April 20, 2019.
Nerves are rushing through my body. My opponent, who I can’t stand, is walking to the baseline to get ready to serve. I wipe my face with a towel and hear my teammates shouting. The only words I can make out are “Let’s GOOO Seahaaaaawks” and “It’s KitKat Tiiiiimeeeeee boooyysss.” The latter because I am about to break my opponent’s serve: “Have a break, have a KitKat.” But not just a regular break of serve. My team is leading 3-2 in total, and my teammate playing on the court next to me is losing, which means it comes down to me. I am up 7-6/5-3/40-15. Matchpoint. If I win, we advance to the Northeast Conference finals, only for the second time in Wagner College’s history. It’s what my boys and I worked for every day, at 6 a.m., four years long. And that’s exactly what I tell myself: “This is what you suffered for. This is your moment.” I stare my opponent down one more time before he serves and I am praying for a double fault. He makes his first serve (sh*t) and charges the net. My return drops at his feet and his volley flies wide by two centimeters. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I scream, make some awkward movements, and see my teammates running to me. They hug me, slap my butt, and smiles from ear to ear. I’ve done it. No, it’s college tennis: we’ve done it. The Seahawks advance to the NEC finals and face Bryant University, our biggest rivals, the next day.
April 21, 2019:
It’s 7:30 a.m. We’re sitting at our round breakfast table in our hotel – my coach, my team, and I. Bryant’s team is sitting across from us at a different table. Some looks are exchanged. You can feel the tension. We all try to look dangerous and confident, but you can see the nerves on everyone’s face. Today’s the day. It’s them, or us. Only one team will take home the Championship rings and advance to the national NCAA Tournament – the ultimate goal. Once at the club we are told the matches will be played indoors because of the weather. As more fans are arriving, the facility is getting warmer and their voices are echoed over all six courts. We’re done with our warm-up and are ready to start. Being the captain, I address my team one more time: “This is it boys. I want to hear you from court one through court six. Loud when you’re winning, louder when you’re losing. Play to win. Play big. Play your hearts out, and play your souls out.” We form a huddle and we do our chant, the loudest of the season, the loudest of my four years as a player for Wagner.
We lose the doubles point and get together before singles. Our best player, a Ukrainian guy who never says anything, speaks up and tells us we can do it. So we get back out on court. Six singles matches at the same time. The energy is crazy. It’s not only a competition between us and our opponents – our fans are also having a battle in who can be loudest. So loud they start losing their voices. I’ve never experienced this energy at a tennis match before. I’m loving it and playing the best tennis I ever have.
But it doesn’t matter. We’ve lost, and our dream of winning the NEC Tournament goes up in smoke. I quickly shake my opponent’s hand, congratulate them, and run to my teammates who over the years have become my brothers. They are already huddled up, quiet, tears running down some of their faces. We form a circle, throw our arms around each other and cry. I know my college tennis career is over, but all I can feel is pride. We do our chant one last time, receive our trophy with fake smiles and get in the team van to go back home. We blast some throwback songs through the speakers, sing our lungs out and become the happy team we always are. We’ve lost, but tonight is time for a party.
Painful as it was, this was one of my best memories in college tennis. The feeling of brotherhood can only be understood by student-athletes who have also been part of a university team – it’s hard to convey. It’s been a year since I graduated from Wagner College (New York City), and I have to admit I miss playing college tennis. Here’s five reasons why I like college tennis better than ‘regular’ tennis.
1. Team Spirit
Tennis is an individual sport, but college tennis isn’t. It’s the best of both worlds – you’re out on the court by yourself, but you’re never lonely. After my first year in the United States I returned to the Netherlands and practiced with the academy I trained at before I left. It was dead silent, people were getting mad at themselves, and everyone wanted to beat each other badly. What I saw was a bunch of individuals running around who didn’t realize that it’s not only themselves who made them better, but also their practice mates around them. In college tennis this is different. You represent your university and you don’t just play for yourself, but for your teammates. You practice with each other every day, you eat with each other, live with each other, travel to tournaments with each other, and work towards goals with each other. My teammates became my best friends who I did and shared everything with. I realized how much I depended on the ones around me to make me into the best player I could be. If I had a rough day, my teammate would pump me up and remind me what we were working towards. We went through hardships together and celebrated moments of joy and achievement. The result was a feeling of belonging and brotherhood that is indescribable – a feeling I will foster forever.
