On the road back from yet another Big Ten victory earlier thisseason, women’s tennis coach Claire Pollard thought she’d give herteam a break.
“You don’t celebrate enough,” she told them. “You shouldcelebrate more.”
The Northwestern players could have jumped on the opportunity torelish a victory before looking to the next match, to ditch modestyfor honesty, to eat something other than humble pie for once.
Instead Pollard’s offer was met with quiet stares from everyonebut senior Ruth Barnes.
“People celebrate in different manners,” sophomore CristelleGrier said. “The win shows how much you worked for it.”
This is the always-hungry, never-satisfied attitude Pollard hasbred in her players.
In 1998 she took over an experienced team that hadn’t won a BigTen championship in 13 years. Six years — and six conferencetitles — later, Pollard has NU on the brink of becoming one of thenation’s elite programs.
Pollard began playing tennis when she was eight years old inSurrey, England, but she didn’t concentrate on just one sport.
“When there was nothing better to do she played tennis,”Pollard’s mother, Diana, said. “But she could go and play hockey,or go and play football, and go and play cricket. And we encouragedher to — we didn’t want her to concentrate too much on tennis orany sport and get sick of it.”
Her parents not only encouraged Pollard to vary her activities,but to measure success on a personal level.
“I think my parents did a very good job of instilling that intome,” Pollard said. “It’s the effort you give, and if you’re givingthe effort, then that’s all you can expect, and you are successfuleither way.”
As she grew older, Pollard narrowed her favorite sports to two:tennis and soccer. She chose to pursue a career in tennis becausethere were more opportunities available in tennis — her highschool didn’t even have a women’s soccer team.
Pollard hinted at her future prowess early in her career,becoming the ladies’ champion of her tennis club at age 12. Shewent on to play college tennis at Mississippi State, and won theNCAA doubles championship in 1989. She played in Wimbledon and theU.S. Open that same year.
In 1990, just one year after graduating, Pollard was chosen asthe head coach of her alma mater, coaching some of her formerteammates.
“I was a terrible coach then,” Pollard said. “I look back on itnow and I realize I was useless. I feel bad for the girls that theyhad to have someone so young and na�ve.”
Pollard coached the Bulldogs to an 11-10 record in her onlyseason, then went back to England to work for the Chris Lane TennisClub.
In 1993, another coaching opportunity arose, this time at Lamarin Beaumont, Texas. In her last four seasons at Lamar, Pollardcoached both the men’s and women’s teams. She recognized thedifferences between men’s and women’s players — for one, the womendidn’t care that Pollard was a successful player.
“Guys are just so much more competitive. You don’t have tomotivate them as much,” Pollard said. “The competitive instinctjust takes over. You have to nurture that in a girl and learn tobring that out of a girl.”
THE SPOILS OF VICTORY
When Pollard packed her bags for Evanston after five years atLamar, previous NU coach Lisa Fortman didn’t leave her devoid oftalent. The program had never finished below fourth in the Big Ten,but found itself stuck in a rut of second- and third-placefinishes.
Pollard inherited a senior-laden team, and behind her “new burstof energy,” they were able to win the Big Ten for the first timesince 1986.
NU hasn’t looked back since. Not only has it added five more BigTen Championships since Pollard took over, the Cats have gainednational recognition. In 2000 they began a run of three straightSweet Sixteen appearances. At first, players in other programs weresurprised to see NU among the country’s powerhouses, but they soonbecame accustomed to playing with the purple and white.
The team’s success was recognized by the university, and in 2002the Cats moved into a new indoor facility, Combe Tennis Center. Thenew addition features a 300-seat spectator area, a lavishscoreboard and six courts — three more than “The Bubble,” NU’sprevious facility. Although tennis is primarily an outdoor sport,the sparkling new facility enticed recruits more than theBubble.
“I think it stopped hurting us,” Pollard said. “I don’t know ifit necessarily helps us because tennis is an outdoor sport. Itenables us to get someone that maybe we wouldn’t have a chance withfive years ago.”
But success demands a different coaching outlook.
“I used to have ‘Fun Fridays’ every week,” Pollard said. “Wejust played these ridiculous games, but it worked.
“It’s gotten harder for me this year because obviously thestakes are higher, we’re trying to achieve more, we’re trying to bebetter, and is there room for Fun Friday? I ask myself this all thetime. I don’t know if I know the answer.”
Sophomore Cristelle Grier believes that the team has movedbeyond Fun Fridays.
“The team has evolved,” Grier said. “We’ve just gotten betterand better from the harder and harder work we’ve done. I wouldprefer to get better on a Friday than have fun on a Friday.”
Pollard asks her players to work hard for her, because she poursall her energy into tennis. She is an avid reader of any book thatwill give her coaching insight, counting Bill Parcells and MikeKrzyzewski’s books among her favorites.
According to Grier, Pollard doesn’t have any bizzaremotivational tools “unless you call being available 24 hours tohelp you get better strange.”
Pollard may be available to the players regardless of thereason, but it doesn’t mean she’ll be awake a the time of need.
“I go to bed by far the earliest of anyone on the team,” Pollardsaid. “I am done with the day by nine. I’ve had enough of living, Ineed to sleep. I have a great job, I get to do what I love, and Igo home and I sleep.”
‘CLOSER TO THE TOP’
Although NU’s No. 10 seeding heading into this weekend’s NCAAregional isn’t as high as the No. 7 seed it earned in 2001, Pollardsaid the team performed consistently better than any of herprevious squads.
The Cats have established themselves as the dominant program inthe Big Ten and the Midwest, but Pollard wants more.
“We certainly aren’t satisfied where we’re at now,” Pollardsaid. “Obviously the closer to the top of the mountain you get, thesteps become a lot slower and a lot more difficult, and it seemslike you’re not going to get there.
“We’ve been able to recruit a good class and make them better.Now we need to recruit great players and make them better.”
The higher NU sets its sights, the more emphasis Pollard saidshe must place on bringing in a strong class instead ofconcentrating on development, her true passion.
“I take a lot of pride in Grier, but Grier arrived hereamazingly, and I can’t take all the credit,” Pollard said. “Butsomeone like Jessica Rush, who didn’t blow anyone away but now isgoing to make the NCAA championships for the second year — youtake a lot of pride in that.”
Next season, NU will bring in one of the nation’s top recruits,Florida native Audra Cohen. But the Cats still have to continue tonet the country’s elite players before they can join elite programssuch as Florida and Stanford.
Pollard likes the direction the program is heading, but for themoment she doesn’t care about next year.
“I think we can have the best year we’ve ever had in the NCAAtournament,” Pollard said. “I just want to get out of here and goto Athens (Georgia).”
Pollard has the team poised to make the next step — contendingfor a national title — or at least to keep modestly celebratingwins on Saturdays and Sundays.
Even if it means no more Fun Fridays.