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The Scarlet & Black

Inside practice with the men’s tennis team: friendly competition fuels games and drills at every practice

The men’s tennis team practices in the Bear’s fieldhouse facility. Pictured are various Pioneers hitting back and forth. Photos by Reina Shahi.

The S&B is going inside sports practices to get a glimpse of what Grinnell student-athletes are actually doing at the Bear in the afternoon. We sent writer Quan Tran 21 and photographer Reina Shahi 21 to scope out men’s tennis practice.

Walking into a Grinnell College men’s tennis practice, one sees what they might expect: a flying yellow ball being pounded back and forth across the net. Yet, once accustomed to it — like when I joined the team for one of their practice sessions this past week — it is easy to marvel at the complexity behind hitting a tennis ball over a net.

With the outdoor courts piled up with snow at the moment, men’s tennis holds practice from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday inside the Grinnell College fieldhouse. Practice always starts with the guys spending a half hour warming up. This is when each individual’s skill set is best showcased, since there are no restrictions on strokes. One can easily tell if a player is a forehander or a backhander, baseliner or serve-and-volley.

At 4:30 p.m., all the members gather around the coaches to hear about the upcoming workouts. Interestingly enough, men’s tennis has different themes every week that focus on various skill sets. This week, the theme is “Pressuring opponents. Take time away. Consistent strategy.” And today is doubles day.

“We always break up the week and do about two singles days and two doubles days. It kind of depends on what we’re focusing on. For singles, we work more on strategies and points. With doubles, it’s more about quick reaction time,” said Paige Madara, men’s tennis head coach.

On doubles days, players pair up with their official line-up partners so they can get comfortable playing with their counterparts ahead of time. Then, they spread the courts and start the drills. From cross-court and net-approaching volleys, to countering overhead smashes and down the line rallies, the Pioneers put up a powerful display of attacking tennis — an art that seems all but lost in modern day tennis. Throughout practice, Madara is always on the sideline, giving the players corrections and encouragements.

It is known that NCAA Division III sports are very self-reliant, and tennis is where one can see it best. Here in the fieldhouse, the student-athletes have to put up the nets, pick up the balls, then restart their rallies. During matches, they have to keep score by themselves. There are no linesmen, no umpires and no ball boys. Nevertheless, that fact never seems to bother these guys. The tennis players seem to be having fun throughout the practice, and the background music certainly helps.

Don’t let the atmosphere fool you, though. As much as they are about academics, the Pioneers are very competitive with one another. It isn’t for nothing that Grinnell tennis has dominated the Midwest Conference every year and has made several trips to the national tournament. The athleticism is visible even in post-practice activities. After a running drill, the team split and played “bobsled.” In this game, to put it simply, the player who cannot return a rally has to sit down right on the court. The players were in the zone right from the get go. They challenged every questionable line call and seriously went at each other. All in all, it was a very fun bonding activity.

“I’d love it for them [to be] out here having a good time. We see [the game] as a nice stress relief from academics. We’ve [also] been working really hard in practice. On a day like today where they’ve given their all in, we can end it on a little bit of a lighter note,” Madara said.

Two hours can pass by really fast with relatively few drills, thus it seems easy to question the time these guys spend on the courts. However, Madara reminded me how easy it is to forget that these athletes are, at the end of the day, also students.

“I think to go over two hours [a day] is very hard for balancing academics. We tried not to go over two hours because they also need time to relax physically and to recover,” Madara said.

Even if tennis is an individual sport, here in the fieldhouse camaraderie feels alive and well.

The men compete in
Ripon, Wisconsin this weekend, and will participate in indoor competitions until traveling to play in Florida over spring break, which transitions them into the outdoor season.

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