Former World No.89 and Vanderbilt University college tennis star Julie Ditty Qualls died on Tuesday, August 31 at the age of 42 after a six-year battle with cancer.
“We have lost a legend,” former Vanderbilt head coach Geoff Macdonald said in a statement. “Her contribution to Vanderbilt Athletics is simply remarkable. She was an ever better human being than she was a tennis player, and she was one of the Top 100 tennis players in the world.”
“To say her passing is devastating would be an understatement,” current Vanderbilt coach Aleke Tsoubanos said. “Julie was a teammate and an incredible friend. During my freshman year, Julie led us to Vanderbilt’s first ever national championship match, which was a journey with a team I will never forget. I am so grateful for our time together. Both Vanderbilt and our tennis family have lost a genuinely amazing human being and a true legend. I wish her family and friends the strength they need during this very sad time.”
Atlanta-born Ditty Qualls joined Vanderbilt in 1998 and graduated with a degree in early childhood and elementary education in 2002 before turning pro. Her career was a stellar example of hard graft and determination, which paid off in her 2007 breakthrough season.
Until then, Ditty Qualls had mostly plugged away on the USTA Pro Circuit, where she won nine titles in total, though she also qualified for Acapulco 2005 to make her WTA main draw debut. But in 2007, she compiled a 49-25 record that lifted her from No.297 to No.93 over the course of the year.
Ditty Qualls would break the Top 100 for the first time in November 2007 at the age of 28 after defeating Alizé Cornet and Vania King to reach the Québec City semifinals, a career-best WTA showing. She remains the sixth-oldest Top 100 debutante in WTA rankings history. The following year, Ditty Qualls made her debuts in the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon main draws.
Ditty Qualls would score victories over names such as Angelique Kerber, Monica Puig, Jelena Dokic and Madison Keys, with her best win by ranking coming over No.22 Alona Bondarenko at Antwerp 2008. In 2009, she made her Billie Jean King Cup debut, and joined forces with Liezel Huber to clinch the decisive quarterfinal doubles rubber for the USA 6-2, 6-3 over Argentina’s Gisela Dulko and Betina Jozami.
“I ended up doing the best at the end of my career,” Ditty Qualls reminisced this May. “I got into really good shape and ended up being Top 100 in the world, playing in World Team Tennis tournaments. I got to play in all of the Grand Slams. It was an unbelievable experience.”
Following her retirement in 2011, Ditty Qualls remained in the tennis world as a coach in her home town of Ashland, Kentucky. Despite battling metastatic breast cancer since 2015, she continued to give lessons until the week before her death. When she was inducted into the Southern Tennis Hall of Fame in 2019, Ditty Qualls reminisced about her third-grade ambitions to play professional tennis, and concluded: “I definitely achieved my goals.”
Ditty Qualls is survived by husband Josh and son Atreyu.
On social media, members of the tennis community have paid tribute to Ditty Qualls, including current and former WTA players Alison Riske, Rennae Stubbs, Alina Jidkova, Ashley Weinhold and Abigail Spears.
there are no words for the loss of Julie Ditty. When I visited my sister @VanderbiltU she made me feel like I was a part of the team at 10 years old. Her cheerful personality and love for everyone she crossed will always be remembered💔
— Alison Riske-Amritraj🇺🇸🇮🇳 (@Riske4rewards) September 1, 2021
Sending so much love to the family of Julie Ditty. Julie was a great player who always gave it all…. She fought so hard on court and recently in her fight against cancer. Sad day for the tennis family!! #ripjulie 💔💔💔💔💔
— Rennae Stubbs OLY (@rennaestubbs) September 1, 2021
Devastating news this morning. We lost a friend, once my doubles partner and a great person. RIP Julie Ditty. Sending lots of love to your family.
— Alina Jidkova (@AlinaJidkova) September 1, 2021
Crushing news to hear about the passing of Julie Ditty. Prayers and love to her family and the many people she touched on and off the court. Grateful for all the time I shared with her on the road. She will be greatly missed ❤️
— Ashley Weinhold (@AshleyWeinhold) September 2, 2021
A courageous fighter & champion on the court will be missed by many!
The heartbreaking news of Julie Ditty leaves many remembering the idol’s many accomplishments.
— ITA (@ITA_Tennis) September 1, 2021