The Tucker Tournament: 30 years of true love

Players in the August 1980 tournament gathered for a group photo. Photo courtesy of Tucker family
Players in the August 1980 tournament gathered for a group photo. Photos courtesy of Tucker family

By Karla Araujo - September 7, 2006

In tennis, love means zero. But at the Mary Tucker Mixed Doubles Invitational, love is the feeling that surrounds the remarkable 30-year-old private tournament held the second weekend of August each summer in Oak Bluffs. Three decades ago at the Tucker family home on Gorham Avenue, family members gathered for friendly competition on the idyllic two-acre property's tennis court. Mary Tucker, then 58 years old, decided to create a formal mixed doubles event. Originally just for immediate family, it soon grew to include friends and more distant relatives, all of whom had played on the court at some point during the season. Over the years players have come and gone, word has spread and competitors have come from as far away as South Africa. Many return year after year for two days of fun and friendly rivalry.

Mary Tucker and daughter Gretchen Underwood. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Mary Tucker, founder of the 30-year-old Oak Bluffs tennis invitational, has turned the logistics over to daughter Gretchen Underwood. The 88-year-old matriarch says she still loves to watch all the matches. Photo by Ralph Stewart

Now 88, Mary says she is still delighted to host the event although she stopped playing several years ago due to arthritis. "I do it for other people's enjoyment," she explains, sitting on the sofa in her cozy vintage farmhouse. Looking serene and lovely in lavender linen, Mary says she is content to watch the matches and mingle with guests. This year, 52 players participated in the tournament, with preliminary rounds played on the public courts in Oak Bluffs. Semi-finals and finals are held on the home court.

"Some people have been with us for 30 years now," she says. "And we have their children playing." Mary's great-grandsons, 7 and 11, serve as ball boys. Her daughter, Gretchen Underwood, has taken over the planning while Mary's husband Herbert, now 91 and a retired Dukes County presiding justice, also enjoys the hubbub.

Because it is an invitational, participants have to know someone in order to be asked to play. There has always been some air of mystery about the event. Players are matched up randomly by choosing names out of a hat. Tom Rabbitt, director of Oak Bluffs' Island Country Club Tennis, lends a hand by preparing the draw, the complicated sequence of matches determined by level of play.

Mary Tucker. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Mary Tucker may not play tennis anymore, but she is still the heart and soul of the annual August event. Photo by Ralph Stewart

"We couldn't do it without Tommy," Gretchen admits. "He's a miracle worker." Between random pairing of players and arranging of opponents, the matches are generally very competitive - but friendly.

"The matches are challenging but fun," Carmen Wilson of Oak Bluffs sums up. As a first-time participant, Carmen appreciated the chance to meet new people and enjoyed the unique spirit of camaraderie. "People seem more interested in having a good time than in playing killer tennis. I'm already looking forward to playing again next year."

Olive Tomlinson, another Oak Bluffs resident, played for 10 years but decided to make way for new participants as the skill level increased. "Years ago a lot of the players were just learning the game. It was so casual people would play in street shoes. The tournament still maintains the same family spirit but the level of the game has really gotten tougher."

Trophies are presented to the winners and the runners-up, as well as to players who embody the spirit of the event. The highlight of the weekend for many is the private luncheon at Lola's following the final. It's a chance for people to visit and chat, parting with a chorus of the words Mary loves to hear: "See you next year!"

Karla Araujo is a tennis instructor and freelance writer who lives on Martha's Vineyard and in the Florida Keys.