Harrison: the ‘pied piper’ of Richmond Tennis

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Harrison: the ‘pied piper’ of Richmond Tennis

Whenever Sarah Townsend Harrison took the court, she invariably wore a gold necklace or a set of pearls plus a sweater. It didn’t matter how warm it was, she always had that sweater on as something of an intimidating factor against her opponents.

Not that she needed much help from outside forces. From the time she was 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. On the front, on the back, everywhere. I don’t care if it was 400 degrees, she wouldn’t take it off.

“And she always had those pearls around her neck that had a crab clasp on it. That was because of her Urbanna roots and she loved that. She always wore the same perfume, too. 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 an amazing five times. She also captured back-to-back state singles crowns in 1965-66 before settling into married life after being runner-up in the city tournament in 1971.

For all of those accomplishments – which included 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 teen-agers did not get to play in the city tournament, Harrison not only played but 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 before they separated. “Just by practicing. The way we all got along. She was strong. She was quick.”

In addition to her tennis prowess, Sarah Harrison was an All-State field hockey player at St. Catherine’s School and is in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. She also contributed her considerable talents to the basketball team there.

In 1959, Sarah was again the runner-up to Tevepaugh in the city final but her day would soon come in the tournament.

“She was a fierce competitor and a good person to play against,” said Tevepaugh (now Macaulay). ‘We always had good matches. I had a pretty good forehand and a weaker backhand. I sort of had a slicing backhand [that she used to good effect].”

Harrison won the first of four city singles championships in 1962 with a hard-fought victory over Macaulay. The two got together again in the final in 1964, with Harrison coming away with another victory on the clay at CCV.

“There was one thing that happened one time in a match,” said Macaulay, laughing. “I hit the ball and it actually went out, but because it hit her skirt, I got the point. She was pretty irritated. She felt like it should have been her point.

“I remember that our matches were difficult because Sarah was such a good player and was so strong, and she had that huge forehand. I remember [the matches] dragging out for quite a long time. One of them had a rain delay and I went home because I lived so close.

“Somebody had sent me flowers and I hadn’t even won the match yet.”

Harrison made it back-to-back titles by beating a member of the older generation, Betty Gustafson, in the 1965 final. The redhead made it a double by defeating Brenda Draper of Suffolk in the state final later that summer at the old 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 at the expense of Marietta McCarty.

Her last hurrah came in the 1971 final, where she lost to Lindsay Burn (now Wortham).

“I remember that it was really hard to beat her,” said Wortham. “It’s never any fun playing 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.”

Looking back over her career, it’s a wonder that Harrison didn’t win more city titles, since she was in nine finals.

“I don’t think Sarah worked particularly hard as a kid, and up through the ranks, to be a really great player,” said Bitsy Harrison. “I don’t think she ever had in mind that she wanted to be a great player. If she had, I think she would have been better.

“I don’t think she had the ambition and drive to be a great tennis player. I think that probably held her back from winning more. She was more interested in other things. Horticulture, antiques and art. Things like that.”

According to Bitsy Harrison, “She was a very good horticulturist. Tremendous flower arranger. She won numerous blue ribbons for best arrangements and so forth. She loved it. I think she got a lot of that from her mother, who was also a great horticulturist.”

 Harrison passed away in 2011 at the age of 68 from a heart-related illness. But the memories of her on a tennis court haven’t faded from the minds of some who played against her. One of them is Wortham.

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

“There wasn’t anything dainty about Sarah. She was big and strong, and she pulled her red hair into pigtails on both sides when she played.

“Sarah really was one of a kind. You know how they say a lot of times they threw that mold away. Well, they threw that mold [Harrison’s] away.”