Dick Stockton’s mother knew that photo would be meaningful one day.
More than 50 years later, it sits prominently on a side table just inside the door to his Wellington home. He’s 7, standing next to his father with a racket almost as big as he is, wearing a white polo, white shorts, white canvas sneakers, and even his white-blond hair seems a gesture of respect for the sport that would always be a part of his life.
The earliest newspaper photo of Stockton after winning a tennis tournament is a talisman. He keeps it in a place of honor, next to pictures of his own sons playing baseball.
Even at 62, after a long playing career that included a collegiate national championship, trips to Wimbledon and French Open semifinals and a top-10 ranking, Stockton still makes a career out of the sport that took him all over the world.
“I just stayed in my tennis clothes,” he said.
And tennis always seems to guide his path.
In that original photo, Newsday had sent a writer and photographer to write about the Long Island boy who’d beaten players nearly twice his age at a major tournament and practiced regularly at the nearby Mitchell Field, the former Air Force base.
“That was the only time in my life I’d ever been on a military base,” he said.
It has come full circle. Stockton is now planning charity events through a newly formed foundation to take tennis to veterans on military bases, one he’s dubbed T3: Thanking our Troops through Tennis.
“The rest of us civilians, we have no idea. They live in a different world than we do,” he said.
It is the next incarnation of a passion that began as sibling rivalry.
A teen prodigy
Dorothy Stockton was just trying to keep her three boys busy.
Her husband, a traveling salesman, liked to play tennis to stay in shape, and he suggested she take the boys to lessons while he was out of town.
So nearly every day, she would take the older two to the local club and brought along, Dick, who was 6.
While the older children practiced with a coach, she bounced balls to Dick and taught him the swings she learned from the coaches. When she had two daughters and another son, they came along, as well. All six children would learn to play tennis at their mother’s knee.
“She could have taught the game to anybody by that point, even though she never played,” Stockton said.
Soon, it was clear her children had talent. Steve, then 11, and, Dick, 7, started playing in tournaments around the northeast. She drove them when she could.
Steve and Dick eventually started taking Greyhounds all over the country. Once, when Steve was 15 and Dick 10, they took a 24-hour bus ride to St. Louis for a national tournament.
“No iPods, no video games, no nothin’,” he said.
They took more buses to Boston, Pittsburgh, Chattanooga, trips Stockton’s not sure he would let his own sons make alone.
“Not in today’s world,” Stockton said.
When the family moved to San Francisco for a year, Dick continued to travel for tennis. At 15, he flew to Pittsburgh and back, making several stops at unfamiliar airports along the way.
“Those were great times,” said Steve Stockton, who played on scholarship at the University of Oklahoma. He winters in Stuart and still plays at least once a week with his younger brother. “It took up a lot of time. It was almost all-consuming. Not much time left to get into trouble.”
By then, Dick was a star in the insular tennis world of the late 1960s. He won a then-record 20 junior championships and accepted a scholarship to Trinity College, the most prestigious tennis program in the country.
In 1968, the “open era” of tennis allowed amateurs to compete against professionals and make a career of the sport. Dick became a regular on the circuit and in the U.S. Open, playing in front of crowds that remembered him as a boy.
The woman who would become his wife decades later, Liz, was a ball girl for one of Stockton’s matches at the Open. She and her father, a teaching tennis pro at a posh club in Bronxville, N.Y., remembered him as “little Dickie Stockton.”
He was 25 when he defeated Jimmy Connors — a friend and rival during their junior tennis days — in five epic sets at the U.S. Indoor Championship in Philadelphia in 1977, one of three times he defeated Connors in the 12 times they met in their career.
“I’m not used to this position,” he was quoted as saying in Sports Illustrated in 1977 while accepting the tournament trophy. “But I’ve never played better for five days in my life.”
He had his most successful years between 1974 and 1977, when he reached No. 8 in the world. He made the semis at Wimbledon and Roland Garros. He was chosen to play Davis Cup five times and helped the team to a world championship in 1979 before he retired in 1986.
And because of the tennis boom, he continued playing on several “seniors” tours, a dubious name since he was 35 when he retired. His old friend Connors asked him to be part of the seniors circuit and played all over the country.
It beat selling real estate in Texas, as he had done shortly after playing. And it beat working on Wall Street, where many former tennis players made their post-playing careers with their upper-crust connections.
