Connected While Apart: Northwestern women’s tennis bonds over lost season to build a culture for the future

Combe+Tennis+Center%2C+the+home+court+of+Northwestern+women%E2%80%99s+tennis.+Due+to+the+COVID-19+pandemic%2C+the+Wildcats%E2%80%99+final+five+home+matches+were+canceled.+

Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Combe Tennis Center, the home court of Northwestern women’s tennis. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wildcats’ final five home matches were canceled.

Drew Schott, Reporter

On March 7, Northwestern fell to No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio.

The loss to the Buckeyes dropped the Wildcats’ record to 5-6, but coach Claire Pollard remained optimistic in NU’s ability to turn the season around.

“We beat Ohio State in doubles,” Pollard said. “Slowly but surely… we were starting to play at a much higher level.”

The Cats’ next match against No. 13 Virginia provided the perfect opportunity for NU to compete with one of the nation’s top programs.

Located at the United States Tennis Association’s national campus in Lake Nona, Florida, the match was scheduled to appear on the Tennis Channel as part of the network’s College MatchDay programming. A Cats win in the Sunshine State would not only elevate the squad back to .500, but also potentially lift NU — which has won 15 Big Ten championships and made 24 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament — back into the national spotlight.

The Cats would never make the 1,200-mile trip south.

On March 12, the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following day, an email from athletic director Jim Phillips officially confirmed the cancelation of NU’s campaign.

“We were absolutely heartbroken,” senior Julie Byrne said. “It was one of the worst moments ever because… everything was stripped away from me. It was a tough moment for the team.”

After speaking with her teammates Thursday night, sophomore Clarissa Hand expected she would still be traveling to Florida on March 13.

But the following morning, Hand — the first Cats player to earn a berth in the NCAA singles championship since 2007 — quickly knew the day would not proceed as planned.

“I woke up to a FaceTime call from my sister (freshman Christina Hand) that said ‘Hey, are we still going?’” Hand said. “I said, ‘Wait, what do you mean?’ And I looked at the group chat and there’s about 50 messages. The very first one said, ‘Unpack your bags.”

Pollard called a meeting to discuss the trip’s cancelation and the likely conclusion of the season. As the team sat in the locker room awaiting her arrival, Phillips’ email appeared in their inboxes. Hand said half the team broke out into tears amid the news.

With athletes located in four states and three countries, the squad remains in contact through a group chat and bi-weekly Zoom meetings. On Tuesdays, the team discusses topics like maximizing fitness and practice time during the pandemic. Thursday gatherings change weekly, from Pollard talking with specific athletes to a sports psychologist speaking with the entire squad.

Byrne says these meetings unite NU and affirm a team commitment to work hard while match play is suspended.

“It is creating a baseline,” Byrne said. “Just kind of making sure that everyone is understanding what is necessary, what is expected in order to build our culture.”

Despite their physical separation, the Cats are finding unique ways to have fun.

On April 16, Hand coordinated a TikTok where she and her teammates performed tricks with their tennis rackets and hit balls to each other across screens. One player takes over the team Instagram each Monday to showcase their daily routine and answer questions from followers.

“We end up asking each other questions, so I just have a bunch of inside jokes,” Hand said. “I think that’s been fun for us, but that also keeps us connected to our supporters back home.”

With gyms and tennis courts closed in some locations, Pollard said each athlete is practicing in a different way.

After she arrived home in Dublin, Ireland, Byrne found her nearby tennis courts closed. So, the senior practiced her serves and volleys on a wall down the road from her house until the courts reopened five weeks later. Additionally, she set up cones in a parking lot for footwork drills given to her by team fitness trainers.

The Hand sisters played on tennis courts for a week and a half until New Jersey’s Parks and Recreation Department deadlocked the facilities or took the nets down. At that point, the siblings shifted their workouts to a local track.

Throughout the spring, Byrne has worked with her teammates to build a culture that she hopes will lift NU to the top of the Big Ten.

“We’re using this time to dig deeper,” Byrne said. “We’re just putting in a lot of work… so that when we are back together, we will have a really good understanding of what an ideal practice looks like and the ways that we can be the most competitive team.”

In light of the season’s early conclusion, Byrne — the team’s only senior — has the option to receive an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA.

With organized team activities suspended until June 1, the question of when the Cats will return to the court remains unanswered. But if one thing is for sure, it is that the team’s constant communication and hard work has solidified a secure foundation for the upcoming season.

“The bond (among) us will be even stronger,” Hand said. “And with six upperclassmen next year, we’re going to have a ton of experience. We’re going to have really strong leadership roles.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @dschott328

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