NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Julie Ditty Qualls BS’02, a member of the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame who helped the women’s tennis team reach unprecedented heights and went on to distinguish herself as a professional while sharing a court with the likes of Martina Navratilova and Venus Williams, died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer.
She ranked as high as No. 89 in the world by the WTA, played in all four grand slams in both singles and doubles, and represented the United States in Federation Cup play while clinching a captivating 2009 win over Argentina.
At Vanderbilt, her success on the court and her character off the court helped forge a culture that endures to this day in one of the nation’s elite women’s tennis programs.
“We have lost a legend,” former Vanderbilt head coach Geoff Macdonald said. “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.”
Now one of the most perennially successful programs on campus, Vanderbilt women’s tennis was still in its infancy as a national contender under Macdonald when the left-handed Ditty Qualls arrived from Ashland, Kentucky, in 1998. As a freshman, she helped the team reach the NCAA Tournament Round of 16 for just the second time and became the fourth Commodore to compete in the NCAA Women’s Singles Championship.
She was just getting started. Ditty Qualls went on to win a then-record 114 singles matches at Vanderbilt, a mark that is still fourth best of all-time. As a sophomore, she became the first Commodore to win a match in the Women’s Singles Championship. As a senior, she was the first to reach the third round of that event.
Ditty Qualls earned All-American accolades in each of her final three seasons at Vanderbilt and was named the 1999 Tennessee Athlete of the Year. The tennis program grew along with her, playing for the national championship for the first time when she was a senior in 2001.
“Our hearts are completely broken for Josh, Atreyu and the entire Ditty family,” Vanderbilt head coach Aleke Tsoubanos said. “To say her passing is devastating would be an understatement. 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.”
After graduating with a degree in early childhood and elementary education, Ditty Qualls embarked on a professional tennis career that took her around the world. She competed in singles in each of tennis’ Grand Slams: Australian Open, French Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon. She represented the United States in Fed Cup competition, pairing with Liezel Huber to win a key doubles match that clinched a semifinal berth in 2009. She won more USTA Pro Circuit (36) titles than anyone in the history of the organization.
In 2004, Ditty Qualls and doubles partner Samantha Reeves faced 31-time Grand Slam doubles champion Navratilova and partner Lisa Raymond in the first round of the U.S. Open. During a 10-year career in World TeamTennis, she also played against Williams and alongside Maria Sharapova.
Although she retired from professional tennis in 2012, served as a volunteer assist coach at Vanderbilt for the 2012-13 season, and returned home to Ashland, Ditty Qualls remained active in the sport as a coach and competitor. In 2020, playing with two other former Commodores student-athletes, she won the World TeamTennis National Tournament.
When she retired, Ditty Qualls told the Daily Independent of Ashland that she had no regrets.
“The experiences are more valuable to me than the records, or wins and losses,” Ditty Qualls said at the time. “The memories, seeing the world and the friendships you make, those are the main things. I could go to any city in the world and find somebody I played tennis with. Tennis is such a small world when you meet people. It’s been an awesome experience.”