He was on tour with Connors in New York when he met the ball girl from the U.S. Open. They had both been married and divorced. She, who had played at Fordham and gone on to work on Wall Street, taking the 6 a.m. train into the city, quit the rat race to go back to teaching tennis at a club — where the tour made a stop.
They’ve been married for nearly 18 years.
Life after pro tennis
Dick always found new avenues in tennis. He coached at the University of Virginia for three years. Then, he moved to Florida 12 years ago to be near his ailing late mother and started designing tennis courts for a builder who focused on 55-and-over communities until it went out of business amid the boom-bust.
Throughout, for the past 40 years, he has participated in a fantasy camp in San Antonio, where tennis fans pay to play alongside retired stars for a week. It was a way to remain rooted in the tennis fraternity and share the sport with people who loved the sport.
But he was still looking for his next big challenge — though being laid off was not what he had in mind as a catalyst.
He was the teaching tennis pro at the Ritz-Carlton in Jupiter until Donald Trump bought it and laid him off last December.
Then he heard about former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner bringing football to wounded veterans and thought, Why not bring them tennis?
Liz, who teaches at Wellington Tennis Center and coaches at Wellington Christian High School and whose entire family plays tennis, has a brother who is a colonel at Fort Bragg, Texas, and Dick called him with the idea.
He called his fellow retired tennis players from the fantasy camp and soon conceived of T3, bringing tennis directly to military bases across the country. Friends and former players donated money so he could put on two clinics as a sort of test run for his program.
The base advertised the event for a month. Dick and Liz packed up portable tennis nets, balls and rackets into a U-Haul trailer, hitched it to their older Ford Escape and pulled it all to Texas.
More than 175 people showed up. Stockton and the other tennis pros spent the day communing with soldiers and their families, who thanked them for giving them a day to think about something other than the continuing war overseas — and their loved ones who are fighting there.
“It blew us away,” Stockton said, tears still filling his eyes at the memory.
Moreover, Stockton coordinated with the USTA, who would follow up in the coming months to continue teaching the kids and adults who were interested, right on the base.
“I didn’t want them to have to go anywhere,” Stockton said.
The first one was a success. So Stockton kept pressing. He cold-called the public affairs officer at Joint Base Andrews and before he knew it, the base fitness director was helping him set up another tournament.
He and Liz took off on a three-day drive to Maryland. (On the way he hit Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., and told them he’d be back to put on a clinic in 2014.)
But the government shutdown in October threatened the event. As little as two days before, they didn’t know whether the base would be open, since many non-essential operations had been put on hold. Plus, they had only been promoting the event for two weeks.
More than 150 people showed up.
The base’s wing commander gave the opening remarks in his dress blues and came back later with his wife, in shorts and sneakers, and played until the event ended at 4:30 that afternoon with players such as Stan Smith and Gigi Fernandez.
Military officials enjoyed Stockton’s approach to the camp.
“When he’s on the court, he’s a court jester. He really hams it up,” said Suba Saty, the base’s fitness and sports director. “I grew up watching guys like him and Stan Smith, so for me, it was a real thrill.”
Stockton continues to spread the word. On the way to his annual fantasy camp in San Antonio, he routed his itinerary to hit up Fort Bliss in El Paso and Fort Sam Houston. Of course, both have said yes.
“We’ve not hit a single stumbling block along the way,” he said.
Big names such as Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Stan Smith, lent their names to the project as Stockton looks for corporate sponsors for the event. He hopes to put on five next year and 10 in 2015.
“This is the most exciting thing I’ve done since I retired from my tennis career,” he said.
Then again, Dick Stockton has never stepped away from tennis. It remains an integral part of his life. And he’s got the pictures to prove it.
OUR PERSONAL JOURNEYS TEAM
Carlos Frías is a features writer and occasional columnist for The Palm Beach Post. He’s a father, runner, author and recovering sportswriter who remains a voting member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He joined the Post in 2004 from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he covered the Atlanta Braves. His memoir, “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba,” (Simon and Schuster, 2009) was based on the five-day Post series, “Mi Familia,” for which he was named the Cox Writer of the Year in 2006.
Jennifer Podis studied journalism and photography, earning a bachelor’s degree from University of Michigan and a master’s from Syracuse University. She has had many roles during her 16 years at The Palm Beach Post — photographer, print and online photo editor, and video editor. While she has covered a wide range of subjects, her favorite place to be is away from the concrete and chaos of the city, photographing any form of nature, both terrestrial and marine.