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PUBLIC COURTS: Gillis, 50, reaching her prime

Athletes in most sports tend to hit their peak sometime in their mid to late 20s.

Of course, that varies a little from sport to sport.

Female tennis players usually have their best competitive years in their early 20s.

Then there is Katherine Gillis.

The top seed in the women’s open singles division at this week’s Charleston Public Courts tennis tournament recently turned 50.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been the number one seed in singles,” Gillis said after a few minutes of thought.

After receiving a first round bye she faces Kayla McKnight, a student at Hurricane High School, in a semifinal match later in the week.

Not that who she plays makes much difference to Gillis.

“I do not know anyone in the draw,” she said. “But I don’t think any of them are taking Aleve with their coffee in the morning.”

The other semifinal pits Olivia Darby, who plays at Nitro in the spring, against Spring Valley High’s Katie Swann.

McKnight will be a senior in the fall, Darby a junior, and Swann a sophomore.

Gillis finished her prep career at George Washington in 1982.

“I could be their parent,” Gillis said. “I had no idea when I was their age how big a part tennis was going to play in my life when I was their age.”

Besides the fact that it paid for her college education, she has worked as a tennis instructor around the country as well. She teaches at Charleston tennis Club now and still maintains contact with dozens of friends she has made along the way.

So what is her strategy going to be against her younger opponents?

“It doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net,” Gillis said. “For me it’s always about keeping the ball in play.”

If you think it sounds like a wily veteran might be sandbagging her opponents a little bit, you are right.

Older does, after all, also mean more experienced.

After picking up a racket at age 9, Gillis competed in regional and national tournaments as a youngster, including the “Sweet Sixteens” National 16-and-under girls championship in Charleston. Because she was a strong doubles player from early in her career she was often asked to play mixed doubles in adult tournaments.

In high school, her George Washington squads won state high school championship twice during her three years there. She captured the No. 2 singles crown as a sophomore, advanced to the finals and semifinals at the No. 1 singles spot as a junior and senior respectively.

A good all-around athlete, she also picked up a volleyball state championship and a pair of girls basketball titles as a Patriot.

Currently Gillis is seventh on the list of top career records at WVU, posting a four-year mark of 144-71, a win total that set a WVU standard at the time.

The Mountaineer squads put up a 57-30 record during her career.

She is one of just six players in WVU women’s tennis history to have 50 or more combined singles and doubles wins in a single season, doing so in 1985-86. She was an All-Atlantic 10 selection in 1985 and served as team captain her senior year.

Since college, Gillis has focused mainly on doubles and has been very successful in both women’s doubles and mixed doubles.

She bounced around for several years after college before moving back to Charleston in 2009 to help care for her father, Sid, who passed away in February.

“He was at all of my matches,” Gillis recalled. “He was my biggest fan.”

She is back in singles to prepare for some upcoming matches with her USTA Adult League team.

But first she must make her way through a group of talented high school players.

“I’m probably going to give them some stuff they haven’t seen,” Gillis said.

That may include some serve-and-volley tactics.

“I’m more comfortable serving and volleying,” she acknowledged. “But I’m probably only realistically going to be able to do it about 15 percent of the time.”

Observers should not be surprised if that rate is closer to 50 percent.

All of that experience also comes into play in her choice of a mixed doubles partner. Gillis is teaming with someone able to get around the court pretty well in 19-year-old former Charleston Catholic star Mark Cassis. The pair are seeded first in that division.

“Hey,” Gillis said with a smile. “I know what I am doing.”

Something her opponents this week had better keep in mind.

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LAST YEAR’S women’s singles champion, Andreea Slusarciuc, is enjoying a summer back home in Romania after graduating from West Virginia State this spring. She will be working as a graduate assistant at the University of Charleston this fall while she studies for a Masters in Business Administration ….The all-time Public Courts record holder for women’s singles titles with seven ended her one year retirement from the tournament this summer. Well sort of, at least. “They needed one more person for open women’s doubles so they called me,” White said. I don’t know how I will do, I haven’t played much.” She and former George Washington teammate Alyssa Hackworth-Irvin are seeded second.

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