When BJ Fleming and Heather Mowery started playing tennis together during their sophomore year on the tennis team at Northern Iowa in 1996, they were competitive.
Heather had played since age 6, BJ since he was about 11.
With a five-year advantage, Heather could topple him in singles when they first met. But as BJ got better throughout that first year, he soon could beat her, and “he rubbed it in” too.
“I got so mad,” Heather said. “A couple times, I remember I wouldn’t ride with him, I just jogged home.”
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Eventually, the two did away with singles and started to use their competitiveness to their advantage with a different game: mixed doubles.
Twenty years later, as a married couple and three-time defending champions, BJ and Heather Fleming will travel to KC from Robins, Iowa, to be one of 10 couples in this weekend’s USTA National Husband Wife Mixed Hard Court Championships.
“We just played together ever since, and we really enjoyed mixed doubles the most,” Heather said.
With five Husband Wife hardcourt championships over the last seven years, the couple seem to have a system that works: one that allows them to use the court as a competitive outlet but also support each other.
“You have to keep it positive, especially playing with your spouse,” said BJ, who married Heather in 2002. “As soon as you become negative or get down on one person, it doesn’t work out, and it makes tennis not fun to play.”
Last year, down 4-1 in the third set of the championship match and with the opponent’s husband serving, it looked as if the Flemings might fall for the first time in three years. But the couple stayed positive. They joked about themselves or the last point, trying to make the other laugh, or shared a few words of encouragement.
Then, as has become habit for the duo at the Plaza Tennis Center, they won again.
“We both know how competitive and how much the other one wants to win,” Heather said. “There’s never a doubt about that, so if someone is not playing well or is in a little bit of a rut, we know it’s not for lack of trying, and we need to do whatever we can do pick the other person up.”
Even with three kids — a 7-year-old and 2-year-old twins — the two have found a way to keep their competitive fire burning. Some nights, either Heather or BJ will stay with the kids while the other gets on a court. Other nights, grandparents will look after the kids while Heather and BJ get a chance to play.
When the Husband Wife championship comes up, the two shift priorities and make an effort to get on the court twice as much as they do throughout the rest of the year.
Their first match in their quest for four in a row will start at 5 p.m. Friday at the Plaza Tennis Center
“It’s really the one (tournament) that we gear up for and really want to win,” Heather said. “It’s a unique dynamic, and to be able to play together and have a little getaway to Kansas City, it’s great.”