Hawaii women’s tennis: Remembering the late, great Joy Minaai

Joy Minaai was undersized but a force on the court in her days as a Rainbow Wahine tennis player in the early 1980s. / Photo courtesy UH athletics

Celebration of Life services for Joy Minaai, who starred in tennis at the University of Hawaii and in 1983 won the Bonham Award for all-around excellence as a student-athlete and sportsmanship and community service, are set for July 6 at New Hope Chapel at Sand Island. Minaai, 57, passed away peacefully at her Makiki home recently after a long illness.

Minaai, who was 5 feet 3, did not hit the ball hard, but for most of her Rainbow Wahine career played the No. 1 singles spot. Her career record in singles was 29-7, usually going up against the other team’s best player.

“I didn’t have much power. I relied a lot on backspin,” Minaai said recently. “I was able to return pretty much anything and that would sometimes frustrate my opponent.”

During practices, those opponents were her teammates. Coach Jim Schwitters had players compete for position with challenge matches. Teammate Rosie (Vera Cruz) Bareis remembers Minaai being intent on taking and keeping the top spot.

“She really wanted that and trained very hard for it,” Bareis said. “She was No. 1 because she was determined to be No. 1.”

Bareis said that while Minaai was an intense competitor even in practice, she was also a great teammate.

“You knew she always had your back,” Bareis said of Minaai, who paid her a surprise visit two years ago at the Claremont (Calif.) Resort and Spa, where Bareis is Director of Tennis. “Fun and playful, but when it was time, serious and businesslike. She had that samurai attitude. Very focused. Very competitive. She mastered her trade very well.”

Minaai was a crafty “counter-puncher” who wore down her opponents, Bareis said.

“She was like a human wall. She got a lot of balls back in play until you would miss,” Bareis said. “She had to be in really good shape to play her style, and have the mind-set that she’s not going to hit a lot of winners. Very,very precision-like, a very precision ground stroke.

“Also, she had an underhanded serve that would drive people nutso. Especially with the Manoa wind, the ball went all over the place. She developed it as a weapon. It was a strategic thing for her because she wasn’t very big.”

Joy Minaai. / Photo courtesy UH athletics

Her lack of size allowed her to surprise opponents.

“Joy was an under-packaged talent. You got much more out of the box than reasonably expected when she stepped onto the court,” said Nicky Clark, who handled media relations for women’s sports when Minaai was at UH. “Demure by nature. Tenacious with resolve. Her technical skills carried her to many victories. More times than not, her opponent blinked first.”

Bareis said Minaai’s success was even more impressive because she came from Hilo, which wasn’t considered a hotbed of tennis talent.

But another player a year younger from Hilo High, Jean Matayoshi, followed Minaai to Manoa in 1980.

“We didn’t think of what we didn’t have in terms of tennis facilities,” Matayoshi said. “Lincoln Park was our hang out. We would practice there, play cards while waiting for court time, walk to Pizza Hut or Jimmy’s Drive-In for lunch. Fun times.”

Minaai was a prodigy and already had a separate coach and additional workout schedule, but was still one of the girls off the court.

“We played a lot against each other when we were young and of course she’d always beat me,” Matayoshi said. “She was clever. And she had that crazy, underhand, funky serve.”

Lillian Leong is another high school teammate and lifelong friend who knew Minaai since “hanabata days.” Minaai was “a great player, but humble about it,” Leong said.

“She could probably beat me left-handed. If I had to go up against her in a tournament I’d say ‘Can you at least just give me one game? And she’d laugh,’ ” Leong said. “But we were great friends and had many great memories.”

In 1982, Minaai was a key player on the Wahine team that went 28-0, including a win over powerhouse Arizona State. But the UH women’s tennis team was not in a conference, and was not selected for postseason play by the AIAW.

After graduating with a 3.8 cumulative grade-point-average and a degree in speech communications in 1983, Minaai moved to San Francisco where she coached and taught tennis. While she was in the Bay Area in 1987, she was named the Northern California Cherry Blossom queen.

