You couldn’t pick up a local newspaper back in the late 1970s or early 1980s without seeing the name of Terry Hassall in a headline in the sports section. Hassall, who died in March at age 68, dominated men’s tennis in Delaware and he was a force in the Middle States section for years, someone who was known for his flamboyant style almost as much for his precision tennis game.
Hassall went to P.S. DuPont High and Western Kentucky University – he’s a member of the WKU Athletics Hall of Fame – and then was the head tennis professional at the prestigious Merion Cricket Club from 1984-2008.
And he practiced what he preached, as he won more than his share of Middle States matches and championships over the years and also played briefly on the European Tour.
Hassall lived in Palm Beach Shores, Fla., at the time of his death. And the last decade of his life was not easy – he was arrested multiple times for drunken driving and in 2009 he was sentenced to 12 months in prison in Chester County, Pa.
Elliott Golinkoff was also a top-rated tennis player in Delaware in the 1970s and 1980s and he played against Hassall several times, although he never beat him. And Golinkoff said there was a good reason he and practically nobody else could beat Terry Hassall.
“He was probably the greatest male tennis player Delaware has ever produced,” Golinkoff said.
Two matches in particular stand out to Golinkoff. The first came when he first arrived on the tennis scene in Delaware after moving here from Pittsburgh in 1974 to work on the staff of Wilmington Mayor Tom Maloney. Because he was an unknown in Delaware, when Golinkoff entered the Middle States Tournament at the DuPont Country Club – the biggest regional event of the year – he was unseeded and drew No. 1 seed Rick Strandskov in the first round.
Golinkoff upset Stranskov, which naturally drew a lot of attention from the other competitors, including Hassall. So, when Hassall came up to him and asked if he wanted to hit some practice balls, Golinkoff hesitated before agreeing. And he said Hassall toyed with him during the practice session and the intimidated Golinkoff meekly went down in straight sets in the semifinals two days later.
“Terry was a master not only of tennis, but also of the psychology of competition,” Golinkoff said.
The other memorable match came a few years later and once again Golinkoff lost. But at least this time he won a set, taking the first one 6-3. That lit a fire under Hassall, who won the next two sets easily to capture the match.
“An indicator of Terry’s stature and aura was that my winning a set against Terry remains one of the peak events of my tennis career,” Golinkoff said.
Jeff Olmstead eventually replaced Hassall as the top-ranked player in Delaware after Hassall moved away from the area, but even though he replaced him, he never beat him, although, like Golinkoff, he did manage to win a set one time.
And, like Golinkoff, Olmstead won the first set of their Middle States semi-final and then saw Hassall take his game to another level.
“We split sets and I was up 3-1 in the third set,” Olmstead said. “I got ahead of myself and Terry, being the competitor that he was, came back and won the next five games.”
Olmstead, who played No. 1 singles at the University of Delaware and was ranked No. 1 in the state for six years – he’s in the Delaware Tennis Hall of Fame – said that Hassall wasn’t a big hitter, even though he was animated on the court and wasn’t shy about tossing an occasional racket when he wasn’t happy with one of his strokes or an umpire’s call.
“He would never overpower anyone,” said Olmstead, “but he was very clever and he would outsmart them.”
“Terry did not have any weaknesses that you could attack,” Olmstead added. “You had to work for every point and his quickness made it impossible to overpower him.”
It’s a testament to Hassall’s ability that 40 years after he started to dominate the local men’s tennis scene, he’s still considered the best that ever was in Delaware. And despite his problems later in life, that remains Terry Hassall’s legacy.