Ashland native Julie Ditty was enjoying retirement when her competitive itch returned.
Now she is on the tennis court again as a competitor, winning and enjoying the game much more than she did during her previous professional career.
Ditty, 35, is a wild-card entry into the ATP Challenger Tour's Kentucky Bank Championships at UK's Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center, whose men's and women's main draws will begin play on Monday evening.
Playing in her home tournament was not in Ditty's plans when the summer began. She came out of a three-year retirement in June, winning the USTA Southern U.S. Open National Playoff qualifying singles tournament in Norcross, Ga. The win qualified Ditty for the U.S. Open National Playoff in New Haven, Conn., in August, where the winner will be entered into qualifying for the U.S. Open in September.
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When she won the tournament, she received a call from Kentucky Bank Championship tournament director Brooks Lundy, who offered her a wild-card spot in the women's main draw.
"When he asked, I said 'Of course!'" Ditty said.
Ditty carried a different attitude into her first tournament in June compared to her forays into pro tennis before retirement.
"I put a lot more pressure on myself as a pro," Ditty said. "Now, I don't have expectations. I still take it seriously, but I feel more relaxed."
Ditty lives in Louisville and gives lessons at the Louisville Tennis Club, instructing kids from 8 to 12 years old. The time she spends instructing youth players cuts into her training time, but she's found a balanced lifestyle in what has recently turned into semi-retirement.
"I like setting my own schedule and my own hours of teaching time," Ditty said. "I feel like I could eventually (get back to professional caliber play) if I could spend some time training and regaining my fitness. I'm fit right now, but you can always be more fit."
Coaching and mentoring young tennis players is her passion, but she has some concern with the professional-like intensity with which her young students perform.
"They are putting so much pressure on themselves," she said. "I have to tell them to focus on something that they can control. They'll tap or slam their rackets on the ground in reaction to a previous shot and say 'I suck.' You have to keep them calm and focused."
Ditty was named to the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013 with her professional accomplishments added to her decorated career as a high school (three-time state singles champion) and collegiate player (three-time All-American at Vanderbilt). She was considered one of the best amateur prospects during those years, and expectations rose as she turned pro, mainly from herself.
"I always felt like I had talent, and I had to prove something," Ditty said. "Every coach told me, 'You can be in the top 50 (in the world') and I heard that."
"But I'm content with the way my career turned out."
As a professional, Ditty reached as high as No. 89 in the world women's singles rankings and played in all four Grand Slam tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) as a singles and doubles competitor before she retired in 2011. She also competed in the Fed Cup, an international team tournament where players earn points toward their country's total.
Playing in that tournament was what Ditty called her "favorite moment as a pro" because of the team aspect of the tournament, specifically when she helped clinch the decisive points in a doubles match against Argentina.
Ditty's most comfortable style of tennis has been group tennis, whether she plays in tournaments like the Fed Cup or in doubles tournaments. She won 30 ITF doubles tournaments as a pro, including what is now the Kentucky Bank Championship in 2001, compared to nine titles as a singles competitor. Whereas her parents traveled with her as an amateur and did non-tennis related things with Ditty during tournaments, she was on her own as a professional tennis singles player.
"You are in control as a singles player, but the pressure is much more intense," Ditty said. "It's all on you. I did a lot on my own, like booking hotels and traveling from city to city."
Now, she surrounds herself with tennis youths each day, pushing them to become better players mentally and physically while balancing her flirtations with pro tennis. Her long-term future in tennis is as unknown as the futures of those she is mentoring.
"I take my life a day at a time," Ditty said, laughing, about her future. "It could change tomorrow. I won't be playing tennis professionally (several years from now), that's for sure."