Mel Purcell won two Kentucky high school doubles titles with his older brother, Del. Not bad for a middle-school student from Murray.
The young prodigy went on to win an NCAA doubles championship, seven ATP crowns, reached No. 21 in the world in singles and No. 17 in the year-end Grand Prix standings in 1982 and 1983, arguably the best Kentucky tennis player ever. Other notable achievements include being named 1980 ATP Newcomer of the Year and reaching the quarterfinals at 1983 Wimbledon and winning the 1980 NCAA Indoors. He was inducted into the Kentucky Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame earlier this year.
Purcell hasn’t strayed from his Bluegrass State roots, which just may have caused International Tennis Hall of Fame journalist Bud Collins to nickname him “Huck Finn” in 1980.
His father, Bennie, was the Murray State head tennis and assistant basketball coach after a record-setting career as a MSU Hall of Fame and Washington Generals hoops player. Mel is in his 18rd year as the men’s head tennis coach, following five years in which he was his father’s assistant.
After winning the Kentucky High School championship as a senior at Murray High School, Mel moved on to the University of Memphis and won the Metro Conference singles and doubles titles in his freshman year. His coach that year was Tommy Buford, who is also being inducted into the Southern Tennis Hall of Fame in 2016.
In the next year, Purcell transferred to Tennessee and raked in two SEC titles. He captured the 1980 NCAA doubles title with Rodney Harmon and was named an All-American.
Purcell made an immediate impact on the ATP World Tour in 1980, finishing as the finalist in Indianapolis, semifinalist at the Japan Open and quarterfinalist in Atlanta and Maui. He reached his highest singles ranking of No. 21 twice, in 1980 and 1982, and finished No. 28 or higher in four straight end-of-year rankings.
The next year was his watershed season, taking the Atlanta, Tampa and Tel Aviv titles. Additionally, he advanced to the French Open round of 16 twice while also being the doubles runner-up and singles semifinalist in Denver. He reached four other ATP singles finals: 1982 Boston and Los Angeles, and 1983 Monte Carlo and Vienna. During his career, he defeated former No. 1 players Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase and Guillermo Vilas.
Teaming up with four different partners, he was victorious in doubles in Vienna twice (Smith in 1983 and Tim Wilkison in 1987), WCT/Delray Beach (Eliot Teltscher) and Munich (Chip Hopper). He also reached four other finals in doubles. He won a senior doubles title with Borg. His career high of No. 47 in doubles came in 1984 and he won nearly $800,000 in ATP prize money.
At Murray State, he guided the program to back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference Championships and NCAA Tournament appearances in 2001 and 2002. The team’s performance in those two seasons led to Purcell being named OVC Coach of the Year in 2001 and 2002. After going 4-2 against OVC teams during the regular season in 2001, the Racers claimed the OVC Championship and earned a bid to the program’s first NCAA Tournament. In 2002, the squad went undefeated (5-0) in the OVC and captured Murray State’s 19th OVC Championship.
Induction into the Southern Tennis Hall of Fame
Mel Purcell, Kentucky, inducted in 2016
- Won 2 Kentucky high school doubles titles with his older brother when he was in middle school and a singles title as a senior
- Played for at the University of Memphis and won the Metro Conference single and doubles titles his freshman year before transferring to Tennessee where he won 2 SEC titles and captured the 1980 NCAA Indoor Singles Championship and the NCAA Doubles titles and was an All-American
- Joined the ATP tour and made an immediate impact when he was named the 1980 ATP Newcomer of the Year, was a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 1983 and earned his highest singles ranking of number 21 in the world in 1980 and 1982
- Won 3 ATP singles titles in Atlanta, Tampa and Tel Aviv and reached the finals 4 other times
- Won 4 ATP doubles titles and was a finalist in 4 other tournaments, reached a ranking of number 47 in the world in doubles and won a senior doubles title with Bjorn Borg
- Joined his father as the assistant tennis coach at Murray State and became head coach in 1997 and his team won consecutive Ohio Valley Conference Championships in 2001 and 2002 and he was named the Conference Coach of the Year
- Inducted into the Kentucky Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985 and the 2016 Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015