Final Set

Nick Halpern

According to coach Claire Pollard, Ruth Barnes is the “brains” of the Northwestern tennis team.

But those smarts almost cost Barnes her tennis career.

The upcoming NCAA regionals bring back memories of last year’s the controversy last year that decimated the team and nearly ended Barnes’ career prematurely.

Through her turbulent career she relied on her family for support and as a senior she provides stability to the team she helped lead to national prominence.

Barnes cracked the singles lineup her freshman year for the second half of the Big Ten season. She went 4-0 in conference play that year and followed that up with two 8-2 seasons at the fifth and sixth singles spots as a sophomore and junior.

After two consecutive undefeated seasons in the Big Ten, NU lost two matches in 2003 and had its worst overall record since Pollard took over as coach in 1998. The Cats were able to bounce back to take their fifth straight Big Ten championship and appeared primed for a run in the NCAA tournament.

NCAA strikes

In May of 2003, Barnes and fellow Brit Cristelle Grier were ruled ineligible because of an advanced sequence of classes they took after the standard high school education.

NU appealed the ruling, but the decision was not reached before the Cats’ first round matchup against Kansas State. Playing without Barnes and Grier, the Cats fell 4-1.

“That was so disappointing,” Barnes said. “It was so frustrating because the atmosphere made it seem like we could do something about it, and when we couldn’t it was horrible.”

Pollard considered playing the two, but she didn’t want to jeopardize their future eligibility.

Barnes’ younger sister Alice, then a freshman at Stanford, wasn’t ruled ineligible because she didn’t take the advanced classes.

“The ironic thing is that (Ruth) received a far higher level of high school education than I did and was a straight A student all along,” the Stanford sophomore said. “Even more ironic was that she had to sacrifice so much more tennis-wise in order to handle her tougher academic schedule than I did.”

Barnes and Grier were eventually reinstated in time for Grier to play in the individual NCAA tournament, and to assure Barnes a return for her senior season.

“I remember thinking that I’d played my last college match,” Barnes said. “I hadn’t done particularly well, and I thought I really wanted to change it this year so I’d know that when I finished my career I’d really accomplished all I’d wanted.”

In her four years at NU, Barnes has always been the consummate team player but never so much as this season. She has filled in at the fifth and sixth singles spots and played and second and third doubles with two different partners.

Earlier this season, against some of the Cats’ toughest opponents, Barnes reeled off six straight singles victories.

“She’s very team orientated,” Pollard said. “I think it’d be hard to find someone who cares more about our program than Ruth. She’s definitely willing to do what it takes.”

Barnes began playing tennis “kind of by accident” after her older brother, Adrian, started. Ruth and Alice picked it up.

Following Adrian, who went to play for California, Barnes decided to come to the United States to play tennis after finishing high school. She couldn’t have continued to play had she gone to college in England.

“I really realized I didn’t want to give up tennis,” Barnes said.

crossing the pond

The transition to America wasn’t always easy for the anthropology major.

“It was difficult because the culture is quite different, although it’s subtly different which I think makes it harder initially,” Barnes said.

“Everything is bigger here, people approach one another in different ways, so I had to get used to that, but I actually like it a lot here now.”

NU’s Pollard, a fellow native of Britain, helped ease Barnes’ acclimation.

“She actually understood what I was saying – a lot of people didn’t,” Barnes said. “It really helped to have someone to understand some aspects of my mentality that come from being British.”

Although she was recruited by NU, Alice elected to attend Stanford. She and Ruth talk every night, but the conversation rarely involves tennis.

Despite playing for competing tennis powerhouses, the Barnes sisters report no sibling rivalry.

“I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive sister,” Alice said. “Throughout my life whenever I have achieved anything Ruth has always been extremely supportive. Whenever we have been in competition Ruth has always made sure that it never changed our friendship.”

The sisters haven’t been on opposite sides of the net in college yet. The two were close to facing off earlier this year in the ITA Team Championships, but NU lost to Georgia, 4-3, for the right to play Stanford in the championship match.

Both realize their teams could meet during the NCAA tournament, but they probably won’t meet individually in singles or doubles.

“I want Northwestern to go as far as possible in the NCAA tournament,” Alice said. “There is a part of me that would rather be able to support them in the other half of the draw than see them on the other side of the net.”

The NCAA’s ruling last spring gave Ruth the chance for a senior season, but now her career is drawing to a close as the NCAA tournament is fast approaching.

“The tennis is going to be over soon,” Barnes said. “I’m not really sure if I’m ready for it to be over, but I’ve just got to do what I can with the time I have left.”