Story by Clara Firtos, Contributing writer
Head Coach Mel Purcell is currently the men’s tennis coach. But before coaching tennis, Purcell was a state champion at Murray High, NCAA singles and doubles champion at the University of Tennessee and then he continued his tennis career, going pro in 1979.
While playing professionally, Purcell ranked No. 21 in the world. He was crowned as ATP 1980 Rookie of the Year. He was a finalist is the U.S. Pro Indoor Championships 1982 and a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon 1983.
Purcell said he remembers growing up in a basketball family, too. Purcell’s father, Bennie Purcell, was an All-American basketball player for Murray State and later an assistant coach.
Purcell met a man by the name of Ron Underwood, a former tennis player for Murray State, who helped Purcell pick up tennis at a young age.
“It was when I was four to five years old, I was never a huge basketball big shot,” Purcell said. “So I picked up tennis then and I never gave it up after that.”
Purcell played different sports up until the age of 12, then continued with his main focus on tennis. In fourth and fifth grade, Purcell was already playing for Murray High.
“I remember playing against the junior and seniors,” Purcell said. “They were just so much taller and bigger than me. I remember them yelling threats at me, talking about how they were going to beat me, but I didn’t let that stop me.”
Purcell won two state doubles titles with his brother when he was in high school.
“It was a lot of fun,” Purcell said. “Of course we argued, yelled and screamed at each other, but that’s what brothers do.”
Purcell said he always had a great time playing alongside his older brother.
“We did have losses, but we still loved playing,” Purcell said. “I think that’s something our dad instilled in us early on was to just enjoy the sport and to have fun.”
Purcell said he enjoys taking after his father in coaching the men and Murray State.
“I started helping my dad out with the team a little bit, then I just kind of molded in on it,” Purcell said.
Purcell said he has a tough schedule planned for the men next year, and as a coach, he strives to show class and pride in being a Racer.
“I think it’s all about the players. I got a good set of men out there,” Purcell said.
Purcell said he teaches his men the importance of sportsmanship and their academics while attending Murray State.
One experience Purcell remembered from going pro was when, in 1987, he was booed by a few nuns.
“It was in Charleston, South Carolina, I saw them in their long skirts, and I remember asking them to pray for me,” Purcell said. “As the match went on, I wasn’t playing as well. So when I sat down I hear ‘Boo Mel Purcell.’ I turn around and saw it was those nuns. I laughed it off, and I thought I must be doomed for life.”
Purcell said it’s little things like that he’ll always remember.
“Another memory I have is of how I got my nickname Huck Finn. It was Bud Collins, who was one of the famous announcers at the time,” Purcell said. “All he did was take one look at my gap tooth.”
He said he’ll always remember what it was like to travel the world and play in different countries.
As for now, Purcell said his favorite memory of coaching is watching the men play hard.
“Nobody gave up, even if we did get beaten up at times,” said Purcell. “Their best is what I wanted from my men and they gave it.”