When Julie Ditty Qualls, BS’02, was a senior on the women’s tennis team, Vanderbilt advanced to the NCAA Division I championship match for the first time in the program’s history only to lose to Stanford University.
Fourteen years later, Vanderbilt, which the two-time All-American helped establish as a women’s tennis power, broke through and captured its first national title with a victory over UCLA in Waco, Texas. That was the same day in 2015, Qualls recalls, that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few weeks later, former women’s tennis head coach Geoff Macdonald drove the national championship trophy to Louisville, Kentucky, where she was in the hospital.
“He came busting through the door with the trophy into my room just before I went back for surgery,” she says. “We got a picture. It was a really, really cool thing.”
It also wasn’t the last trophy she would share with her Vanderbilt tennis family.
Vandy Voodoos, a team that included three former Commodore student-athletes, swept through the Open Division of the 2020 World TeamTennis National Tournament last fall to claim the championship at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Vandy Voodoos was not only the best among the field, but it was also “by far the oldest,” says former All-American Chris Groer, BA’96, who joined Qualls and fellow women’s tennis player Spencer Shelfer Moorman, BS’96, on the seven-member championship team.
“On the last day, Julie and I were playing mixed doubles against a team, and the sum of their ages was probably less than either one of our ages,” Groer says with a laugh.
World TeamTennis, which was founded by Billie Jean King and others in 1974 to promote equity and inclusivity in the sport, is a league featuring mixed-gender teams. In 2020, as participation in tournaments declined amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the league put out the word that it was looking for teams to join its Open Division. Moorman, who works in pediatric oncology in Louisville, quickly got in touch with Groer, Qualls and others she knows from the tennis world to assemble a group.
Qualls was the only member of Vandy Voodoos who had played professionally in World TeamTennis. She spent time with the New York Buzz, Boston Lobsters and Newport Beach Breakers during her 10-year career, counting the likes of Maria Sharapova as a teammate along the way. She retired from professional tennis in 2012 and moved back to her hometown of Ashland, Kentucky, where she lives with her husband and 10-year-old son.
“I ended up doing the best at the end of my career,” says Qualls, who now teaches tennis. “I got into really good shape and ended up being top 100 in the world, playing in World TeamTennis tournaments. I got to play in all of the grand slams. It was an unbelievable experience.”
Groer, who arrived at Vanderbilt as a walk-on but ended up being elected to the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame, teamed with Qualls for the championship-winning match.
“It was a lot of fun playing with Julie,” says Groer, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, and works for a large-scale scheduling and optimization business. “We have known each other for many years but never had a chance to play with each other. We won all of our matches.”
Next year, the group hopes to repeat its dominating run to the championship. “They’d better do it again!” jokes Moorman, the team captain. “When we finished, we already started talking about where next year’s tourney would be because it was so much fun. More than the added bonus of winning the title, this was a rare chance to reconnect with friends who had gone their own ways and places, with tennis being the connective thread that brought us back together. The chance to turn back the clock a bit while competing under the Vandy name again was something we fortysomethings can really savor.”
And if you’re wondering how a bunch of Commodores ended up with that team name? “I think I can take credit for that one,” Groer says. “The tournament was during Halloween.”
—MITCH LIGHT, BA’93