Nestled in a corner of the Watson Arena parking lot and enclosed by a high fence, it is easy to overlook the tennis courts and discount the level of athletic ability and competition unfolding there. But the women’s tennis team, honored last season by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association for academic and athletic excellence, looks forward to representing Bowdoin as it continues its fall season and prepares for the spring. Today and tomorrow, the Polar Bears will battle four DIII teams in the Bowdoin Invitational and then go head to head against Skidmore on Sunday in the first dual match of the fall season.
Tennis teams use their fall season to experiment with new doubles partners and strategies. Rather than competing every weekend, the matches are more spaced out and do not count toward NESCAC rankings in the spring. Sarah Shadowens ’19 described the difference between seasons as a transition from working on physical endurance in the fall to mental endurance in the spring.
Izzy Essi ’21 uses the fall season to get to know her fellow teammates. For the last few years, nearly half of the women’s team have been first years, a challenge for a sport so dependent on teamwork and partner strategy.
“It’s definitely going to be different [this year],” said Essi. “The team is really up in the air, no one has any idea who their teammates are.”
Head Coach Paul “Hobie” Holbach is faced with a difficult challenge of creating doubles teams in time for the dual match on Sunday. There is no formula or old adage like “opposites attract” to predict success on the court or if the players will be compatible. Instead, Hobie must guide each player to be the best tennis player she can be on her own before pairing her with a teammate.
“When I came [to Bowdoin] I had the skill set of a good tennis player, but I didn’t know how to use those skills,” said Essi. “I used to try to be more of an attacker, just hit winners. But [Hobie] developed me into more of a grinder. [Now] I’m patient and wear out my opponent.”
Last season, Essi was paired with Tess Trinka ’18. The duo qualified for the NCAA tournament, flying to California to compete against DIII teams from across the nation. Trinka and Essi left the tournament with All-American accolades. In addition, Trinka won the prestigious DIII/ITA Arthur Ashe Leadership and Sportsmanship award.
While the team’s roster changes each year, core values such as accountability and positivity are hallmarks of each season. The women’s tennis team takes pride in being nicknamed the “classiest team in the NESCAC” by fellow NESCAC competitors and works to instill these values each year. Shadowens explained the importance of passing these traditions on.
“We’re very tough on each other, and we talk about how every single person should be holding everyone accountable,” said Shadowens. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a first year or a senior, everyone should be contributing to that. Transferring that to the first years is so important to us.”
Each week, the team discusses a particular value that may apply to the athletes’ job on the court or in the classroom. At the end of the season, a list of the values will serve as a guideline for the spring season. The inspiration came from Anson Dorrance, the head women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina, who created a “values list” with his team and shared the idea last spring when he came to campus to speak. The tennis team creates a new list of values each season so incoming first years can share their views as well.
“Our coach talks a lot about how he wants a team of leaders, not just one leader,” said Shadowens. “We’re a team of leaders and the way we support each other and respect each other and our opponents and our own integrity is something that we really hold dear.”
In every sport, student-athletes are faced with the unique challenge of balancing academics and athletic performance. For the women’s tennis team, core values of accountability and leadership skills learned on the court also apply to the classroom.
“There’s no reason to contain [the values on the court] because that would assume our core identity is as tennis players,” said Shadowens. “We’re student athletes—student always come first. We’re here to get an education—tennis is something we do here.”
Sunday’s dual match will be the first indication of what’s to come in the Polar Bears’ spring season. After Spring Break, the style of each match will quickly change, including the pressure to win.
“Doubles is a completely different game from singles,” said Essi. “It’s high energy, it’s quick, it’s fast. Singles is like a marathon whereas doubles is kind of a sprint.”