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Richard Hillway finds calling to tennis history after coaching, teaching career

July 3, 2013 Updated: July 3, 2013 at 11:43 pm
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Richard Hillway has made tennis his life As an instructor for 53 years and one of the worlds leading historians on the subject, Hillway has been invited to attend Wimbledon as a guest of the Wimbledon Museum and Library for the past six years. he will return to the UK for this year's festivities on Sunday, June 23. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

Years of research to help the Wimbledon Library and Museum helped Richard Hillway earn an exclusive invitation to perhaps the world's most famous patch of turf.

To this tennis historian who, ironically, focuses on the origin of lawn tennis, he was merely doing his job.

"The museum asked if I'd do research on the great French champion Suzanne Lenglen, to find the results when she played in the pro tour in the United States in 1926-27," Hillway said. "It took a year and a half and I found all the results from 40 cities."

And for a fortnight, the former Cherry Creek history teacher and boys' tennis coach, who later headed up operations as tennis director and junior tennis pro at the Country Club of Colorado, is getting a chance to watch first-class tennis and retrace steps by the sport's earliest pioneers.

Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer? That's nice, but not the history Hillway had in mind.

Instead, the author of 90 published articles in tennis trade magazines prefers Henry Jones, Walter Wingfield, William and Ernest Renshaw, and Bill Tilden, among others.

"I try to find things that haven't been solved, like who brought tennis to America," said the 70-year-old Hillway, who retired four years ago to pursue his full-time passion of tennis research in addition to collecting the sport's rare memorabilia. "I never had the time to do this while I was teaching. Now, I just love it."

Hillway's southwest Colorado Springs home doubles as a library for more than 2,000 books, most dealing specifically in lawn tennis. In addition, he has built a veritable museum to the early days of the sport, displaying early artifacts, from an 1888 rulebook, an 1895 U.S. Open souvenir program and a 1913 hand-stitched tennis ball to a wall showing the evolution of tennis rackets.

He takes true pride, however, in materials not sought by traditional collectors.

"Most collectors are interested in rackets and autographs," Hillway said. "The real history is in the books and letters. That's where you find out what a player has to say."

In 15 years, Hillway also has amassed a collection of thousands of tennis letters, early correspondence from the likes of Gussie Moran, Don Budge and even one signed by Dwight Davis, who founded the Davis Cup.

The thirst for history came quite naturally to Hillman, whose father, Dr. Tyus Hillway, founded the Herman Melville Society in 1946. Richard was born in West Hartford, Conn., but moved to Greeley to help cure his asthma. The three-time high school singles champion earned a Boettcher scholarship to Colorado, where he won a Big 8 singles title and later studied at the University of New South Wales on a Rotary scholarship.

Hillway got his start at Cherry Creek in 1969, where he taught history and coached the boys' tennis team. He transformed the Bruins' program, which had won only one dual meet the previous season. By the time he left in 1980, the program had won eight straight state team titles, part of an amazing stretch of 19 in a row that included 316 consecutive dual-meet victories.

At the Country Club of Colorado, Hillway shaped many of the players who eventually starred for Cheyenne Mountain and helped the Indians win 18 girls' and 17 boys' state team titles

He also founded the Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000 and serves as Colorado's tennis historian.

For two weeks every summer since 2008, Hillway delves back into tennis' home across the pond. While watching the sport is nice, he revels in a chance to visit old bookstores and old friends, hoping to glean a nugget of the past he didn't know before.

"I consider it a real treat to go," said Hillway, standing in front of three large file cabinets containing his alphabetized collection of tennis letters, "I don't take it for granted. I don't know if I'll keep getting invited."

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