Originally Published: October 31, 2011 10:49 p.m.
Binki Thalheimer didn't pick up tennis until a gym teacher encouraged her to give the sport a try when she was a freshman at Mesa Westwood High School in 1964.
"I was hitting badminton birdies against the wall in a P.E. class and one of the P.E. teachers said, 'Hey, have you ever thought about tennis?' " Thalheimer said in reflection of the seminal moment earlier this month. "I grew into it real soon."
Thalheimer went on to play four seasons for Westwood's varsity tennis team. Her first competitive accomplishment came as a junior when she won the Phoenix District Championships in the girls' 18-and-under singles classification.
Through the decades since, Thalheimer has spent short periods away from the game only to be drawn back into its alluring clutches.
Today, some 47 years after she took her first swing with a racket, Thalheimer, 60, owes plenty of her success in life to tennis and the lessons it's taught her about the importance of perseverance.
Oh, and by the way, she remains a strong player.
In late September, the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) named Thalheimer (pronounced Tall-high-mer), a Prescott resident, its age 55-and-over women's player of the year during its 2011 World Conference on Tennis in Wesley Chapel, Fla., northeast of Tampa.
"I'm very, very thrilled to have gotten this," Thalheimer said of her award. "It's a big deal in my life to have received something like that."
In 2010, Thalheimer - the former head tennis pro at Prescott Racquet Club - was crowned champion in the women's 60 singles at the USPTA International Championships, earning her a No. 1 ranking from the association in that age category.
In addition, she captured the mixed 55 doubles title and was a women's 45 doubles finalist at the United States Tennis Association's (USTA) Mile High Open. Perhaps most importantly, she garnered 2010 Southwest Division Women's Senior Player of the Year honors, which automatically qualified her as a USPTA POY candidate.
The USPTA's Southwest Division encompasses players who live in Arizona, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
"I have played a lot of tournaments in the last few years - not necessarily always USPTA, but USTA," Thalheimer said. "I've been lucky enough to win at the local level."
Northern Arizona Tennis Association (NATA) official Eric Bourdon, who represents the Prescott area for the USTA, said Thalheimer's national award is special to those in the tennis community.
In fact, Thalheimer has captured NATA's Competitive Player of the Year honors twice in the past five years, Bourdon added. NATA primarily encompasses players from Prescott, Sedona and Flagstaff.
"She's very steady (as a player) and she's very competitive," Bourdon said. "And she just wins. She plays against younger players most of the time and does very well."
Jan Hasse of Prescott Valley, who has known Thalheimer for the past 8 to 9 years and currently practices about twice a week with her, said Thalheimer is a "ferocious competitor."
"She enjoys playing, but hates to lose," said Hasse, who was raised in California, where she once played college tennis and lower-level pro tournaments. "We have a good time, we play hard and have a lot of laughs. We really work on our games, but get a lot of exercise at the same time. And Binki's always in there with a comment."
At this year's annual World Conference, the USPTA, which certifies tennis-teaching professionals, rewarded 25 standout association members for their efforts.
Nominations for the honors come from the USPTA's 17 divisions as well as individuals. The association's awards committee subsequently selected the recipients in each award category. In Thalheimer's case, officials with the Southwest Division nominated her for USPTA 55-and-over player of the year.
While she's proud to have received the national honor, Thalheimer said tennis has given her much more. It's taught her the importance of persistence in overcoming obstacles and provided her with lasting friendships.
"Tennis teaches you the lessons of life, basically," Thalheimer said. "When you're out there playing a match, there's sometimes a lot of adversity going on, like it is in real life. You have to be a little stronger at times, physically, to put up with something."
Years ago, Thalheimer opted not to further her tennis career by playing in college. Instead, she got married and had a daughter and a son. Her longtime husband, Bob Thalheimer, was a rodeo cowboy, and she soon developed an affinity for that sport as well.
"For about four years, I didn't even play tennis," Binki said.
By the early 1970s, the Thalheimers had relocated from Arizona to Ellensburg, Wash. When her daughter turned 3, Binki returned to the court and began playing in tournaments in the Pacific Northwest. She competed off and on for years afterwards.
"I always loved playing and competing, but I had to juggle everything else, too," Binki said.
Binki did not become a USPTA teaching pro until 2002 - two years after a job with Yavapai Title Agency brought her to Prescott from Sierra Vista, where she and her family had moved to from Washington state in the mid-1980s.
In 2004, she quit the agency to teach tennis full time at Prescott Racquet Club and focused on traveling the Southwest to play in tournaments - primarily against athletes in younger age groups. She retired as the head tennis pro at the club last December.
"My kids were grown and gone, and I was able to start really getting on the court more," Binki said.
Within the past year, though, Binki stopped teaching tennis and returned to a full-time position at Yavapai Title in Prescott, where she's grateful to have a job again.
Meanwhile, Binki has managed to overcome past tennis injuries to her back and knee and continues to play, albeit sparingly, for the sake of her physical fitness.
She longs to return to balancing her work schedule with staying in shape and playing competitive singles matches.
"When I don't get out on the court, I miss not just the competition, but the exercise," she said. "I know that if I sat too much at this point, what would happen to me. I'm just so happy that I have the health that I have and be able to do what I do."