She was 43 when she first picked up a tennis racquet.
“My youngest daughter was turning five, and she wanted a surprise birthday party,” recalls Kristine Fitts, 13 years later. “I had gotten a circular from Indian Hills (Country Club) about how you could plan a child’s birthday party with Coach Clint (Butler). I thought, ‘none of us in our family play tennis, so this would definitely be a surprise.’ ”
Fitts did just that, and her daughter had so much fun at the birthday party that the child decided to take tennis lessons at Indian Hills.
“She started playing, and I’d be sitting out here (at Indian Hills) watching her. She was having fun and I was enjoying it and thinking, ‘I’d think I could do this, too. It looks like fun.’ So I started taking lessons.”
In her first year she and her Tuscaloosa teammates, coached by Butler, won their USTA combo sectionals.
“That gave me a taste of, ‘I think I like this sport.’”
Fast forward to October 2018. Fitts was making her third appearance in the United States Tennis Association National Doubles Championships. She was there, in Orlando, at the National Tennis Campus, playing alongside her 4.0 teammates. Her team was based out of Birmingham. Tuscaloosa doesn’t have many female 4.0 players in her 55+ age division, so Fitts drives to Birmingham several days a week to train and practice with her Birmingham team in addition to working out and taking lessons each week from Indian Hills director of tennis Keith Swindoll and the tennis staff.
The team included captains Mindy Long and Linda Matrock, Shelia Walker, Barbara Smith, Walton Van de Voort, Donna Gordon, Brenda Cohen, Sharon Brown, Kelly Holland, Donna Christie, Judy Theriot, Susan Womack and Jayne Getsinger. The Alabama-based team won the state championship and the Southern sectional. Four weeks after they won sectionals — which includes teams from 10 states — they were in Orlando, playing for a national title.
They finished second.
“There are 17 sections in USTA with the Southern section being one of them,” Fitts said. “You play four matches, and the top four scoring teams advanced to the semis.”
Fitts’ team played the Mideast champions, a team based in Cincinnati, in the tournament final.
“It was close. They won two courts and lost one (to her team.)”
It came down to the last court. Fitts and her partner, Walker, were the players on that court.
“We lost in a tiebreaker,” she said.
It was a moment, she said, that weeks later, still haunts her.
“There are 1,089 4.0 teams in this league and we finished second in the nation, but during the ceremony, I had a Scotty Cochran moment where I wanted to take my glass trophy and slam it on the ground,” Fitts said, joking, referring to the University of Alabama strength and conditioning coach’s smashing of Alabama’s runner-up 2017 football national championship trophy.
Still, she knows what she and her teammates achieved was major. Two years ago, she and her team finished last in their division at the national championships. They’d rocketed from last to second nationally within two years.
Fitts has so enjoyed her immersion into the tennis world that she is one of the most active boosters and ambassadors Tuscaloosa has for the sport. Swindoll, in addition to being the tennis director at Indian Hills, is also a volunteer coach with the University of Alabama women’s tennis team.
“Kristine and Martha Zeanah do so much of the behind-the-scenes work for the kids and their parents,” Swindoll said of her volunteer work with the Crimson Racquet Club for the last 15 or so years. “She’s so humble. One example of something she does that goes above and beyond came at one of our Crimson Tide Racquet Club cookouts. It was hotter than Hades that day. Kristine sees that everyone was uncomfortable, so she goes out and gets these huge fans and puts them out to make it more pleasant. No one asked or expected her to do it. She saw a need and took care of it. That’s just how she is.”
Swindoll said Fitts opens her home to tennis gatherings and has been instrumental in making Indian Hills’ annual Men’s City Invitational a success each summer.
“She comes out a couple of weeks before the tournament, looks over the grounds and decides what needs to be done,” Swindoll said. “She gets her hands in the dirt, planting and putting flowers out. She helps with wrapping gifts and putting together the player gift bags. She does all these behind-the-scenes things that make that event special. She makes it feel like Wimbledon. She’s always doing things that make other people’s lives better. She’s one of the most generous people I know.”
Fitts shrugs off his praise. For her, she says, anything to do with tennis makes her happy.
“I just feel at home,” she said of her life around and on the tennis court. “I considered moving to Birmingham at one time, but, after looking at houses there, I realized I wanted to be here. I love my club (Indian Hills.) Keith and the staff here and the tennis community here are so special.”