By James Maimonis, Communications And Engagement Coordinator (USTA)
AMHERST, MA- Legendary UMass tennis coach Judy Dixon has officially retired after 25 seasons at the helm, marking the end to her heralded coaching career. Her passion for the game combines playing, coaching, educating and supporting her players, and that's precisely what she will continue to do throughout the next chapter of her life.
Dixon has long been an influential figure both on and off the court. Although she competed at the US Open and Wimbledon as a professional, she is more widely recognized for being a pioneer in the sports world, fighting for equality and standing up for what she believes.
While coaching at Yale, Dixon became the first person to file a lawsuit against a university under Title IX. She did so to demand better conditions for women athletes and women staff in the Yale athletics department. She also broke through and became the first female color commentator for a professional sports team, a role in which she was nominated for an Emmy Award.
Most recently, she has served as a “second mom,” a role model and a support system to hundreds of men and women who walked through the Mullins Courts at UMass Amherst. She coached the women's tennis team from 1993-2017 and the men's team from 1993-2001, before the program was cut. Although some would describe her coaching style as “tough,” she has always had her players' best interests in mind. And for that, she is well liked and respected by the entire tennis community.
“Being a freshman wasn't easy, and Judy was my second mom when I came to UMass. She took care of me like my mom would, and she taught me how a team looks and how being on the team feels,” said Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year from Zemun, Serbia, Janja Kovacevic.
In her tenure at UMass, Dixon set coaching records, compiling more wins than anyone in school history (316). She took home six A-10 Coach of the Year honors, and this year, won the Wilson/ITA Northeast Women's Tennis Coach of the Year.
Like any coach, wins and losses are significant, but to Dixon, they've been a secondary piece to her ultimate goal of shaping young athletes into better humans. Her teams have historically been some of the most diverse in the country, and she has focused on seeking out true “student-athletes.”
“I've always wanted to have a quality program and have the ability to work with entire player, from tennis to the academic and social sides.” Dixon said. “I've tried to provide a form for kids to succeed, and I've been able to give them a place where they were first in their family to get degree or given them the opportunity to go to college that they wouldn't have had otherwise without tennis. That's how I've recruited.”
“Judy has really helped make me a better person,” said Chanel Glasper (Class of 2015). “I went through a rough patch so I started spending more time with her, and as captain, she really helped me understand what it means to be a leader. She taught me to be a strong woman, to be compassionate towards others and to put others ahead of myself. Sometimes you take that stuff for granted when you're on the team and are used to people fighting for you, but it's definitely helped me and I really appreciate what she did for me.”
Dixon announced her retirement at the beginning of the 2016-17 season so “people would be sure of it.” She didn't want a farewell tour and didn't want the speculation to distract her players throughout the season.
And as a reward, she got the best possible farewell tour she could've imagined—her second career A-10 title and trip to the NCAA Tournament, A-10 Coach of the Year, Wilson/ITA Northeast Women's Tennis Coach of the Year, and arguably her most memorable season as a coach.
“This season has to be the highlight,” Dixon said. There were so many great times and wonderful moments, and just the way it turned out had a surreal quality to it.”
Before the season, Dixon set out to coach with the goal of winning the conference championship, and her players bought in. Although their chances looked bleak after starting 5-6, no one gave up hope and both Dixon and her players believed in themselves.
The team went 7-1 in mid-March and April, including three straight victories in A-10 tournament play to capture Dixon's second conference title.
“They played so well from March on and throughout the entire tournament. There were no standouts, and it was a team win all the way and no one got overwhelmed by the moment,” Dixon said. “It felt like such a gift the way they played. I think that was their gift to me to compete like that."
“I can't express how much it meant for us to win the A-10 in Judy's retirement year. We didn't want to put that pressure on ourselves knowing it was her last chance and the seniors' last chance, however, after our disappointing loss last year, we came back with so much fire and passion to do better this year that it really drove us to do so well,” said 2016-17 Captain Anna Woosley. “For the team and for Judy it was a fairytale ending. We were so happy we could do it for her and for everyone that came before us. It was an amazing way to finish her career.”
In celebration of the tournament win, Dixon followed the old cliché and took her entire team to Disney World. Just a short week later, the team would be travel back to the Sunshine State to face the No. 1 overall seed Florida Gators in the first round of the tournament.
For Dixon, winning the A-10 conference and reaching the NCAA Tournament was already a dream come true, and the clash with Florida was the icing on the cake. Although UMass fell short, the Florida head coach spoke highly of Dixon and her team after the defeat.
“I have to say that UMass Coach Judy Dixon has done an unbelievable job with this UMass team. This was probably the best first-round team we've played in my 16 years here at Florida,” said Florida Head Coach Roland Thornqvist in a statement.
“Judy has been a beacon of stability and has created a model program and a program that I think other teams at UMass can look to as a role model,” Glasper said. “When people came to matches, they'd always say how supportive we are and how she was able to recruit quality women. And now after college, we're all successful and doing well.”
For those still on the team, just like Dixon, it will be time to move on. It won't be easy or fun for anyone, but with the team bonds and support system Dixon created year after year, it will be something they will achieve as a unit.
“It is for sure not going to be the same. There is no way anyone can replace Judy and her dedication to the team, the emphasis she puts on the importance of being a team, her focus on the game and not the score and her experience,” Kovacevic said. “I am a little scared, but one thing you learn when you spend some time on Judy's team, is that we all will be going through the same things and we will fight through everything together."
As difficult as the decision was for Dixon to step down, she knows there are other ventures she wants to take on. With the demands of a Division I schedule and recruiting dictating her life for so many years, it was nearly impossible to play competitively herself and to teach tennis to kids on a regular basis.
At 67 years old, Dixon is planning on testing herself at the senior level with the goal of reaching top 5 nationally and earning a spot on senior cup teams by the time she turns 70.
When she's not competing, she will be greatly involved in the recently founded National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapter, Movin' on up with Tennis and Education, based in Springfield, MA. The goal of the NJTL is to provide new and beginner players in underprivileged areas the opportunity to play and learn tennis.
“It's always been a dream of mine to provide tennis to people who haven't played before,” said Dixon, who was approached in the early stages to serve on the Board of Directors. “I want to provide my expertise in working with these kids, not just teaching them just tennis, but giving them an opportunity where they can feel more confident in themselves.”
Dixon has years of experience working with kids of all ages at her summer camps. She's worked with troubled kids and kids with disabilities, but she feels being able to give someone their true first tennis experience is something she will cherish.
“Tennis will give these kids an opportunity to feel good about themselves, work with others and in large groups, and that's really the most exciting thing for me to see,” Dixon said.
Dixon's spirit, records and legacy will forever be engrained in UMass athletics, and her life's work has led her now to a place of true passion.
Dixon's final goal in retirement is to write a book detailing her life.
“Whenever I get to know someone, they tell me I have so many stories and need to write a book,” she said. “I guess I've had an interesting and diverse life, and even if it never gets published, I'll have it as a document for my family and something for my grandkids to see.