Therese MacLeod still recalls her parents’ reaction. “My mom cried. My dad, who was a policeman, said, ‘You better be damn careful.”’
Thirty-seven years ago this spring, a pair of University of New Mexico students had roles in a significant chapter of American sport. The event received little notice at the time. In the years since, it is barely remembered, if at all.
It was a year of firsts in 1978. The first test-tube baby appeared. The first Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlor opened. The first cellular mobile phone debuted.
Here’s another: Two members of the UNM women’s tennis team were the first female athletes from the U.S. to travel to Cuba and compete there since the start of the Cuban revolution, in 1959.
That revolution, of course, led Cuba to become a Soviet ally, dictated by Fidel Castro and turned into a totalitarian state. In response, the U.S. government set forth a mass boycott of products to the island nation, which in turn created an uneasy wall between the two countries, just 90 miles apart. Though recent relations between the two countries have moved toward normalization, Cuba’s very presence once frightened Americans.
“We didn’t think about any of that,” said Therese MacLeod, who lives in Mashpee, Mass. As Therese Sullivan in 1978, she was the captain of the UNM women’s tennis team. “We were just excited to be going there.”
The trip came about the previous fall when Larry Lindsay, the women’s tennis coach and an Albuquerque native, took his team to Mexico to play matches. While there, Lindsay heard about an international tournament in Cuba, a “friendship” event.
“I thought we ought to try to go there and play,” said Lindsay, 62, now an attorney in Camden, N.J.
When Lindsay told Linda Estes, then the director of women’s athletics at UNM, Estes said, “If you go, I go.”
Though it has grown easier through the years for Americans to go to Cuba, it was hardly a breeze in 1978. Lindsay and Estes, who is 76 and lives in Hawaii, put their heads together. Lindsay’s father, Bert Lindsay, was a Democrat party leader in New Mexico at the time. Through him, and through Fabian Chavez, then assistant secretary of commerce in the Carter Administration, strings were pulled in the office of U.S. Sen. George McGovern. In 1977, McGovern had assisted two South Dakota universities in sending a men’s basketball team to Cuba.
Little criticism of the three-week journey was heard, other than a disparaging letter to the editor of the Albuquerque Tribune on Feb. 20, in which the writer called the plan “either naïve or stupid.”
Albuquerque’s two daily newspapers paid scant attention to the Cuba trip, and the Daily Lobo published nothing about it. Dominating the local sports fan’s attention was the UNM men’s basketball team, which in 1978 hovered close to the best in the nation. Near-hysterical fans believed UNM had its best team ever.
Then on March 11, the vaunted Lobos fell to Cal State-Fullerton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Blame was cast everywhere, and for days stories about the crushing defeat overshadowed all other local sports news. On March 14, the Tribune ran a brief item headlined “UNM fem netters arrive in Cuba.”
A formidable team
Those “fem netters” were MacLeod and Mindy Sherwood, both seniors.
MacLeod was an obvious choice to make the trip. As a high school student in Brooklyn, N.Y., she had been recruited by Estes, who coached women’s tennis in the 1970s before Lindsay arrived. As a teen, MacLeod had been ranked No. 5 in the East. She played No. 1 for the Lobos all four years.
Sherwood was a not a standout. She came to UNM with only a vague knowledge of tennis. In high school in Fairfield, Conn., she had played basketball and field hockey.
“Mindy knocked at my dorm room door one morning when we were freshmen, and said she wanted to learn to play tennis,” MacLeod said. “She had a bucket of tennis balls in one hand. We would hit before class in the mornings.”
By her senior year, Sherwood had become a respectable player. She also became MacLeod’s best friend. As a doubles tandem, they were formidable.
Growing up, Lindsay had been a very good junior player in Albuquerque. He learned the game at now-gone Beverly Park from Estes. In time he joined other local kids being chauffeured across the Southwest to tournaments by the esteemed Vivien Bull. At Sandia High, Lindsay won the large-school doubles title with Mike Rushing in 1968. Lindsay went on to Indiana University, which offered him a full-ride tennis scholarship.
The Albuquerque group drove to El Paso in a UNM station wagon. They left the car in a parking garage there and then crossed the border to Ciudad Juárez. A flight to Merida, Mexico, followed, then another plane to Havana.
The UNM contingent spent the first several days sightseeing —author Ernest Hemingway’s house, the DuPont mansion, the Bay of Pigs Museum and the beach. One night the group went to Hemingway’s favorite bar in Havana.
Finally, the tennis began, preceded by opening ceremonies.
The tournament was held in Pinar del Rio, about 170 miles west of Havana. Though this supposedly was an international event, Lindsay remembered only players from Czechoslovakia, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba and the U.S.
“This wasn’t held in a stadium, like the Olympics, but more like a field,” said Estes. “Someone appeared with an American flag for us to carry. We thought we might get booed holding that flag. That didn’t happen; everyone cheered. We received as much applause as any of the other countries. It seemed as if everyone there was glad to see us.”
Soon after, the competition began on clay courts. The tournament was set up like a Davis Cup tie — singles matches followed by doubles matches followed by more singles matches.
“It was certainly not ‘friendly’ tennis,” Lindsay said. “Players were competitive, especially the Czechs. They trounced everybody.”
The Lobo women came in fourth, behind the Czechs and two of the three Cuban teams.
Lindsay, who had blond hair, said Cubans mistook him for a Russian. “They weren’t particularly nice to me, thinking I was a Russian,” he said. “There was none of this ‘comrade’ business. My impression was that the Cubans did not like the Russians one bit.”
The poverty left a lasting impression. “Cars on the streets were from the 1940s and 1950s,” said MacLeod. “They were American cars, but they were all old and dilapidated. The historic architecture, it was crumbling.”
Evident everywhere was the U.S. boycott. “The whole time there we had no hot water. Toilet paper was rationed,” said MacLeod. “You couldn’t telephone the U.S. Shelves in stores were empty.”
“With pictures of Fidel all over the place, you couldn’t help but notice the importance of Cuba in world affairs,” said Lindsay. “At the same time, we sensed the struggle there and how tough life must be. They felt America was their partner and they missed us. They said that before the revolution, they had everything from America. After the boycott, they couldn’t even import toothpaste.”
MacLeod and Sherwood graduated in May 1978. MacLeod went on to be an assistant coach to Lindsay for two years and worked at the Lobo Tennis Club. Later she became a flight attendant, then a physical therapist assistant. Married, she has daughter, 25, and coaches the girls’ tennis team at Mashpee High School.
Sherwood remained in Albuquerque, where she started a Montessori school. She too married, and had three children. Lindsay, who was coaching the Lobos while attending UNM Law School, graduated in 1980. He is married and has two children. He no longer plays tennis.
In the late spring of 1978, Lindsay invited a group of Cuban players to Albuquerque. The Cuban government nixed the invitation.
Linda Estes retired from the University of New Mexico in June 2000. Bad knees have forced her to give up tennis for golf. The Lobo Tennis Club is officially the Linda Estes Tennis Complex.
Through the years, the four travelers from New Mexico tried to stay in touch, mostly by Christmas cards. In 1995 at age 38, Mindy Sherwood, then Mindy Montes, died of brain cancer.
MacLeod was with her doubles partner at the end. “Oh, god, I adored her.”
Both MacLeod and Estes attended the funeral in Albuquerque. Said Estes: “It broke my heart.”
The details of the 1978 achievement have grown fainter with time. Even so, one realization remains strong, said MacLeod. “The people there were so generous to us and yet they had nothing. Absolutely nothing. It made me realize how fortunate we were.”