There is just nothing like being a college coach. In this case, a part-time assignment but nevertheless, an experience that I will never forget. In my everyday life as a club pro, it is illegal to talk to my players when they compete in match-play. Whether it is a USTA/CTA match, coaches are prohibited to talk to their students. No complaints. However, NCAA Division I tennis allows coaches to “do their thing” during match-play as long as it does not affect the flow of the game.
In my past, I was lucky enough to be a college coach at the University of New Mexico (I had the privilege of coaching star player and friend, Dr. David Geatz) and Webber College in Lake Wales, Florida, but this occurred in another lifetime since I have been directing different club programs for the past three decades. On this special occasion, good friend and brand new Head Tennis Coach at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. David Geatz, invited me to join him at FGCU (Estero) as his assistant coach against the Eagles. Clearly, this was an offer I could not turn down because it would be such a rich experience.
Trust me, when my staff and I watch our members play league tennis, we would love to assist them and give them pointers as they play competitive matches against the top clubs in southwest Florida. But, as I alluded to earlier, it is not permitted. Knowing well that I was to encounter a group of strangers, I knew that I had to make a good first impression or I may lose them at the beginning of the match.
As expected, Coach Geatz wanted me to give the kids a pep talk before the guys hit the court. “Hey, we all know that to get into Penn one must have high SAT or ACT test scores and that may not be true with your opponents today, so let’s go and beat these guys,” I half-way kidded the team. “Coach Browne just said that you are the smarter team, so hit the courts and prove it, “Coach Geatz added. All kidding aside, the UPenn tennis team was about to play their fifth match in seven days and they were tired.
As coaches, we needed to inject as much energy as possible so the guys would play with purpose and enthusiasm and not think about fatigue. The college tennis format is rather unique; three doubles matches are played simultaneously and the team to win two of the three matches gains one point. UPenn started out with a bang winning positions one and team, thus leading 1-0. As we prepared for six singles matches against a tough pesky FGCU team, everyone was inspired to finish the trip with a win and possible momentum for the coming Ivy League matches.
Strangely enough, I was coaching the number one and four players and I knew the top-dog at FGCU player since he and Matt Browne faced off two years earlier in Clearwater, Florida. I was familiar with his game and the strategy needed to beat him. With a nice FGCU crowd and the players from each team charged up, the atmosphere was electric. Different players from both squads were cheering on their fellow teammates and all six courts were jumping with enthusiasm.
Even though I did not know the UPenn kids, I really wanted to guide them to victory. “Ivan, watch the wide serve in the deuce court, you have to cut it off or don’t force action on break point as he must come up with the goods, not you, “I exclaimed. Without a doubt, it is a “rush” to be able to coach, point to point, if necessary, to offer keen insights as the guys are playing their matches.
As UPenn’s Jeremy Court was up, 7-6, 5-4, I huddled up with him to give him some needed advice, since he failed to hold serve earlier to close out his opponent. “When you want it, the inside-in pattern is yours for the taking…when you hit it, he won’t be ready but with his speed he may track it down but it will be a weak shot, so follow it in. I promise you that it will be an easy put-away volley and you will spike it for a big winner,” I offered with confidence.
Talk about waiting for the big opportunity. It was 40-30, or match point, when he served and waited for a good return and then hit his usual inside-out crosscourt drive and it was returned well by the FGCU player and then, “boooooom”, Jeremy rips the inside-in “ripper”, followed it in and had the easiest floater sit up for him to crack the winning volley! “Coach, great call, wow, I won the match,” Jeremy said with a huge smile.
Even though the matches were all closely contested, UPenn won 5-2 to seal the victory and enjoy a much better plane ride home to Philadelphia. As I reviewed my amazing day, I felt so happy that I coach tennis for a living. The only way my job could get better is if we could help our members during their big matches because it is fun to assist players during intense competition.