My experiences were 15 years ago, but I remember them like yesterday. I stepped foot on Stanford’s Palo Alto, Calif. campus, an academically and socially unconfident kid from Long Island. I almost felt like I didn’t belong. I had two freshman roommates: A “hippie” pot-smoking kid from Chicago who would go “jam” with his friends every night and another kid who oozed intelligence and played Nintendo every night. “This is why I worked my tail off? To be overmatched?,” I asked myself.
Now to be honest, my first version of this article included some stories about well-known tennis players and very famous non-tennis players who spent time with the tennis team. However, after reading the first version, I realized that some of the stories were more apropos for People magazine or Cosmopolitan than a family tennis publication. So, this article is the cleaned-up version, but I hope you get the idea.
The first night of Freshman Orientation, we had a hall meeting where we introduced ourselves. When it was my turn to speak, I did the standard naming my hometown, possible major and included that I play tennis for the tennis team. The look I got from my RA made me realize I wasn’t considered just another freshman. Later that night, while discussing the Popol Vuh with my dorm, three upper-class tennis players came into the lounge, interrupted the meeting and asked me why I wasn’t at the SAE house. They proceeded to take me to the fraternity house where all the upper-class tennis players lived. It was from this point forward that I realized in high school, playing tennis was sometimes considered kind of lame, but, in college, it is considered cool to be a tennis player!
What motivated the tennis team in the fall to play well was the annual Thanksgiving Trip to Hawaii. The top eight guys and top eight girls went with Stanford tennis benefactors for a week of fun and sun in Hawaii. Challenge matches were fierce! Once in Hawaii, everything was paid for. We had some of the best food and hotel accommodations in the world. We played a match against the University of Hawaii to make the trip legal, but it was a joke. The guys and girls would party together until 4:00 a.m., teach the benefactors at 8:00 a.m. (with sunglasses in tow), nap until 6:00 p.m. and do it all over again. “What happens in Hawaii, stays in Hawaii” was the popular refrain.
The spring season was the team matches and the subsequent daily newspaper articles. An unimportant non-conference match might draw 200 people, matches against UCLA or USC would get a sell-out crowd of around 2,000 people. The Stanford band would come and play between singles and doubles for the big matches. I once heard that tennis matches used to get more student attendees than any other varsity sport outside football until 1995. I think students came because it was a leisurely afternoon activity to wear skimpy clothes, get some sun and have a few adult beverages. Sometimes, the crowds got personal and verbally attacked the visitors. The fans created some very clever signs. Our coaches publicly acted like they cared, but in reality, they asked us to recruit our fraternity brothers to come out and cause some havoc.
Most of the tennis players at Stanford live in the SAE fraternity house. My freshman year, I decided to join an un-housed fraternity thinking the housed fraternity life was too fast. My sophomore year, I changed my mind and wanted to live in the SAE house. If I wasn’t a tennis player, there would have been no shot getting in. Being a tennis player, there were no questions asked and no problems getting a bid. Life was wilder than I probably would have wanted it to be, but it was fun. Where else would I be able to celebrate Pac-10 Basketball Championships with members of the basketball team who were also my fraternity brothers?
The big spring trip for the fraternity was to go to the NCAA Tennis Championships. The guys took over the town. Hotel vacancy signs were manipulated to read pro-Stanford messages. Fraternity brothers brought their adult beverages on-court and celebrated with us live on ESPN after winning the national championships. Commercial airlines returning home from successful team events turned into airborne party buses.
Does playing college tennis prevent someone from having a social life? Not in the least. As a high school kid, little did I know (or think) that running weekly sprints at Roslyn High School in the pitch black at 10:00 p.m. on Friday nights would pay off social dividends down the road.
Ricky Becker is the Director of Tennis at Pine Hollow Country Club. He independently coaches high-performance juniors and adults of all-levels year-round at Bethpage Park Tennis Center. He has coached hundreds of ranked junior players. As a player, Becker was awarded Most Valuable Player for the 1996 NCAA Championship Stanford Tennis Team and 1989-1992 Roslyn High School Tennis Teams, and was ranked number four in the United States in the 18 & Under Division.