Coming Up AcesHow do you make ten athletically gifted women start thinking like a team? Norma Taylor knows.
Teams go through cycles. A string of successful seasons may end abruptly when key players are lost to graduation, and just as suddenly a block of unusually talented athletes can arrive on campus.
Whether or not such athletes coalesce into a winning team, however, is one of the great mysteries in sport. Every fan can tick off examples of teams that looked like sure winners on paper but that stumbled through seasons of disappointment and mediocrity. Such instances are far more common than their opposite: seasons when a group of promising athletes not only meet but exceed expectations and become champions. Sportswriters have no shortage of clichés to explain the difference: good coaching and team chemistry top the list - but what do these things mean?
Left to right: Shireen Naderi '01, Norma Taylor, Julia Martynova '99, and Heather Young '01.
A look at women's tennis can help sketch out some answers. Brown's current team boasts a cast of top-flight players, a nationally recognized coach, and the kind of on-the-court action that dominates opponents. This team is also proof that sports can transcend cultural differences: of the ten players on this year's roster, five are U.S.-born minority students, one is from India, one is from Sri Lanka, and one is from the Ukraine.
During the past year, the women defeated every Ivy League team they played, winning the Ivy crown with a 7-0 mark. The team compiled a 19-3 overall record, the best in Brown tennis history, and last spring reeled off a seventeen-match winning streak that ended only with a loss in the NCAA East regional semifinals. And the players are exceptional students as well as outstanding athletes: the Bears were named a U.S. All-Academic team for their 3.4 overall grade point average.
What makes talented athletes coalesce into a winning team remains one of the biggest mysteries in sports.
Then there have been the individual accomplishments. Thirteen-year head coach Norma Taylor was named 1997 Coach of the Year by the U.S. Professional Tennis Association and Eastern Coach of the Year by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. The team's best singles player last spring, Trishna Patel '98, of Bombay, India, earned Ivy Player of the Year, was named All-Ivy in both singles and doubles, and became Brown's first-ever Intercollegiate Tennis Association Eastern Player to Watch. All-Ivy honors also went to Saranga Sangakkara, a junior from Sri Lanka, and sophomore Elisa Banner, of Bedford, Massachusetts. In doubles play, Patel and Banner finished at 6-0 in Ivy play and compiled a 17-1 record last spring. There seemed no limit to what these players could do: last fall, Sangakkara recorded perhaps the single biggest victory in the history of Brown tennis by knocking off William & Mary's Lauren Nikolaus, the seventh-ranked player in the country, 6-4, 6-4, at the Rolex ITA Eastern Women's Championship.
Since the team is remarkably young to have known such success - only two players were lost to graduation last May, and Patel and Kirsten Odabashian are the only seniors this year - Taylor didn't know what a powerhouse she had on her hands until the middle of last season. "Penn came up to Providence," she remembers, "after nearly beating Harvard [a perennial Ivy power], and I thought it would be a 5-4 match. Elisa [Banner] and a couple of other players had colds, and I was sick, too. We were expecting a battle." Instead, Brown demolished the Quakers, 8-1, and Taylor recalls thinking, If we can perform like this, we can go all the way.
Why all this success? Well, for starters, the cliché is true: in women's tennis, raw talent, good coaching, and good chemistry have indeed prevailed. But these things don't just happen. Take good coaching. To a certain extent, good coaches seem to be born, not made, and Taylor is a prime example. In a questionnaire, team members highlighted Taylor's sense of humor as something that helps keep them loose. As the team's most voluble and persuasive supporter, she also has a knack for selling her athletes on their own ability and on the need to tame their egos.
Taylor sees one of her biggest challenges as convincing players that for the team to come out ahead, sometimes an individual has to give up a bit of the spotlight. "Before they get to college," Tay-lor says, "most good players are basically playing for themselves and for Mom and Dad." Patel agrees that the idea of a greater good takes some getting used to for a tennis player. "The concept of playing tennis on a team is odd," she says, "because you alone are responsible for your match. It's different from basketball, where five players can be involved in scoring two points."
