As the summer months drift by, one constant for many tennis players and fans is tuning in to hear John McEnroe, Mary Carillo, and the rest of the broadcast crew handicap the backhands and serves of today's championship competitors at the French Open, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open. But tennis is far from being an entirely athletic endeavor, and the commentary mirrors this, drifting often to matters mental and emotional. As any player will tell you, much of the game can be won or lost between the ears. Alone on the court against an opponent, the player is very much a soloist; there are no substitutions, no huddles, and, ultimately, no excuses. Take care of business, or lose.
It is a bit incongruous, then, that in the world of varsity college tennis, team is supreme. A school's overall win-loss record is calculated on the aggregate for a particular match. When Duke's players, together, win more matches than their opponents, they earn the overall victory. And so the seeming paradox: an individual sport played as a team.
The Duke women's tennis team won its first-ever national championship this season, capping an eighteen-match winning streak with a final-round tournament drubbing of Cal-Berkeley. The title is the university's tenth overall and is no mean accomplishment for a crew that competed almost the entire season with only six healthy players—the bare minimum necessary and an anomaly in the sport.
The structure of women's team college tennis is complicated: To win the match, a team needs four points. First, three doubles teams compete. The college with two of the best-of-three wins earns one point, called the doubles point, going toward the final count. Earning the doubles point gives the team the upper hand entering the six singles matches, which are worth one point each.
To illustrate, in a late-March contest against the University of Miami, the Blue Devils' last loss of the season, Duke dropped two doubles matches, and Miami entered the singles contest up 1-0. This is significant because a month later, at the ACC tournament, Duke grabbed the doubles point from the Miami Hurricanes.
Melissa Mang '09, one of two seniors and a co-captain of Duke's team, played in the No. 5 singles position for much of the season, and when the doubles matches were dispensed with, she moved on to her individual match, which she won in straight sets, 6-1, 7-5. Duke went on to win a squeaker, 4-3, and capture the conference championship.
Mang recalls that even though she was "totally focused" on her own match, things like the large scoreboard are hard to ignore. The courts are side by side, so players cannot avoid seeing what's going on in the other singles matches. "You wouldn't think it affects you, but it does. It's just a momentum thing." She says the pressure can ease when others are winning, or intensify when a teammate on the next court is losing. Bad days seem to drag down the energy of the whole team, while good days can be equally contagious.
Her teammate and fellow senior co-captain, Jess Robinson '09, whose father, David Robinson '79, M.D. '83, played tennis at Duke, agrees. "The energy is something you can feel out there." She describes how Duke tennis coach Jamie Ashworth stresses the importance of not relying on a teammate to pick up the slack, even when you're having an off day. "You don't want someone else to do it for you," Robinson says.
Yet Robinson was still on the court at No. 6 singles when her team clinched an important NCAA tournament quarterfinal win over its Miami rivals in their third match of the season. Those three matches, Ashworth says, are illustrative of how the team improved as the season went on: first, a blowout loss, then, a tight win, and finally, the redemptive victory. Duke never looked back, beating the University of Georgia in the semifinals before trouncing Cal.
In the finals, Mang's singles victory sealed the match, a fact she wasn't even aware of as she applied the final blows to her opponent. Focused on closing out the match, she hadn't noticed that Duke had gone up 3-0, putting them on the verge of winning the title. Suddenly, she says, her teammates were on the court congratulating her and celebrating.
Ashworth, who has been head coach at Duke for thirteen seasons, says the team dynamics can be pretty interesting. Most of the players have never been on a team before enrolling at Duke because they have pursued individual success at private tennis academies or with personal coaches. "They've never had to play for anybody but themselves," he says. As a result, he views coaching as a twofold approach. He tells his players that when they don't work as hard as they should, they hurt themselves and, equally, the team. There is, then, a necessary commitment to trusting that a teammate is working just as hard, and that mutual support is essential, he says.
That sense of teamwork is what brought first-year sensation Mallory Cecil '12 to the Blue Devils, Ashworth says. She graduated early from high school in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and joined the team in January, quickly rising to the No. 1 spot. Ashworth says his veteran players took it in stride, willing to sacrifice their place in the lineup for the good of the whole. Cecil compiled a 32-4 record individually and caught fire in the NCAA singles tournament, held in the week after the team competition. She didn't drop a set on her way to the finals, where she faced an opponent from—where else?—Miami. She was able to close out the match in two sets, capturing the individual title, only the second in Duke's history.
Cecil came to Duke from the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, a veritable factory for professional tennis players. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, the two men who dominated American men's tennis for much of the 1990s, are alumni, as are women's champions Venus and Serena Williams, Mary Pierce, and Monica Seles.
Now that Cecil has ascended to the top of women's college tennis, there is speculation that she will turn pro. The national championship puts her in a strong position to earn a bid to the U.S. Open, which begins in August, and she is back at Bollettieri getting ready to play in summer tournaments.
Depending on how she fares, Cecil says she will consider going pro. She says the family atmosphere on the team and a great first semester at Duke will also be strong factors in her decision.
At a press conference immediately following the singles championship match, the first thing Cecil said was that her teammates were at the front of her mind. "Words can't describe how much fight and heart went into this for me, and for me to be out here representing my team and representing Duke, I couldn't ask for more." After a season that necessarily brought them closer to one another, it seems likely that any player from this championship Duke team would have reacted exactly the same way.