About two years ago, my husband and I were having dinner one evening with our best friends, Cheri and Geof Grant. Cheri loved to host little dinner parties so she could introduce her friends to each other and try out new gourmet recipes on them.
On this particular occasion, she invited Athena Cajas and another gal whose name escapes me to join our (golf-term alert) mixed foursome. As Cheri went around the table introducing us, she said Athena was a masterful tennis player and violinist. I found that especially nice, because not only was I a tennis writer/player/lifelong fan; I was quite the violinist during my youth--a two-time concertmistress of the orchestra. So this Athena woman had me at hello--but I had no idea that two years later I would be writing about her first national tennis championship.
It was really fun getting to know Athena that night, and Cheri kept me posted about Athena's tennis achievements. After all, they had a lot in common, and they both loved, loved, LOVED playing tennis.
They both were USTA 4.5-level players and both lefthanded. They met through McLeland Tennis Center pro Linton Lewis, who was teaching Cheri the day Athena showed up on the court, new in town and looking for a pro. Seeing right away how well-matched these two women were, Linton had them start playing games, and the three of them became great friends.
Cheri and Athena played doubles together, and Cheri would attend Athena's singles workouts with Linton as well as her matches, often recording her practices. Cheri would go on and on about what a great player Athena was, and Athena eventually got bumped up to 5.0. She was No. 1 in the Women's 50 Singles rankings at the start of 2012.
"In another world, we [Cheri and I] were spiritual sisters," Athena said. "We both liked the same things. She loved music; I love music. She was a jock; I wasn't the jock she was, but I was in shape." Besides tennis, the two friends played guitar and piano, and Cheri wrote and recorded her own music.
Well, as you might have read here before, we lost our pal Cheri to cancer about a year-and-a-half ago after she had dealt with it on and off for about 10 years. She would be thrilled to know that Athena just won the Westwood Senior Championships in Austin, beating the top two seeds along the way. She defeated Heidi Gerger, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2, in the Women's 50s Singles final. Heidi, a former member of Austria's Fed Cup team, had been something of a nemesis for Athena, having beaten her in this tournament the last couple of years.
Locals Val Wilder (Men's 50s champ), Mike Estep (60s champ) and Willie Wolff (70s finalist) also were among the locals who had outstanding tournaments. Explore the tournament page for results; you'll see lots of familiar names.
Linton Lewis, who competed in the Men's 50s bracket, lost to Keller's Wilder, who also won the doubles title with Coppell's Alexander Pier. But when he wasn't on the court or making a side trip, Linton was watching Athena's matches. In fact, after she won the first set of the final, he had to leave, and she lost the second set. She said she really had to psyche herself up for the third set.
"Psychologically, it helped me to have Linton there with me," Athena said. "He got me warmed up every day, including on the final day, running sprints, getting my forehand going, working on some serves, inside-out forehands.
"I played the set of my life in that first set, but Linton and [his wife] Cindy had to go to San Antonio to visit his father before the second set started. Heidi noticed that he was gone, and she relaxed and beat me 6-2.
"So then I went to the locker room and changed clothes. Nobody had ever seen me in anything but shirts and shorts, so I think I psyched everybody out by wearing a dress for the third set. Heidi saw me pull out that dress in the locker room, and she could see that it still had the tags on it, and she said, 'Are you sponsored by Adidas?' And I said, 'No, I sponsor myself.' "
Athena then settled down and won the third set, beating Heidi for the first time.
"I trained so hard," she said. "You have to be in the best shape. [Heidi] looks like a marathon runner, a bionic woman kind of thing. She is amazing. I worked very hard off the court to get in the best shape possible.
"You know, I'm 52. I started playing tennis when I was 12. This is the first time I've won a national tournament in my career. The thing I understood about this match and winning it was that you just have to be grateful, because you might not ever get that opportunity again. I'm just glad Linton could be there to see his four years of hard work with me had paid off and that he hadn't just been spinning his wheels. I was more happy for him than for anybody."
Athena works out with trainer Jeff Quattlebaum at Huguley Fitness Center in Burleson and with footwork coach Ricardo Williams at TCU. We could spend days, nay, weeks about the team of people who have helped her and how thankful she is, but we'll save some stuff for another time. She is, as she says, talkative.
"At the USPTA certification test, you have to teach a group with the testers sitting there, and there are written and skills tests, too," Athena said. "The only thing they criticized me on was time management. I talked too much. They said, 'You know what you're doing out there, but you talk too much.' "
Athena laughed hard when she said that. I laughed, too.
"I know with that USPTA thing, wherever we go, all I need to do is show them that," she said. "It's a good thing to have. Wherever you go, it's recognized.
"I'm interested in the 10 & Under program. I think there are good ideas there. I think there's a need for more tennis in Burleson, so maybe I'll find something right here. Also, I'd like to help Hispanic or underprivileged kids get some lessons. I don't care how poor they are. I think everyone should get to learn how to play tennis if they want to."
Athena, whose husband, Edgar, is Guatemalan, is fluent in Spanish and Greek--languages she learned while living in Guatemala and Greece. She is hard-working, caring and forever interested in bettering herself and the world around her.
Sincere congratulations to you, Athena. I wish Cheri were here to cook you one of those delightful dinners and raise a glass to you. You both deserve this.