2. Match Atmosphere
Tennis is knowns as a ‘gentlemen’s sport’ with little commotion and loud applause only after crazy points. But “quiet please” is not something an umpire will say in college tennis. In college tennis, fans don’t only move their heads from side to side – they move their lips too. A lot. Even before the matches start, both teams ‘break it down,” which means they form a circle and yell their chants, followed by loud applause and screams of the fans. And then the matches: almost after each point, fans and players shout encouraging chants. Until 2018, fans would even shout in-between the first and second serves, which is now prohibited (a player can lose a point if his/her fans make noise between serves). But the atmosphere is still electric. Six matches go on at the same time, so a lot happens. Most players make sure all of their teammates know that they are doing well. Not only by screaming “Come oooon” or “Vamooss,” but also by shouting “Break on 1 booyyysss” after a break of serve on court one. It’s a way to keep the energy level high and pump up teammates who are struggling during their match. As team captain during my senior year, my coach often came to me to tell me to pick up the energy a bit. “Fire it up,” he would say, “you guys are quiet mice compared to your opponents. Don’t let them walk over you.” And so, I would go: “Let’s go greeeeen,” and my teammates would follow with “let’s go haawwwkksss.” It makes playing a lot of fun and brings some juice to the matches.
Before college, I obviously had some guys I couldn’t be happier to beat. But to say this was my sole motivation to practice like a beast wouldn’t be true. During my four years as a student-athlete, Bryant University won the Championship every single year. Clearly, they were our biggest rival. And I must say, beating them was sometimes the only motivation to get up before 6 a.m. to start a 3-hour-long practice. Whenever one of my teammates was having a tough practice and failing mentally, we would remind him that such behavior would decrease our chances to beat Bryant. Immediately, his head would go up, and you could see the fire in his eyes. Besides it serving as motivation, experiencing school rivalry was also fun. Having the same enemy created this special feeling of brotherhood and unity, and, of course, the matches were full of energy from fans (and some sneaky trash-talking, which I secretly loved too). We never beat Bryant though, but playing them was awesome and something I never felt during league matches in the Netherlands.
4. Match Format & Scoring
The scoring in college tennis is different than in regular tennis. For each NCAA Division, rules vary a tiny bit. In D1, which I played, there are a total of seven points to be divided between two teams. The first point comes from doubles: three doubles are played simultaneously. In doubles, only one set up to 6 games is being played. Due to this set-up, the match is exciting from the start because every point counts. From the first point onwards, the energy-level makes the match very intense and there isn’t a down-moment – not for players and neither for the fans. Often, more people came to watch doubles matches than singles matches, because, unlike regular tennis, so much was happening in such a short period of time. The team that wins (at least) two doubles, gets one point, which is a massive advantage going into singles.
Singles play is a regular ‘best of three set’ match. However, just like in doubles, there is no-ad scoring (sudden death at deuce) and net serves are being played. Typically American: drama and entertainment. Although I had to get used to these two rules in the beginning – and I must admit, I hated sudden death points as a freshman – you learn to love it. At the score of 40-40, my teammates and I always used to shout “Deeeeuuuuceeee Poooiinntt” to intimidate our opponents and get ourselves pumped for this crucial point. It was interesting to see that, usually, the better team won almost all sudden death points. Due to this scoring, I now know how to play the big points, hold myself together when it matters, and get back up after a setback. I became more mentally tough due to college tennis than during my regular tennis career, and the matches were more thrilling to play.
5. Coaching & Support Team
Everyone knows that tennis is an expensive sport. Only the top layer of society can afford to have a full coaching staff. In college tennis, however, that is different. When I came to Wagner College I had full-time access to a tennis coach, a strength & conditioning coach, fysio’s, a nutritionist and a sports psychologist. Other teams often even have more than one tennis coach, making the player to coach ratio 4 or 5 to 1. Having a support team like this in regular tennis is almost unthinkable. The very best tennis pros on the ATP/WTA Tours don’t even have access to such a team. Because of this, I felt valued and I was able to get the most out of my tennis game in all aspects: mentally, physically, tactically and technically. Whenever I felt like I wanted to have an individual practice session I would just text my coach. An hour later I was on the court working my butt off. Or if I was injured, I would just walk to the trainer’s room and get treatment to recover. These were privileges I did not receive as a non-college tennis player.
Lastly, on-court coaching is allowed in college tennis. In-between each point, the coach is allowed to give you advice. I like how, in tennis, you have to come up with solutions yourself. But I have to say that because of the on-court coaching, I was able to develop a better understanding of the game: what to do when, the most effective tactics at big points, etc. The whole goal of college tennis is to develop players so that they can go out into the ‘real’ world without any trouble. And I definitely think that the coaching rule has prepared me for that.
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