McNeil, Lori 1964(?)—
Lori McNeil 1964(?)—
Professional tennis player
Since turning professional in 1983, Lori McNeil is respected as one of the more challenging players on the women’s professional tennis tour. Considered one of tennis’s best serve-and-volley players, McNeil likes to storm the net, where her lightning-fast responses make it difficult to return shots against her. Retired superstar Chris Evert, in an overview of her own tennis career, cited McNeil as one of the most difficult players she ever faced. “McNeil’s reflexes are among the quickest on the tour,” Evert wrote in an article for World Tennis. “It’s also tough to play Lori because you never know what she’s thinking. Lori is one of those hot-and-cold players. She can play erratically, then string together five or six brilliant points and make you wonder what you have to do to win a rally.”
Many felt that McNeil came into her own in 1987 with her upset of the highly-seeded Evert at the U.S. Open, becoming the first black female since Althea Gibson in 1958 to reach the tournament’s semi-finals. McNeil’s stunning defeat of Evert, followed by a narrow three-set loss to top-rated Stefi Graf, brought the then 23-year-old player into the national sports headlines as one of tennis’s newest stars and made her a tournament crowd favorite. Prior to her achievement at the Open, however, McNeil was an established, if relatively unfamiliar, figure on the professional circuit, with over $400,000 in career earnings.
Primarily a doubles player, McNeil made her first serious mark as a singles player when she reached the 1986 quarterfinals at Wimbledon. While her performance at the 1987 U.S. Open may have surprised some, it did not seem to surprise McNeil. “I feel I’m capable of playing with the best,” she was quoted as saying in Jet at the time. “I always felt I had the ability, but now I’m a little closer.” After her performance at the Open, McNeil vaulted to number 11 in the world tennis rankings.
In a profile for the New York Times, Roy S. Johnson described McNeil as a “self-made” success who flourished under the encouragement and understanding of her family. She spent her early years in San Diego, California, where her father, Charlie, played defensive back for the San Diego Chargers football team. At that time, her mother Dorothy used to take breaks from family duties by playing tennis in the courts near their home, and often brought young Lori along with her.
Born c. 1964; daughter of Charlie (a professional football player) and Dorothy (an office manager) McNeil. Education: Attended Oklahoma State University.
Professional tennis player, 1986— reached quarterfinals at Wimbledon, 1986; reached semi-finals at U.S. Open, 1987.
Awards: Big Eight Conference tennis singles champion; named most improved player, World Tennis, 1987; named to the U.S. Wightman Cup Team, 1987.
“Lori was my backboard,” Dorothy McNeil told Johnson. “She could almost always get the ball back to me from the baseline. It was a real help because I could practice and keep an eye on her at the same time.” Lori, Mrs. McNeil continued, was someone who simply “fell in love with the game.” and “spent most of her teen-age years on a tennis court. She missed her prom because of it, but she did make it to graduation. When she went out on her first date in college, I said, “Finally, it’s about time.”
The McNeil family eventually moved to Houston, Texas, and it was there that Lori was introduced by her mother to tennis coach John Wilkerson. Like fellow black professional player and close friend Zina Garrison, McNeil developed under the tutelage of Wilkerson, and practiced on the public tennis courts of MacGregor Park in Houston. At the age of 14, she was inspired by the performance of Pam Shriver, a 16-year-old, who made it all the way to the finals of the U.S. Open. “That was the first time I really focused on it,” she told Johnson. “It gave me the feeling that maybe I could be out there at 16, too.” After high school, McNeil went on to a successful college career at Oklahoma State University, where she was the Big Eight Conference singles champion, and shortly afterwards turned professional.
According to Wilkerson, McNeil’s primary attributes as a professional are her constancy and determination. She possesses a “laid-back” attitude, he told Johnson, “that… will usually come out on top.” After reaching the U.S. Open semi-finals in 1987, McNeil was collected when responding to questions about her achievement. “It’s great to still be undefeated at this point of any tournament,’ she was quoted by Johnson. “But I haven’t arrived or anything. Arrived at what? I’ve only arrived at the semifinals.”
Jet, July 20, 1987; September 28, 1987; November 2, 1987.
New York Times, September 11, 1987.
World Tennis, May 1987; July 1988; April 1990.
—Michael E. Mueller
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