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Eventually, for reasons of safety and sanity, tennis was presented as an alternative recreation to Barbara. At 12 she was playing local age-group tournaments, albeit without lessons or coaching. Within two years she had become the top-ranked 14-year-old girl in New England, and at 16 she was 16th in the country in the Girls' 18s. In short, Potter was a fine junior player, but hardly a prodigy.
Bobbie, who has accompanied her daughter to tournaments since Barbara started playing, is as much her alter ego as a mother can be. They dine together, go to movies and museums together and generally keep each other's spirits alive through the ups and downs of a competitive existence. "We're a good match," says Barbara. "Mother is very communicative. I'm not uncommunicative. I've become more and more open since I've grown up a bit. We have a lot of fun together; that's really true."
Money was usually in short supply when the Potter children were growing up, but their lives were no less gracious for its lack, thanks to Bobbie's special genius for resurrecting and making over and doing it with considerable flair. "My mother could entertain the Queen of England on $10 a day," says Barbara.
"If Bobbie had been a man in World War II, she'd have been a great scrounger," says Don Usher, an old friend who is coach of the women's tennis team at Harvard. "It's an unbelievable expense to train a professional tennis player indoors. She worked hard to get things so that everybody came out a little bit ahead and Barbie got helped."
It was Usher who first spotted Barbara at a New England junior tournament and who helped her find a coach and money to travel. "I felt anybody who wanted to work as hard as she did had to be given the opportunity to fail," says Usher.
"He is a crusty, charmless, generous man," says Barbara.
These days Usher makes sure that Potter has courts and practice time and partners, usually a member of the Harvard men's team, when she's around Boston, which is most of the time she's not playing a tournament. While there, she lives in the spacious Chestnut Hill home of her business manager, Fred Sharf, where she has her own room.
And oh, does she practice. No one on the women's circuit works as hard. "Barbara is a prime example of someone who has made it by dint of hard work rather than God-given talent," says Sharf. "When she's at our house, she leaves every morning at 7:30 and doesn't return until suppertime. Virtually the entire day she's either on the court or exercising. One night we had a dinner party. About 10:30, while everyone else was watching TV, the lights on my court went on. I went out and saw Barbara hitting serves. She said she hadn't hit the number of buckets she had set out to hit that day and wouldn't go to bed until she had."
One day recently, after a workout with two Harvard players, she realized she was referring to them as boys, though both were seniors and two years older than she. As she arranged ice bags around her left ankle and left elbow and shoulder, a preventive measure she takes after playing, Potter speculated aloud about why.
"Maybe on the tennis tour there are people and places and situations that I've seen that they haven't," she says. "I've waded through more muddy puddles, perhaps. It sounds kind of jaded and cynical and old, and that's hardly what I am, but think about the out-for-the-big-buck kinds of people, that sleazier half of the world that seems to flock to the big-money professions like tennis. They don't hang around the Ivy League too much. But they're there in the tennis world, and they have to be dealt with."