Student-Athlete, or Athlete-Student?
After being sidelined by injury, a teenage player considers her path — and tennis’s appeal.
I caught the tennis bug when I was 10 years old, and like so many competitive juniors, I dreamed of playing college tennis. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cheered on my local college tennis team, the SMU Mustangs, envisioning myself closing out the decisive third-set tie-breaker.
When I was 15, I was right on track to accomplishing my dream — perhaps even on an athletic scholarship. That summer I got a taste of team competition when I qualified for the National 16’s Zonals, a team competition held in Waco, Texas. It was so much fun that I couldn’t wait to play on a college team!
Like many teenage athletes, I fancied myself invulnerable to injuries; “other” players got injured, not the well-muscled athlete I had trained to become. But fate had other ideas. In practice one steamy August morning following the 16’s Zonals, I sprinted in for a drop-shot only to pull up with a gasp of pain.
Now, a year and a half, one hip surgery, and numerous physical therapy sessions later, I hover at the tail end of a slow recovery. Junior tennis and college athletic scholarship opportunities have expired for this soon-to-be high school senior.
While many of my junior tennis matches are now just a hazy blur, one tennis event jumps to mind when I think about college tennis. It was February 2007, and I was participating in a weeklong tennis camp at the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy in Hilton Head Island, S.C. In addition to belting balls from dawn until dusk, I attended lectures by a sports psychologist, a nutritionist … and a college tennis coach.
Dede Allen, women’s coach at Wake Forest University, discussed not only the nuances of NCAA rules but also the criteria on which athletes should evaluate their prospective colleges. Most junior tennis players consider only the athletics — the ability of the team, the qualifications of the coach and the value of the scholarship — without also considering the location, academics or social scene of the place they will be spending the next four years of their lives.
Coach Allen highlighted the importance of evaluating a school holistically because injury can strike an athlete at any time. “What happens if you get injured in your freshman year on the team and then find yourself stuck at a school that, aside from the athletics, you don’t really like?” she asked the group of teens. “It’s vital that you judge a school from all standpoints. You are a prospective student-athlete, not a prospective athlete-student.”
Right now, I can hear my peers: “You may have a point, but I won’t get injured … I’m too fit … I’ve never gotten injured before.” And who wouldn’t scorn the lone voice of one injured player?
Well, optimists, here’s something to consider: A few years ago, I attended a home match of my beloved SMU Mustangs. Eager not to miss a minute of the action, I arrived at the 11:30 a.m. start-time. But something was wrong — there were only four Mustangs on the courts.
“Hi,” said a voice behind me. I turned around to find two Mustang-clad athletes, one sporting an ankle brace and crutches and the other nursing a heavily taped right wrist. “What happened?” I asked. “Well,” the tall brunette on crutches responded, “I rolled my ankle pretty badly a couple of weeks ago, and she (gesturing to her teammate) sprained her wrist. Unfortunately, our two reserves are out with injuries as well. We have to forfeit one doubles match and two singles matches!”
At the time, I never thought injury would ever apply to me. Now, though, I am struck by the sheer statistics on that day — half the team’s players injured at once! While that drastic number might be an uncommon occurrence, when I think back over the years, most of the time I remember seeing at least one SMU player on the sidelines, icing a knee or taping an ankle. Injuries really can strike anyone at anytime.
Toughing out long, grueling deuce games with my injury, I have been able to expand my attitude toward tennis. Although pre-injury me was blind to the multitudes of adults enjoying the sport at recreational, national and even international levels, I now realize that tennis does not reach its zenith in college. For fear of sounding trite, injury has opened my eyes to the sport of a lifetime that tennis truly is.
As a 12-and-under player, I imagined the top group of 14-and-unders to be the pinnacle of achievement. Well, the 14s have come and gone, and now the 16s are waving their goodbyes. Today, the 18s and college tennis dominate my thoughts — or at least they would be if my injury had not broadened my perspective on tennis and on life.
I hope to play this sport — at whatever level — for many years to come. But this summer, like so many high school juniors, I will start exploring potential colleges. Thanks to Coach Allen’s advice, academics and athletics as well as social and geographical intangibles will weigh equally in my decision.
See all articles by Kalindi Dinoffer
About the Author
Kalindi Dinoffer , 17, of Dallas will be a high school senior this fall. In addition to tennis, she enjoys playing guitar, reading and writing poetry.