Vanderbilt Women's Tennis: First and Foremost
Words can certainly augment the power and poignancy of the electric and unforgettably sweet moments of our lives. Words give expression to the upwelling, in-dwelling feelings of pride, catharsis and satisfaction we experience when we, as human beings, conquer a challenge. When we taste a mountaintop moment and feel 20 feet tall, it is important to be able to share our story of triumph with the world.
Yet, for all the ways in which words can add to the richness of a moment that will last a lifetime, Vanderbilt athletics – most specifically, its women’s tennis team – is at a point where the most powerful words are found in the simplest facts.
The simplest fact about Vanderbilt women’s tennis? It is (simply) this: The Commodore tennis program has won a national championship for the very first time.
That one word – FIRST – is the simplest of all the simple words that capture the special nature of this occasion. VU women’s tennis has finally broken through, much as the baseball team did a year ago. The Commodore program now boasts national champions in back-to-back college sports seasons… for the FIRST time. A local, internal athletic department culture, one in which national achievements are being stacked together in various sports, is gaining large-scale momentum… for the first time.
Previous years – think of 1993 with men’s and women’s basketball both performing extremely well; 2008, with the football team winning a bowl game and men’s basketball getting a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament; 2004, with men’s basketball reaching the Sweet 16 and women’s tennis making the NCAA tournament semifinals – have witnessed multiple sports reach considerable heights at VU. However, the Dores now have national champions in consecutive years. That means a lot to the school, and moreover, it’s a small but real part of how change develops on a campus.
To say that the 2014 baseball team won this women’s tennis title would be, of course, a flawed statement and an example of considerable overreach. Yet, let’s acknowledge the point that when one group of athletes in a university community achieves at the highest level, other athletes and other sports share in the joy of the occasion. That joy can indeed translate into added inspiration and motivation. A domino effect can be created by this.
Of course, each program must internally work to improve itself – in coaching, recruiting, player development, practice, and in-game performance. No other sport can fix those specific problems or address those particular needs. Yet, a larger community of human beings can certainly draw from the well of inspiration, congratulating fellow men and women while also thinking, “If they can do it, WE can do it, too.”
That culture is beginning to take shape at Vanderbilt University and its athletics program... or at the very least, it now has a chance to develop into something more real… for the FIRST time.
Let’s look a little deeper at the women’s tennis team’s magnificent conquest at the NCAA championships in Waco, Texas. What stands out about this event, if viewed from a particularly panoramic vantage point, is that it will be memorable not just for the national title itself, but for the remarkable circumstances which surrounded it.
First of all, Waco just happens to be the place where 170 people were arrested and several people killed in a biker-gang fight straight out of Sons of Anarchy. The awful and terrible incident has nothing to do with tennis, but an event that tragic – in the locality where Vanderbilt and other schools were contesting a national title – could have provided the kind of distraction which could hijack a team’s performance. Human beings of any age are not robots. Any sensitive person could have been shaken up by that kind of event when internalizing its geographic proximity to the Baylor University campus. For 20-year-olds, the idea of being vulnerable to such an unexpected event was even more legitimate as a possibility to consider.
Now that Vanderbilt has won this championship, of course, that backstory will become a permanent part of the memory of this triumph.
The other part of the backdrop to this championship is that it was achieved in the midst of nasty weather, especially in Monday’s semifinals. There was a lengthy lightning delay and a constant threat of thunderstorms, never the ideal circumstance in which to play outdoor tennis.
If you’ve ever seen Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, you know how disruptive, even disorienting, it is to walk out on the court and then, a few minutes later, pack your bags and make a hasty retreat to the locker room. Not knowing with certainty when your match will resume is one monkey wrench thrown into the competitive trance any elite tennis player must necessarily cultivate. Not knowing if your match will be suspended throws another plot twist into the mix. Players who lead in sets want to be sure they don’t fall behind in their service game if a weather delay hits. Players serving for a set or up 15-40 in an opponent’s service game want to be able to finish a set or seal the break of serve before weather intervenes.
The reality of “firsts” – and their simple yet profound power – is magnified for Vanderbilt women’s tennis, then, because as daunting as it was to try to win a first national title, this team had to deal with so many distractions and hurdles. VU’s success in Waco is a profound testament to the coaching job done by Geoff Macdonald, especially on an internal level. He imbued mental toughness into his players, impressing upon them the need to perform within a team concept and thereby shake off the burden associated with feeling that they had to do everything themselves. This team couldn’t have done what it did in Waco without a large amount of psychological steel. Such fortitude was evident in the 4-3 comeback win over Florida – a longtime powerhouse and the team which eliminated VU in the 2014 NCAA tennis tournament – preceding the semifinals. It was evident in handling the weather threats during the semifinal win over top-seeded Southern California. It was just as apparent in Tuesday’s takedown of No. 7 UCLA in the championship confrontation.
