Fishburne's No. 1 age-group rank takes her around world

Diane Fishburne, 52, is the top-ranked women's 50 tennis player in the world.

Play tennis and see the world, most expenses paid.

If that sounds exciting and glamorous, it is. But there's a price to pay. Hard work, sweat and injuries. Diane Fishburne has paid the price many times over for her world travels.

Tennis travel has been Fishburne's story the last dozen years, including trips to South Africa, Turkey, Mexico, Australia, South America, Spain, England and Germany.

Next year, it's New Zealand.

Fishburne can't wait.

And much of the travel is compliments of the U.S. Tennis Association. It just happens that Fishburne is the No. 1 women's 50 player in the world. She has the individual world championship to prove it.

Tennis always has been special to this 52-year-old Florida native. She was a collegiate All-American for the College of Charleston while winning a small-college national singles title.

The USTA came to the forefront at age 39 when she was invited to play on a women's 40 U.S. cup team in the World Team Tennis Championships.

She hasn't looked back while soaring to the top of women's senior tennis.

It hasn't been easy.

"There's always something … losing toenails, elbow problems, wear and tear," Fishburne said.

"I fixed the elbow problem by changing strokes, and my knee is actually pain-free now," she said about the surgery she underwent on her right knee three years ago.

Those are only small distractions in Fishburne's tennis world. She continues to play with the passion of a teenager because of daily conditioning and training. "I do cardio, on-court stuff, drills and playing matches. I do 30 minutes of cardio every day, and then I play a tennis match or do drills with someone," said Fishburne, a tennis instructor at the Country Club of Charleston.

What drives her to such a high level of competition? "Passion for the sport and love of playing and competing … if you don't like that, you won't be out there long."

The World Team Championships typically are held one week each year at an international resort setting, followed the next week by the individual championships at a site nearby or at least in the same country. Fishburne usually plays both events.

In her latest travels, Fishburne led the USTA's women's 50 Maria Bueno Cup team to the world championship last month in Mexico City in an astonishing two-woman display with Susan Wright of Colorado. Fishburne and Wright won all of the matches the Americans needed, sweeping the clinching two singles matches in four of the five team competitions, and teaming up to win doubles after the lone singles sweep that escaped them.

The following week, Fishburne took a five-hour bus ride to San Luis Potosi, Mexico, to compete in the individual world championships. She went 5-0 there to capture her fourth world singles championship.

The USTA finances the expenses for the team competitions. The extra week for the individual competition is the player's responsibility.

"They give us a certain amount of money and we have to make it work out," Fishburne said.

The big thing, of course, is being selected for one of the USTA's international cup teams. "The teams are selected by the rankings and records. Your doubles ranking is taken into consideration (by the committee), but singles is the biggest criteria."

And if you're usually at or near the top of the rankings, the selection is rather easy.

Fishburne has not only won four world titles, but she has won 26 national USTA titles, including four national mother/son titles with son Matt Hane.

Fishburne qualifies for her national ranking by playing in at least one of the four USTA national tournaments along with other tournaments. She usually plays in the national clay courts in Pensacola, Fla.

As a player such as Fishburne or fellow international senior standout Brenda Carter of Charleston ages, the player simply joins another U.S. cup team and continues to compete against many of the same international players.

The game changes with the age groups. Fishburne now sees more lobs, forcing her to alter her game. "I have to take a lot of balls out of the air … the middle-court ball … the transition ball to avoid lobs," she said.

Fishburne is a 5.0 NTRP- rated player, but because of her many travels and tennis commitments, she usually doesn't play league tennis except mixed doubles. "I don't play the local league. I've tried it and the league always falls apart. Sometimes the teams go straight to state, but it's always on weekends when I have nationals or something else."

Naturally, she has a long resume of tennis honors since she started playing the game at age 10 in Jacksonville, Fla. Topping off the recognition was being selected as the Professional Tennis Registry female player of the decade in February. Other honors include the S.C. Tennis Hall of Fame, College of Charleston Athletic Hall of Fame and the 2008 PTR female player of the year award.

Reach James Beck at jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.