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Four decades ago, Terry Holladay was the WTA's pioneering mom
After giving birth in 1982, Holladay successfully petitioned the tour to return the following year without a ranking—an early application of what is now the protected ranking rule.
Published Sep 21, 2023
NEW YORK—Terry Holladay was nervous as a cat during her first-round match against Amy Holton at the 1984 US Open. Time and again, she hit her shots interspersed with sharp glances at the bleachers where she had planted her toddler daughter, Natasha. With Holladay’s husband nowhere in sight, she did her best to play on.
Finally, Holladay recently told me, a lady came clattering down the bleacher stairs on a changeover and, in so many words, the stranger offered to watch the little girl so that her mother could focus on tennis. Holladay gratefully accepted the offer and went on to win. But by the end of the day, a furious argument with her husband over his absence also spelled the end of their marriage.
“It was just so stressful,” Holladay said. “Tennis was very different then. I wasn’t rich. I was counting pennies while trying to put my husband through college. There was no support system at all, no such thing as child-care on site.”
If the tour is more mother-friendly these days, it’s partly due to the pioneer Holladay. Unlike playing moms Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong, Holladay (a mid-level player whose ranking peaked at No. 39) didn’t have the resources to glide back onto the tour after giving birth to her daughter in November 1982. So, in the summer of 1983, Holladay petitioned the WTA to allow her to return to the tour despite no longer having a ranking.
In an early application of what would evolve into the WTA and ATP’s popular “protected ranking” provision, the WTA decided that women who returned to the tour within a year of delivering a child would be allowed to bypass qualifying and enter the main draw at six tournaments. The media and tennis officials immediately dubbed it ‘The Terry Holladay Rule.”
Holladay did not really think of herself as a pioneer, or mull over how much she would be helping women in future years. If anything, she saw herself as something of an outlaw, as befits a blood relative of the legendary gunslinger and gambler of the Old West, Doc Holliday (family members later changed the spelling of the name due to Doc’s notoriety). Holladay attributes her “eye-hand coordination and hot temper” to her famous antecedent.
Holladay was an athletically gifted but rebellious youth, the product of a dysfunctional family. Her father John had a passion for tennis and Terry took to the game, but she said she did so more as an “escape.” After having five children, her mother Mary Ellen began to drink heavily and struggled with suicidal tendencies. Eventually, John abandoned the family. Holladay loved her mother fiercely, so she was doubly devastated upon being told, at age 20 in 1975, that she herself could not have children.
But when Holladay, already deep into her career, learned that she had gotten pregnant in early 1982, she was ecstatic. Her daughter Natasha—Tasha—was born in November.
The news came at a propitious time.
After losing a close fourth-round match to Martina Navratilova on Centre Court at Wimbledon in 1977, she found herself mired in a slump exacerbated by her own susceptibility to depression.
“All that changed with Tasha,” Holladay said. “When I had her I felt like I was just born myself. Like I was in Disneyland, loving life.
“I believe that she saved my life.”
Tennis was very different then. I wasn’t rich. I was counting pennies while trying to put my husband through college. There was no support system at all, no such thing as child-care on site. Terry Holladay
Holladay suddenly was better prepared to face the world with vigor and determination. With a baby girl and a husband who could not contribute to the household’s needs, Holladay had no recourse but to return to the tour. In August 1983, Holladay won two rounds in singles at the US Open despite still carrying extra weight and nursing.
“My breasts were heavy,” she said. “I should not have been wearing those [form-fitting] Fila shirts.”
Over time, Holladay began to resent that her husband was not really involved with his family. She felt she was being used as just a “stepping stone, a meal ticket.” It all came to head at the aforementioned 1984 US Open. Soon, Holladay and Natasha were entirely on their own.
Holladay saved money where she could, staying with local, volunteer families instead of tournament hotels, eating the free food on-site instead of going out to restaurants. Daily life became a sometimes frantic hunt for help with Tasha. Some players, including Paula Smith and Alicia Moulton, helped immensely—when they could—with child care. Steffi Graf did not babysit, but she played with Natasha in the locker room.
“I was pretty much begging the other players to help,” Holladay said. If I couldn’t find anyone, I would tell her, Tasha, I have to go to work. I have to go play tennis.
“You cannot move from here, okay?’”
Natasha did as she was told despite her age, as if she understood why it had to be that way. Holladay continued to travel with her until she reached kindergarten age, at which time a different game of juggling began, involving aunts and close friends in California, including the mother of Taylor Fritz, Kathy May—“Aunt Kathy” to Natasha.
Natasha, now 40 with a husband and three children of her own, told me she has only fleeting memories from her days on the tennis tour. She remembers looking out an airplane window, fascinated at how the cars below got smaller. She has mental snapshots of certain random people, including Rosie Casals, Lindsay Davenport, the comedian Jon Lovitz. Her happiest memory, Natasha told me, was pushing the ball sweeper around the court, picking up the practice balls.
Natasha eventually played tennis, but the game didn’t suit her temperament. She was a disappointment to her tennis coach at Torrey Pines High School.
“Mom is the one with the Doc Holliday gene,” Natasha told me. “I have a much different temperament. She is very competitive. She likes to win. She loves to gamble. She loves anything that can be a competition, which is very intense.
“I’m different, I tend to buckle under in those situations. I don’t rise to the occasion in that regard. I was really a quiet kid. The introspective, artistic kind.”
From the time Natasha (the first of her three biological children) was born, Terry was skimping and saving, investing what money she earned in property—some of it choice land on the California coast. After earning a degree in marketing at San Diego State University, Tasha joined Terry in their own boutique real estate agency, Homes by the Holladays.
The two remain very close. It may sound like the Holladays have struck roots. In many ways they have, Terry enjoying the stable life she was denied in her youth, her struggles as a single mom on the tennis tour over.
But the women—the trailblazing player and the daughter who had endured so many uncertainties together—haven’t gotten life on the road entirely out of their system just yet. They now enjoy traveling and camping together as a large family, Terry leading the way in her RV.