She had been interviewed hundreds of times during her career as a professional tennis player, so Elise Burgin felt perfectly comfortable sitting on the newsroom set at ABC-27 in Harrisburg, Pa., waiting for a commercial break to end so she could answer questions about what was going on that week at Wimbledon. Suddenly, in the earpiece she was wearing so she could hear the anchorman's questions, she heard someone screaming: "Hey, the intern is on the set! What's going on here? We've got an intern on the set!"
For a split second, Burgin looked around for the intern in question. Then she stopped. "I realized," she said, laughing, "that the guy was talking about me. I was the intern."
An unpaid intern at that. Two years removed from the end of her tennis career, Burgin was learning a new profession. Gregg Mace, who had hired her, was from Baltimore and knew that Burgin, who grew up in Baltimore, had once been ranked No. 22 in the world in singles and No. 7 in doubles and that she had once had the dubious honor of being dumped from the U.S. Olympic team to clear a spot for Chris Evert. But to most of the people at ABC-27, including the nonplused director, she was just The Intern.
That was three years ago. Burgin is no longer the intern. She is now the morning sports anchor, occasionally filling in at night and doing feature reporting throughout the week. On a recent Monday she was writing and editing a piece on a man named Chuck Focht, who was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident at 37 and had turned himself into an archer and then a top table tennis player because he still needed to compete at something.
"He was inspiring," Burgin said. "People like that remind me of how lucky I was to be able to play professionally for 10 years and get paid very well while I was playing."
That attitude is just one piece of the Burgin puzzle that makes her so different from so many ex-jocks, who too often spend their post-playing careers trading on what they once were. She graduated from Stanford with a degree in journalism and always looked at tennis as an enjoyable interlude before her real life began. Which is not to say that she wasn't competitive. A shade under 5 foot 4, with dark hair, brown eyes and an easy smile, Burgin still looks like the girl next door at 37. On the court, though, she often sounded more like the drill sergeant next door. "I've gotten better," she said. "Now I say, `Fricking match.' "
She can remember almost every match she ever played. She reached the semifinals in doubles or mixed doubles at each of the four Grand Slams during her career but never made a final. Closest she ever came? "Up 6-3, 5-3, 40-15, U.S. Open, 1986," she said. "I double-faulted. Not a gag -- though I guess that's open to interpretation. Then Hana [Mandlikova] hit an all-world return and we lost in three. Not that I remember it or anything."
Burgin made very good money playing tennis and was well liked by her fellow players on the tour. She was on the Women's Tennis Association board of directors for eight years, and once beat Steffi Graf in an exhibition match in which Graf played so poorly Burgin was giving her points to keep it close. The agent who set up that match, Tom George, remembers it vividly. "Steffi was so bad, Elise was going to win 6-1, 6-1," he said. "She couldn't find the court. Elise began charging the net so Steffi could hit some passing shots to keep it close. In an exhibition you don't want anyone to win 1 and 1. It leaves the spectators feeling cheated. Most players wouldn't have gotten that when they had a chance to beat Steffi Graf. Elise got it. She always did."
In a sport where smiling is often considered against the rules, she never seemed to lose her sense of humor. One year, after losing an Australian Open semifinal in mixed doubles 7-5 in the third set, she walked into the player lounge, slumped in a chair and said, "That's it. No more picking partners in the mixed because they can play. From now on, I'm just going for cute."
Burgin was always one of those rare athletes who, as George puts it, "got it." In 1989, her mother was killed in a car accident. She then set up her playing schedule so that she could assist her brother, Harold, in caring for their father, who passed away in 1994. In 1993, Burgin, who had already been through knee surgery, saw her singles ranking start to slide rapidly. After losing a U.S. Open qualifying match, she walked away from the game even though there was still a living to be made playing doubles.
"I needed to get on to the next thing," she said. "I had been in the tennis cocoon a long time. I knew I couldn't make a living doing TV commentary because there's not enough work. I needed to go to square one and learn how to do something."
Square one turned out to be Harrisburg, a medium-size market only an hour from Baltimore. "I think it's, like, No. 43 or something," Burgin said. "In truth, I should have started in market 3,000." Burgin still picks up extra money doing tennis commentary four weeks a year for Britain's Sky Television, but Harrisburg is her home; it is her present and, at least for now, her future.
"I love doing it, and I love learning what I'm doing," she said. "I've got a long way to go, but I'm a lot better now than I was three years ago."
No one calls her The Intern anymore. Then again, they don't call her a tennis star, either. Elise Burgin, ABC-27, is just fine.