Pioneers in Tennis: Rick Pray & Carol Anderson
Connecting With Stringers
The old clichés — working together can ruin a marriage, don’t take your work home with you, etc. — never seemed to apply to Richard Pray and Carol Anderson. In fact, their at-home partnership fueled their entrepreneurial style, leading them to new joint discoveries.
When Rick Pray, who had a lifelong interest in sports — football, hang-gliding, body-building, surfing — played tennis, Carol played with him. They quickly discovered their hometown of Chico, Calif., lacked a racquet stringer, and that racquets had to be sent all the way to Sacramento for stringing, usually by someone with a home-based business. It caused needless delays and yielded results that were uneven at best.
"Well," says Anderson, "in business, the rule is you find a need and you fill it."
Pray couldn’t resist the challenge, or the inherent opportunity. He invested in a tabletop stringing machine and began experimenting. He strung his own racquets, then Anderson’s, then those of friends. Together, he and Carol uncovered a disconnect in the industry. Strings and grip material could be purchased, but not in the small quantities a small-business owner would use. Even instructions for stringing patterns were lacking.
As Anderson sat at home one night, Pray watched her knit. She was using a pattern, and as she followed those instructions, he realized similarly easy-to-follow material for stringers didn’t exist. The stringing industry, he decided, needed a voice, as well as a company that catered to the many small business owners that comprised it.
In the late 1960s, Rick started Associated Tennis Suppliers (ATS), which sold and shipped strings, grips, grommets and more to home-based stringers and small pro shops. He also started the U.S. Racquet Stringers Association (USRSA). Carol took the lead role there, but following conventional wisdom that male executives got more respect, used the masculine name of "Carroll" in all her correspondence as executive director of the association.
Both ATS and USRSA flourished. ATS provided valuable monthly business advice to customers along with putting small personalized gifts in every outgoing order. Catalogs were printed, first in black-and-white, then in color. USRSA, meanwhile, established itself as the key source for stringing information. Monthly member newsletters, "The Stringer’s Assistant," contained information including stringing information on new racquets and strings, technical discussions, tension information, stringing machines, re-gripping, re-sizing, etc.
Rick and Carol would attend tennis trade shows and lobby racquet companies to make stringing information available to the USRSA. Carol remembers it as a challenging time.
"I would go up to Wilson and say, "Do you have stringing patterns for the T2000 or the T3000?’ They would just look surprised and say, ‘Well, all our dealers have that.’ I would say, ‘Yes, I’m aware of that but maybe you don’t know that a player who can’t get a racquet strung the right way is going to say, ‘I don’t like this racquet; it doesn’t play well so I’m just going to get a different brand.’ It was very hard at first to get people to understand that it wasn’t the dealers who needed instructions; it was the small-business owners or independent stringers."
It was an argument that finally worked, and USRSA’s annual “Stringer’s Digest” was started. Each edition contained the latest in racquet stringing patterns for all racquets on the market.
In 1974, Rick Pray suffered a catastrophic injury while hang-gliding, which left him partially paralyzed. He died in 1979, leaving Carol in charge of ATS and USRSA.
It was shortly afterward, as Carol, was struggling to manage both operations, that a woman named Jill Fonte came into the office, seeking a job. Jill and Carol had an instant rapport. "She hired me to be kind of her right-hand person," recalls Fonte. "She was running the two companies and I was young and energetic and a tennis enthusiast."
Carol recognized Jill’s innate ability to move USRSA forward. "We were a wonderful team together," says Fonte. "I liked everything about working with Carol; she was very much a mentor in so many ways. I learned a lot from her example."
Carol eventually left USRSA in Jill’s hands, and continued to work with ATS. She is now fully retired, and spends her time traveling. USRSA now has a worldwide membership of more than 7,000. In addition to publications, a website and more, it offers workshops and a certification program. ATS has continued as well, with a strong online presence.
"Carol is just amazing," says Fonte, "and so was Rick."
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.