Let’s start with the semifinals against USC (the Trojans, not the Gamecocks). Vanderbilt won the doubles point with wins at lines 1 and 2. Then, Courtney Colton and Frances Altick were able to steamroll through their matches, getting off the court quickly by surrendering no more than two games in any of the four sets they won. Astra Sharma, the heroine of the 4-3 comeback win over Florida, locked down Vanderbilt’s spot in the final by prevailing in a taxing three-set match.
Macdonald said the following to Collette Lewis of the Zoo Tennis blog site:
"We were 4-4 on February 15th. The four losses were 4-3s, really, really close. A couple of them show up as 4-2s, but we had match point on one. If you look at our schedule and compare it to any other team in the country, we played the hardest schedule. I was worried early, gosh have I put them in too difficult a competitive arena every single time out. We got to where we embraced competing and relished it. We lost some close ones, but we stayed together really nicely as a unit, learned from them. And some of those players who lost heartbreaking 3-all matches ending up winning some big ones for us, so the tough schedule worked for us very well."
In the final, Sharma – who clinched the semifinal victory over USC – once again took center stage. A 19-year-old redshirt freshman from Perth, Australia, Sharma made the decision to redshirt after suffering a wrist injury last season. Her body healed, the foremost prerequisite for an athlete who wants to compete at the highest level. Yet, it has to be said that by being able to study the game as an observer, Sharma learned something about competition.
Sharma is a skilled performer, but as Rafael Nadal could tell you, no amount of pure skill means much in tennis without the ability to compete and endure the strain – physical and mental – a tennis player confronts against quality opposition. Nadal has made a legendary career out of breaking down his opponents in crucial, end-stage moments of matches, and Sharma made a habit out of winning protracted struggles in Waco. She won her decisive quarterfinal match against Florida by a 6-4 score in the final set. She won 6-2 in the third set of her semifinal against USC. In the final against UCLA’s Chanelle Van Nguyen, Sharma lost the first set but leveled in the second and then took the third, 6-4.
This was a team championship, to be sure – VU won the doubles point, which requires successful efforts by at least four players if not all six. In singles, Ashleigh Antal needed an 8-6 tiebreaker in the second set to finish off her point against UCLA’s Kaitlin Ray. Courtney Colton also used a razor’s-edge tiebreaker victory – 7-5 in the first set – to take a straight-set point over UCLA’s Catherine Harrison. Yet, Sharma’s point – part of an extremely intense five-hour drama in which every match was close – stood above the other three.
Sharma – having been blitzed in the first set by Van Nguyen – was able to recover and get the match level at 4-4 in the final set. Yet, serving at 30-40, she was on the precipice of allowing Van Nguyen to serve for the match. This would have forced the seventh match – between VU’s Marie Casares and UCLA’s Kyle McPhillips, level at 3-3 in the final set – to decide the tournament.
Sharma, though, steeled her 19-year-old self. She saved that break point with a bread-and-butter serve-forehand combination. She escaped that game and held for 5-4. With Van Nguyen serving to stay in the match – and keep UCLA alive in the final – the nerves from both players surfaced. Van Nguyen failed to win four game points, and Sharma failed to win two break points, which were also match points and national championship points.
After six deuces, Sharma got a look at a third national championship point on Van Nguyen’s serve. Tennis points can be won by hitting a brilliant winner, but part of the truth of this sport is that it’s also won by remaining steady, and keeping the ball in play long enough that the opponent can’t keep the ball within the white lines. This is what happened on championship point No. 3, as Van Nguyen sprayed a forehand wide of the sideline to give the Commodore women’s tennis team the thrill of a lifetime.
Sharma had won a third consecutive three-set singles match in as many days.
Vanderbilt women’s tennis won its first national championship.
This women’s tennis program – having reached the NCAA semifinals for the third time at this event and the finals for the second time (2001), lifted a trophy for the FIRST time, under quite extraordinary circumstances in Waco.
It had to be arduous. It had to unfold on the razor’s edge, with four of the six singles matches involving tiebreakers, three of which were decided by the smallest possible number of points (two).
This path to a title had to run through Florida, an SEC colossus. It had to involve apocalyptic-level weather in the semifinals against Southern California, a school associated with sunshine. It had to occur in a locality – Waco – where all hell was breaking loose in matters completely removed from tennis.
No matter: These Commodores were steely and steady throughout. Let’s give Macdonald the last word in expressing just how special this team was, is, and always will be in the history of Vanderbilt athletics:
“When you think about it, the seniors on that (UCLA) team have been to four straight Final Fours. We were in new water for us and there was no panic or nerves. Well, there were nerves, of course there are in a tennis match, but I just have to say hats off to my team for handling an incredibly large moment with class, guts and great spirit. It's beautiful to be a part of."
For the first time.
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