Every athlete has their own set of superstitions: putting on your right shoe before your left, always wearing the same headband or sitting on the same side of the bench every game. For one team on Vassar’s campus, these superstitions are blue socks, lucky balls and high fives. As the Vassar women’s tennis team begins their 2019-20 season, the squad looks to use these rituals to build on their successful second place finish in last year’s Liberty League Finals as the team only lost one senior and added the No. 22 recruiting class in Division III across women’s tennis (Tennis Recruiting Network, 2019 Top NCAA D-III Women’s Classes, 06.21.2019).
Their talent and experience was certainly on display this past weekend at the season-opening Vassar Scramble, where Vassar hosted New Paltz, Connecticut College and New York University on the Josselyn Tennis Courts for a non-scoring tournament. On Saturday, the Scramble was forced inside Walker Field House due to the on-again off-again rain, but the change of scenery didn’t bother the players. Vassar’s doubles teams dominated the first day of the tournament, finishing with a record of 9 wins and 3 losses through three rounds of play. Junior Frances Cornwall and senior captain Tara Edwards posted two commanding 8-2 wins over their counterparts from the Connecticut College doubles team. Meanwhile, sophomore Melina Stavropoulos and first-year Tatum Blalock went 3-0 in their group play. The team continued their matches on Sunday, moving into the singles round where continued their success, posting an overall 12-3 record on the day.
While this team exudes confidence and composure in this mentally and physically challenging sport, they are not immune to the superstitions associated with the individuality and weirdness of tennis. Superstitions, and the magic they mysteriously possess, are an inextricable part of every athlete’s life, but they are even more deeply rooted in tennis.
Serena Williams is known to have to tie her shoes the exact same way before each match. Roger Federer has an apparent obsession with the number eight, carrying eight rackets, eight bottles of water and requesting eight towel-rubs after a set. Rafael Nadal is extremely meticulous with his water bottles, placing one in front of his chair, one to the left, with labels facing the court. The most famous superstition of all—the playoff beard—is said to have originated from tennis, when Swedish phenom Bjorn Borg would specifically grow a beard in time for the first round of Wimbledon. Borg ended up winning Wimbledon five straight years from 1976 to 1980.
When asked about their own personal superstitions, the women’s tennis team had a few to add to the list. First-year Jade Wilkinson and senior Tara Edwards both said that they have certain socks they have to wear before tournaments and matches. Wilkinson wears a specific brand, while Edwards wears a specific color–blue–for good luck. Edwards also added that it is common to use professionals’ rituals, such as not stepping on the lines of the court. Sophomore Cara Kizilbash mentioned her penchant for always sitting on the same side of the bench after winning a match. Stavropoulos touched on specifically using the same ball after scoring an ace. Senior Ashley Fair discussed the team’s pre-game playlist, which they listen to before each home tournament. But most of the rituals are particular to each person, as Kizilbash explained: “I think it’s all really individual…we don’t have any big team things.” Head Coach Kathy Campbell doesn’t have any specific superstitions, but she does have some routines of her own: “I like to be ready early, I like to be organized…I want to bring that calmness to the team. So, when they come to the court for competition or practice, I am settled and really ready to go. I want to be an example in that way.”
With devotion to their superstitious practices, these athletes are psychically prepared for their matches. Success on the court then boils down to the preparation and work they do in advance. Every practice and workout counts. Pre-game rituals can give the athletes peace of mind, but they won’t be the determining factor that gives that final edge at the end of a grueling match.
Leaving superstitions aside, though this first competition was non-scoring, meaning it doesn’t count toward league standings, the strong team performance across the board sets the tone for another promising year. In conversations with the players, all stressed the importance of building momentum off last year’s impressive finish. Ultimately, the team hopes to ride this wave all the way to this year’s Liberty League Championship.
However, Campbell doesn’t want to let last year’s hype overshadow the work that is necessary to achieve this goal and lead to an overconfident attitude within the squad. She tries to achieve “a balance so the team can use all the positive takeaways from [the] experience that we can.” According to Campbell, last year’s season has the ability to “fuel the returning players to act as guides for this years team … so we use the positives as the foundation and building block for this year’s team.” Campbell continued to comment on the enthusiastic energy that comes from the returning players to the first-years. As the team strives toward the goals they’ve laid out—a Liberty League Championship, qualifying for NCAA Nationals—maybe, you’ll even see a first-year student wearing some blue socks as well.