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    A Championship Quest: The Legacy of Northwestern Women's Tennis

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    By Michael Black, Athletic Communications


    "It was an art and act I came to perfect. It was part of my armory. I felt if my opponent didn't know what I was thinking then I was invincible."

    - Bjorn Borg

     

    At the conclusion of its inaugural year as a varsity program in 1976, Northwestern's women's tennis team held a rather humble record of three wins and four losses. It was not the most successful era in Wildcat athletics history, and head coach June Booth's squad appeared to be headed on a path of ordinariness.

     

    But that hardly lasted through the offseason.

     

    The next spring, the program's second on the map, Booth led her team to a remarkable 12-2 record, qualifying for its first postseason berth in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women's (AIAW) 24-team tournament.

     

    Whether she knew it or not, Booth set in motion the start of a program that would be a formidable force in the Big Ten -- which began sponsoring women's tennis after the 1981 season -- and on a national scale.

     

    It all started with the right frame of mind. A winning attitude.

     

    "What bothered me when I came to Northwestern," Booth said to Sports Illustrated's Jerry Kirshenbaum in October 1978, "was that some of the men's coaches seemed to expect to lose. We women came in with a positive attitude. We've gone after intelligent, career-oriented women who don't want to drown in a big school."

     

    Booth would leave Northwestern after the 1979 season, but the women's program had only begun to perfect the finely crafted art of winning.

     

    ***

     

    "It's difficult for most people to imagine the creative process in tennis. Seemingly it's just an athletic matter of hitting the ball consistently well within the boundaries of the court. That analysis is just as specious as thinking that the difficulty in portraying King Lear on stage is learning all the lines."  - Virginia Wade

     

    Through its first 37 years of existence, the women's tennis program has had 33 winning seasons under just four head coaches -- an indicative sign of its strength, stability and endurance.

     

    Beginning in her third year at the helm, Sandy Stap Clifton, who took over for Booth in 1980, led the team to six-consecutive top-10 finishes nationally, including two years in the top-5. NU enjoyed the success under Stap Clifton that it knew it could manage from day one.

     

    But with the peaks, come the valleys; and it is a telling sign of accomplishment when a program's "valley" would include a mere three seasons under .500 in a span of 11 years.

     

    Only twice -- in 1993 and 1997 with fourth-place conference finishes -- have the 'Cats ended the year outside the top three in the Big Ten race. Following that 1993 season, under fifth-year head coach Lisa Fortman, NU would finish with a 17-3 record, ranked 13th in the nation in the inaugural Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll in 1994.

     

    The struggles -- if you can even justify using that term -- lasted only moments in the grand scheme of time.

     

    ***

     

    "I'd like to imagine that in order to beat me, a person would have to play almost perfect tennis." - Venus Williams

     

    The stage was set for Claire Pollard in 1999 when she took the reigns of a program that finished with a 24-24 record over its previous two years. It was proven that the women could win and bring home regional recognition, but the 'Cats would need a dynamic leader to be able to consistently win on the national scene and bring conference championships back to Evanston.

     

    Pollard had the credentials. The Surrey, England, native had a remarkable career at Mississippi State University where she and her doubles partner, current Wildcat associate head coach Jackie Holden, won back-to-back Southeastern Conference championships and the 1989 NCAA Doubles Championship.

     

    Pollard had the attitude. She wanted her girls to shine both on and off the court.

     

    "When I first came to Northwestern," Pollard says, "the girls were focused primarily on academics over athletics. I strove to combine them so they didn't have to choose. I wanted to provide them with the ability to excel at both."

     

    Pollard produced results. From 1999 to 2009, she fashioned together a string of 11 consecutive Big Ten Championships -- one of the top-three streaks by any women's athletic program in conference history. With Sunday's win, Pollard clinched her 12th and the program's 14th outright Big Ten Championship.

     

    The string includes a run during which she coached NU to several program-firsts including a No. 1 national ranking in three-straight years, back-to-back No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Championships and consecutive ITA National Indoor Team championships in 2009 and 2010. She was the 2008 ITA National Coach of the Year, is a four-time ITA Midwest Region Coach of the Year honoree and a five-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, winning the award consecutively in 2008 and 2009.

     

    On top of that, every year Pollard has been in Evanston, her team has brought home the Big Ten Tournament title -- this year could mark the 14th-straight. Only Stanford (21), UIC (15) and Duke (14) have posted longer conference championship streaks in women's tennis, but no single coach has a longer championship or tournament streak than does Pollard.

     

    Pollard's sequence of conference and tournament titles becomes even more impressive when compared to some of the coaching greats across all sports.

     

    Outside of the Big Ten, John Wooden, who famously guided UCLA to nine-consecutive NCAA Championships in men's basketball from 1966-75, produced a total of 21 Pacific Coast/Pacific-8 Conference championships. Bear Bryant, the face of Alabama football, directed his teams to 13 SEC titles from 1961-81.

     

    Inside the conference walls, Dan Gable, Iowa's heralded wrestling coach, holds 25 of the Hawkeyes' 30 conference wrestling titles. James "Doc" Counsilman, Indiana's men's swimming and diving head coach from 1959-90, has all 23 of the Hoosiers' Big Ten titles to his name, with 20 of them coming in consecutive years.

     

    As arguably the most prominent women's collegiate sport, basketball has two premier coaches to boast: the University of Connecticut's Geno Auriemma and the University of Tennessee's recently retired Pat Summitt. Auriemma has accumulated 19 regular season and 18 Big East Conference championships, including 11 in a row, and Summitt led her teams to 16 regular season and SEC tournament titles, with six in succession.

     

    There is no doubt that Pollard's stretch of conference dominance at Northwestern should be measured right up with the greatest in any sport.

     

    ***

     

    "Tennis is what I do and is part of who I am." - Jennifer Capriati

     

    Along the way, Pollard has mentored her players into champions on and off the court. Under her tutelage, Northwestern has had a bevy of personal accomplishments, and the numbers speak for themselves.

     

    Since 1999, 52 players have earned Academic All-Big Ten honors. Thirty-nine have garnered All-Big Ten nods. There have been six Big Ten Freshman of the Year and eight Big Ten Player of the Year award winners. Eighteen Wildcats have received All-America distinction, and there have been 13 doubles teams and 14 singles players who have qualified for the NCAA championships.

     

    ***

     

    "What is the single most important quality in a tennis champion? I would have to say desire ... " - John McEnroe

     

    From its inception as a varsity-level sport, Northwestern's women's tennis program has established itself as a contender with an air of confidence. Its four coaches provided direction and instilled a sense of desire for winning, and winning the right way.

     

    It is ingrained in all 19 of Northwestern's athletic programs to highlight a balance of family, academics and athletics, and there is no doubt that the women's tennis program exemplifies these ideals to the highest extent.

     

    Beginning with its first serve in 1976, the heralded program, led by its coaches and scores of successful student-athletes who have graced the campus courts, has been one of dignity and accomplishment built on the desire so critical to being a part of a championship contender.


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