When Claire Pollard first paired Jessica Rush and Cristelle Grier together, the Northwestern women’s tennis coach had no idea what the duo would become.
“I wish I could take credit for having seen what would have become but I can’t,” Pollard said. “I just kept trying things and that emerged as a pretty good option.”
To say they are a pretty good option is like saying Michael Jordan wouldn’t be such a bad choice to take a last second shot. Pollard’s decision to pair Grier and Rush hit the nail on the head.
After winning the ITA National Indoor Championships doubles title in November, sophomore Grier and senior Rush were awarded the No. 1 national ranking.
And for a school that buzzes about the Motor City Bowl and its men’s basketball squad cracking the .500 mark, being the nation’s best at something is most certainly a noteworthy accomplishment for NU athletics.
But the Rush and Grier pairing wasn’t a reality from the start. Entering last season, Rush was partnered with senior Marine Piriou, forming the nation’s No. 17 doubles team.
Rush and Grier didn’t play together until the beginning of last winter season. They won their first match, 8-0 against DePaul, and haven’t looked back since.
“(The adjustment) was actually very easy,” Grier said. “She’s very easy to play with, fun to be on the court with.”
The duo is not only extremely skilled, but the players’ individual games mesh well with each other. Grier has more of a power game, while Rush makes severe-angle volleys and arching lobs into an art form.
“I’d say we complement each other nicely,” Grier said. “She does the Yahtzee stuff and I try to do the big-hitting stuff, so it works out pretty well.”
Pollard saw the potential of a Rush-Grier pairing after Piriou left the team in Fall 2002, leaving Rush without a partner.
“(Rush and Grier) complemented each other well; you always try to put a setter and a finisher together,” Pollard said. “They had good chemistry and had good mutual respect, so a lot of times you stumble on something good on trial and error.”
In the first ITA rankings released after Grier and Rush teamed against the Blue Demons, they were voted the ninth-best doubles team in the nation. But they fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to the No. 19 duo of Jewel Peterson and Tiffany Brymer from Southern California.
Grier and Rush began this season ranked No. 6, and quickly ascended the rankings until they reached the top spot with their victory at the ITA National Indoor Championships.
Despite the attention that comes with being No. 1, Rush and Grier said they don’t let it change their mentality on the court.
“I think every time we play we try to win and do our best (without thinking about the ranking),” Rush said.
The partners don’t let the rankings factor into their games, but other teams use it as motivation. It is easiest to get fired up against the team recognized as the best in the nation.
“The only negative is that every other team is so excited by the opportunity,” Pollard said. “I don’t think there’s any extra pressure on the kids, but I think there’s extra incentive for the teams we play.”
The pair has had an amazing run this season, but it hasn’t been without bumps in the road. Rush and Grier lost for the first time during the winter season on February 6, to the No. 4 team of senior Agata Cioroch and freshman Shadisha Robinson from Georgia. Rush and Grier had bested the Georgia tandem in the semifinals of November’s ITA doubles championships.
“It’s always a sting (to lose),” Rush said. “We played a tough team. We were definitely up in the match, but they won some close points. It was a close match, and it could have gone either way.”
The tandem’s first loss of the season doesn’t worry Pollard, however.
“You can’t always lose and you can’t always win,” Pollard said. “If you did it would get a little stale, so I’m not glad we lost. But I hope we learned from it and we’re better down the road for it.”
If anything, the loss will refocus the best doubles team in the nation, a scary thought for the rest of the country.
“We targeted a couple of things to focus on,” Rush said. “Hopefully (the first loss) will inspire us to keep working hard.”
“There are always going to be weaknesses,” Grier said. “It’s just a matter if we can pick them up. Good teams will find the weakness better than weak teams.”
Although the top ranking brings a lot of publicity to NU, it doesn’t garner a lot of attention from the team.
“(The media) is much more anxious about what we’re ranked,” Pollard said. “I don’t really pay that much attention to it.”
Pollard says she rarely refers to it in practice. The only time she mentions it is when NU’s other doubles teams take on Grier and Rush. Pollard emphasizes that if the other teams can hang with that pair, they can play with anyone.
Another benefit of the ranking is it could be used as a recruiting tool.
“(The No. 1 ranking) is something we sell to juniors who we’re mailing out to right now,” Pollard said. “It’s good publicity for the program, the rankings show we’re one of the nation’s best — it does nothing but good things (for the program).”
The ranking is a nice accolade, but it is mostly a means to an end. As in basketball or any other college sport with a postseason, the ultimate goal is to be crowned the NCAA champion.
“We always have the NCAAs in the back of our mind,” Rush said. “It’s the culmination of the season. We’re playing great tennis right now, and every time we play a great team it’s an opportunity. We’re trying to take advantage of it.”