Taylor's sense of humor prepares athletes for her emphasis on mental and physical discipline. "There are times when she has fun with us," says Sangakkara, "but Norma's a tough, no-nonsense coach." Taylor insists, for example, that the team focus solely on the next match. There is no time to daydream about any other opponents. "Days before the Dartmouth match," Taylor recalls, "I heard someone wondering who played number four at Harvard. I said, `I'm not talking about Harvard until we get past Dartmouth.' "
"The concept of playing tennis on a team is odd," says coach Norma Taylor, "because you alone are responsible for your match."
Good chemistry, then, flows from good coaching. The best coaches are often master motivators, which explains why they are in such demand at business retreats. Walk into Taylor's office, in fact, and you feel like Dilbert entering the lair of a corporate vice president. Dominat-ing one wall is a framed poster show-ing a cresting wave. It's caption reads, "MOMENTUM: Once you are moving in the direction of your goals, nothing can stop you." Hanging behind Taylor's desk is the team's mission statement for 1996 - Taylor makes her squad think up a new one every year. "We'll go around the room," Taylor explains, "and I'll ask, `What kind of a team do we want to have?' When we get something we can all agree with, it goes up in the locker room." Amanda Rhee '99, who has been through such a mission session, smiles when asked about it. "Norma's big on organizing us with things like this," she says.
This quest for motivation can sometimes go off in directions that might seem a bit silly to people outside the team - people, that is, who haven't experienced the pressure and intensity of competitive athletics. Last spring some of Taylor's athletes began staging impromptu skits to get each other loose before important matches. "It got to be a tradition," says Rhee. "It was such an easy way to relax. For example, we did a fractured version of The Muppet Show theme. Instead of `Here's The Muppet Show' we did `Here's The Tennis Show' and sang it in our little accents." Taylor remembers that, after one of these routines took place minutes before the Harvard match, her players went out "smiling and slapping backs. Harvard looked like they had come to a funeral."
During the same contest, captain Michelle Kupka '97 chose not to play her match at all (which, at number-seven singles, would have been an exhibition anyway) to help Taylor and assistant coach and medical student Serena Wu '93 urge on the other players. "I was really impressed," says Taylor. "I assigned her to a court where we had a tough match." Kupka went on to add to the team's already cluttered trophy room by winning the 1997 Tennis Magazine/Arthur Ashe Jr. Sportsmanship and Leadership Award for the East Region.
Even Brown's competitors recognize an exceptional team bond when they see one. Boston University tennis coach Lesley Sheehan has watched her team wage many close battles with Brown over the years, but not last spring. "They have a lot of depth," Sheehan said after her squad fell to the Bears, 9-0, "but they also seem to have the chemistry to go with that. From what I've seen, they really try to help each other through matches."
Amanda Rhee '99.
Because women's tennis is both a spring and a fall sport, momentum and endurance are concerns. The schedule is grueling and tough on the body, says Patel, a product of the tennis academy that trained Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. Players competing in both singles and doubles can face as many as seven matches in one weekend. As a result, the team's top three players have all missed action over the last six months due to nagging injuries: Patel because of a sprained ankle, Sangakkara because of severe blisters, and Banner due to tendonitis in her wrist.
Taylor expects all three back, however, in time for the ceremonial drawing-up of the 1998 mission statement, for skit rehearsals, and - oh, yes - for the Ivy dual-match schedule, which begins in April. "If we can stay healthy," concludes Patel, "the confidence will be there. We know we have proven ourselves, but we also know we'll have to do it all over again."
Scoreboard(as of December 2)
Men's Basketball 4-14
Women's Basketball 6-12
Women's Gymnastics 5-3
Men's Ice Hockey 5-12-1
Women's Ice Hockey 12-5-3
Men's Squash 2-4
Women's Squash 5-4
Men's Swimming 3-5
Women's Swimming 3-1
Men's Indoor Track 1-1
Women's Indoor Track 0-2