She moved to Los Angeles to try acting and modeling. “When I was a little girl in Hilo, I’d watch the TV and always be curious about the people in that little box,” Minaai said recently. “After awhile, it became my dream to be one of them.”

Joy Minaai recently on the set of an upcoming movie with friend Brandon Toma. / Courtesy photo

Minaai appeared in “a couple of commercial print ads,” she said, but soon moved back to Hilo from Los Angeles to care for her mother who was stricken with cancer. Following her mother’s passing, Minaai moved to Oahu.

Among other jobs on Oahu, Minaai taught tennis at the Honolulu Club.

She also renewed her acting career, and had a recurring co-starring role in “Hawaii Five-0” as a judge (2013, 2015). Her credits also include playing a reporter in “Lost” (2005) and stunt work in “Pearl Harbor” (2001) and “Fantasy Island” (1998).

“She had a look that worked for the Hawaii market,” said her representative, Joy Kam of the Kathy Muller talent agency. “She loved acting and worked hard at it.”

Minaai had a reputation for nurturing, including other actors.

“I was new, and she was very caring and reached out to me to help me find my ground,” said Leanne Natsuyo Teves, who was relatively new to acting when she met Minaai in 2012. “She was very encouraging and happy to talk to me.”

In March, Minaai did featured background acting for an upcoming Netflix movie filmed on Oahu.

“She was so great on set,” said Brandon Toma, who met her while also working on that film. “She was so caring, so motherly. She wanted to find me a girlfriend.”

Minaai was also very active in salsa dancing, and at her church, New Hope Oahu, she taught Sunday school and was in a women’s prayer group.

The July 6 Celebration of her life at New Hope includes a 7:30 a.m. visitation, followed by 9 a.m. service. Joy Mari Minaai, who was born in Hilo, is survived by her sister Dawn, and her brother, Brian.


  1. Elaine nishime June 17, 2019 7:52 am

    Great story. Well written! Thank you!!!

  2. Rabbit Ears June 17, 2019 8:09 am

    RIP Joy. Just a wonderful person.

  3. Cheryl S Nakagawa June 17, 2019 8:46 am

    Knowing you since childhood, I will miss you and will always cherish the times we shared. Cousin Cheryl

  4. Linda (Nakagawa) Laughlin June 17, 2019 11:09 am

    You have been a tremendous impact on others, Joy, and I will miss your great smile and bubbly personality. My heart aches as you will no longer be part of our earthly family, but I look forward to seeing you again in a better place!

  5. M June 17, 2019 7:21 pm

    Goodbye Joy

  6. Iris Nitta June 17, 2019 7:53 pm

    We shall miss your radiant smile and sweet conversations💕. All the little 3rd cousins will miss you so mich!!

  7. M June 17, 2019 8:36 pm

    Goodbye Joy. RIP

  8. Geekane June 20, 2019 1:23 am

    Joyful Joy I used to call. And will always remember you as just that-Joyful. I will miss you. And we will see each other again one day. Rest peacefully Joyful Joy.

  9. Kai June 20, 2019 10:40 pm

    Truly a wonderful person

    Inspiring and warm

    She taught me tennis growing up, and even though I was always terrible at tennis I always looked forward to seeing her.

    She will be forever loved, honored, and remembered with Aloha.

    Mahalo Nui Loa Joy


  10. Randy M. June 22, 2019 8:03 am

    You have been a dear friend for years and I will miss that joyous smile and your sparkle in life..
    You have always been a Joy to be with whenever we engaged in our discussions and storytelling.
    I am very saddened of your departure but will seek comfort in reflecting on those special memories as I marvel at your spirit and our shared times.
    In lifetime there are few who come into your life who truly leave an impression and a footprint, and you were one who has left that with me. Forever my dear friend….until we meet again, I am honored to have been your friend and I will miss you.

  11. John Arakaki Graff June 28, 2019 6:04 am

    Warmest Aloha Joy 🌸 You will be missed.

  12. Colby June 30, 2019 10:08 am

    A wonderful, caring, true friend. I will miss her always.

  13. JULIE ANN DEMELLO July 2, 2019 9:21 pm

    I will miss your beautiful smile, deep conversations and that giggle. I love you my friend RIP

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