Mary Ellis Nicholson Richardson came along as a women’s tennis player and coach in the early days of Title IX, but she was already quite experienced at trying to compete on equal footing with the men.
The reason was that she had two older brothers, Edward and Herb Nicholson, and a younger brother, Jim, who knew how to bring out her competitive spirit in sports.
“It was my brothers who really taught me the mental toughness as only brothers can toughen up a sister,” she recently recalled with a laugh.
This toughness and drive that carried her to a successful playing career at West High School and Furman University and later as coach at Tennessee will be recognized when she is inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday.
Richardson admitted to being humbled over her induction.
“I spent all of my life here, and to be recognized by this community, I’m so honored,” she said. “There have been so many good athletes as well as other tennis players who have been inducted. I feel so privileged.”
Richardson, who will be recognized with the nine other inductees at Knoxville Convention Center, was introduced to the sport of tennis through her mother, Margaret Anne Nicholson. When Richardson was young, her mother, who learned to play at summer camps as a child, would take her with her to tennis outings at Knoxville Racquet Club.
“When she would play, I would take the ball and racquet and hit off the fence,” Richardson said. “I must have driven her crazy while she was trying to play.”
A few years later, she formally attempted to play the sport. But still not fully understanding it, she hit a ball over the fence, thinking that was the object of the game. Her brothers, of course, quickly corrected her.
“I remember saying to my brothers, ‘I hit a home run,’ and they said, ‘No, this is tennis,’ ”
However, she would soon begin clearing tennis barriers in good ways. And she worked plenty hard to get there, but not often in the most conventional ways.
Her father, Larry Nicholson, was a builder and constructed a cinder block wall at their Sequoyah Hills home for her to hit balls against. She often walked over to the adjacent Whitlow Park and practice hitting serves before school.
She also enjoyed more traditional tennis training under pro Dell Sylvia at Knoxville Racquet Club at a time when such other juniors as Ben Testerman, Candy Reynolds and Elizabeth Sharp Henderson also were developing their skills.
Her high school coach at West was Dave Chesney, who at the time had a young son — future country music star Kenny Chesney.
“He was the basketball coach and played some tennis and was very enthusiastic and he wanted our team to do well,” Richardson recalled of Dave Chesney. “I remember he liked country music.”
While at West, Richardson won the state singles title in 1971 and 1972, her sophomore and junior seasons.
“It was the luckiest shot of my entire career, and it was against Chris Evert,” she said with a smile.
Richardson later signed with Furman at a time when the Greenville, S.C., college was as competitive as many state schools. She ended up being the No. 1 player there for four years in the days when women’s college teams still competed in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
She had a 68-6 singles record and was the team MVP all four years, accomplishments that would result in her induction into the Furman Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.
A knee injury halted serious thoughts of a pro career, but she did have an opportunity to stay in tennis by coaching the women’s team at Tennessee beginning in 1978.
There, she coached three outstanding players — twins Peta and Paula Kelly from Australia, and Michelle DePalmer, the daughter of then-UT men’s coach Mike DePalmer.
“I have great pride that we were able to become the first teams in Lady Vol history to be nationally ranked,” Richardson said of her time at UT, where she compiled a 49-14 record, the highest winning percentage in Lady Vol tennis history.
Michelle DePalmer Williams today also is known as the mother of recent UT men’s standout Rhyne Williams and current Lady Vols player Caitlyn Williams.
In 1981, Richardson’s husband, Steve Richardson, whom she met while attending Church Street United Methodist Church in downtown Knoxville as a youth, had a job opportunity in Atlanta. So they moved and she soon began attending Georgia State University’s law school.
“I went from one court to another,” she quipped. Today, she works for the federal Office of Disability Adjudication and Review on Bearden Hill.
However, she continued to spend plenty of time on the tennis court playing recreationally after they moved back to Knoxville and raised two sons, Powell and George.
But not until about three years ago did she begin trying to play more competitively on the senior level.
Recently, she helped the Tennessee state women’s team win the Senior Cup tournament in Huntsville, Ala., against teams from other Southern states.
Richardson is glad to be back playing competitively in a sport she loves for many reasons, including having to use strategy, getting butterflies before a match, and, most of all, enjoying friendships.
“To me there’s no better way to live than to be outside playing tennis,” she said.
John Shearer is a freelance contributor.