opponents. 

In her early teens, Harrison used a powerful forehand to bash her way to the finals of the city tournament in singles and doubles at the Country Club of Virginia.

“She had her little idiosyncrasies,” said Lindsay Wortham, a childhood friend, and three-time city champion.  

“I remember after she married Bitsy [Harrison], Mrs. Harrison, Bitsy’s mother, made her a sweater and it had SH all over it. I don’t care if it was 400 degrees, she wouldn’t take it off.

“Then, we’d all climb in her car and go to the Clover Room for a hot nut fudge sundae or banana split. She was like the pied piper, and we’d all climb into that maroon Malibu of hers.”

Harrison enjoyed herself on and off the court, winding up with four city singles championships and finishing second on five occasions.

She also captured back-to-back state singles crowns in 1965-66.

For all of those accomplishments, which include a number of city doubles titles and one state crown, Harrison will be inducted posthumously into the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame during a gala dinner and celebration Oct. 28 at the Westwood Club. For tickets, go to www.richmondtennis.org.

In an era when most teenagers did not get to play in the city tournament, Harrison reached the women’s singles final in 1957 as a precocious 14-year-old before losing to Frances White.

The following year, she lost to Amanda Tevepaugh in the final but won the doubles with Katherine Harrison, Bitsy’s mother.

“Sarah was a really great athlete, and she decided she wanted to be a good tennis player, and she became one,” said Bitsy Harrison, who was married to Sarah for 15 years.

In addition to her tennis prowess, Sarah Harrison was an All-State field hockey player at St. Catherine’s School. She is in their Athletic Hall of Fame.

In 1959, Sarah was again the runner-up to Tevepaugh in the city final.

“She was a fierce competitor and a good person to play against,” said Tevepaugh. ‘We always had good matches.”

Harrison won the first of four city singles championships in 1962 with a hard-fought victory over Tevepaugh, now Macaulay.

The two faced each other again in the 1964 final, with Harrison coming away with another victory on the clay at CCV.

Harrison made it back-to-back titles by beating Betty Gustafson in the 1965 final. Harrison defeated Brenda Draper of Suffolk in the state final later that summer at Hermitage Country Club.

She was runner-up to Lee Price in the city the following year but won the state crown over Susan Allan of Charlottesville 6-1, 6-0 that summer.

Harrison claimed her final city title in 1968.

Her last hurrah came in the 1971 final. She lost to Lindsay Burn, now Wortham.

“I remember that it was really hard to beat her,” said Wortham. “It’s never any fun to play somebody that you really care about or somebody that you admire or look up to, and that was certainly the case with Sarah.

“She was like on a pedestal to me. She was like my hero. I wanted to be like Sarah.”

Harrison passed away in 2011 at the age of 68 from a heart-related illness.

But Harrison hasn’t faded from the minds of her competitors, including Wortham.

“Her strength was always that unbelievable, blitzing, flat forehand,” recalled Wortham, a member of the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame. “She would hit it a million miles an hour. That forehand was her bread and butter.

“Sarah really was one of a kind,” said Wortham.

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