Few college tennis players drew as much inspiration from Jimmy Connors' run to the U.S. Open semifinals as did Jan
A sophomore at UMBC, Ilenda isn't particularly interested in Connors' gestures and umpire-baiting. She is enthralled by his longevity, a given considering her own age.
She is 50 -- 11 years older than Connors and old enough to parent her Retrievers coach, 28-year-old Keith Puryear, let alone all of her teammates.
"I'm surprised by the fuss this is creating," Ilenda said, "but I'll admit, I'm surprising myself. I thought I'd just go out there this season and return balls to the other girls in practice, but when the challenge matches came around, the coach pushed me out there.
"People back home will not believe this."
The folks in Cleveland know her as the mother of five sons (one deceased) and the wife of Victor Ilenda, a section supervisor at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University. College athlete is an unexpected addition to the profile of Ilenda, Class of 1959 at St. Francis High, an all-girls Catholic school.
"The school didn't have athletic teams back then," said Ilenda, who lives in Ellicott City. "We didn't even have gym. You were able to do whatever you wanted after lunch, and some girls practiced the jitterbug. I went to study hall. The first time I ever picked up a racket, in the late '70s, I think I hit a ball onto a school roof. I was terrible."
After three decades of home-making and child-rearing, and 14 years after she passed on a ballet class and instead hesitantly joined some friends at a tennis clinic, Ilenda found herself at a bigger crossroads. With her youngest, Paul, now a freshman at Clemson, in his final year at Loyola High, Ilenda told herself "now it's my turn."
L The timing of a chance encounter could not have been better.
"I was invited to sub in a tennis game, and one of the other women was wearing a UMBC sweatshirt," said Ilenda, who began taking courses part time at the Catonsville campus in 1984. "I said, 'Oh, you're a UMBC student too,' but that wasn't the case."
The opponent in the sweatshirt was Linda Brown, an employee of the UMBC graduate program whose husband, Charlie, happens to be the Retrievers' athletic director. Ilenda suddenly found herself being recruited for the college's fledgling program.
"I didn't think I would eligible [under NCAA guidelines], but I passed every test," Ilenda said. "All I had to do was enroll as a full-time student, and it was about time I did that anyway."
She enrolled as a full-time student for the first time last spring and played for UMBC in a few practice matches. Coming into this semester with 65 credits, Ilenda has a major of music (minoring in piano) and she eventually would like to perform in music programs for the elderly. Along the way she frequently runs into son Peter, 24, a UMBC senior.
Ilenda planned to keep on dabbling in tennis, but Puryear, the UMBC coach, had other ideas.
"Last spring, after all of our other players had gone home, Jan would stay after and work on her serve," Puryear said. "She's very conscientious about conditioning, and if some of the younger kids worked as hard as she did, they would be unbeaten.
"She's not as agile, but if Jan gets to a ball, she's going to place it where she wants. She's dangerous at the net, too, probably one of our best doubles players."
Playing in the Nos. 5 and 6 singles spots, Ilenda was 4-5 heading into yesterday's 7-2 loss at Towson State. Training and playing ,, for a team has been absorbing and exhilarating.
"I was like a little kid when practice started in August," Ilenda said. "We work on conditioning for 45 minutes to an hour before we pick up a racket. It was grueling, but I couldn't wait to get back out there every day.
"Connors doing so well at the U.S. Open helped. A few days into practice, I stayed up until 1:30 watching his five-set comeback against Patrick McEnroe. He was fabulous, so inspiring."
Almost as inspiring as Jan Ilenda.