Miller overcame chaotic beginning to lead squad

By Ben Jervis

Tennis isn’t usually thought of as a team sport, but one departing star proved how critical the support of coaches and teammates can be to the development of individual potential.

After a wild up-and-down career, fourth-year Annie Miller will graduate next week, leaving behind a 50–18 singles record across all six singles positions and a 43–26 mark in a multitude of doubles tandems. She’ll leave behind a program that experienced a major facelift for the better since her arrival in Hyde Park.

Before the squad’s revamping, the Wynnewood, PA native had little hope for the future of her collegiate tennis career or of the Maroons program. She struggled to fit into a young and disorganized women’s tennis squad. Having played solidly in high school, she couldn’t quite find her groove in the college tennis world.

“My style of play changed dramatically from my high school years to my college year,” Miller said. “The quality of the opponents is much better in college, and you have to be much more consistent.”

With no settled coaching staff her first year, Miller experienced the challenges of going head-to-head with this talent pool all too soon. The team’s personnel limitations thrust the greenhorn into the top spot on the team, a position she didn’t feel emotionally or physically ready for.

“It’s pretty funny, because when I first came, I was just hoping to make the team,” Miller said. “The team was in shambles. Our coach then, Natalie Butler, had just quit. I found myself playing number one singles my freshman year, which was not what I had a) expected or b) wanted.”

After enduring a season in which Chicago played only five matches, made no road trips, and practiced sporadically, Miller finished with a meager 2–3 record in singles. The Maroons needed to be restructured, and a brand new coaching staff seemed to have the wherewithal to do it. Marty Perry took the helm in the fall of 2003 and began the work of rebuilding what had become a lifeless program.

“When Marty came in, he was so organized, we had set practice times throughout the winter,” Miller said. “His administrative capacity was phenomenal, and he went from taking a nothing team then to having recruited five amazing freshmen. He’s really done a lot for the program.”

While the head coach and the star eventually learned to work together, things seemed a little shaky at first, as it took a little while for Perry to adjust to coaching a women’s team. His originally low expectations for the squad didn’t match the determination and drive that many players exhibited at the time.

“I think he learned a lot in his first year,” Miller said. “He had anticipated a lot more problems than what he found, he had expected problems. Over the three years, we learned how to work with one another.”

With the new staff’s structural changes in place, Miller was finally able to focus on improving her game. Energized by both her coaches and the squad’s changes, she went on a tear in the 2003–2004 season. Miller notched a 13–6 overall record in singles, with 10 of those wins in the second spot. After going 2–1 at the UAA Championships in Rochester, she earned an honorable mention spot on the All-UAA team. In doubles competition, she spent most of her time in a tandem with current third-year Ade Omodele-Lucien, going 8–6.

“I kind of found my game my second-year,” Miller said. “The first couple matches when I realized how to win, I would write down on a piece of paper, just ‘move your feet,’ ‘watch the ball,’ or ‘bend your knees,’ just basic things, or mental tricks to concentrate on, without thinking about the points at the time. I learned how to work with what I have.”

Things only continued to improve for Miller in her third year, as she went 13–3, finally playing third singles, her high school spot. While she seemed well-adjusted to singles competition, she struggled with being constantly paired up with different players. She promptly expressed her views to Perry, and after trying out a few new tandems in practice, she felt an instant connection with then second-year Cassie Kramer. The two formed a remarkable tandem in second doubles that went on to post an 11–5 season mark. It was a true feeling of teamwork that Miller needed to play her best.

“We just clicked,” Miller said. “I knew that’s who I wanted to play doubles with. She has a real drive to win, and when it comes down to it, I always knew she was going to be there to pull it out. It’s just a pleasure to play with her.”

Having finally settled into doubles play, Miller dominated this past season, compiling a 20–10 overall record with Kramer, classmate Katie Dulmage, second-year Michelle Parad, and first-year Preetha Rajamani. She put up her best singles numbers yet, going 22–6.

“It was so fabulous chatting with Katie and looking back, seeing how far we’ve come,” Miller said. “Especially my second year, everyone was so responsive and really would help me know that I was coming along and working through things. Sometimes you know when there’s something really special, when you’re doing something special, and those couple minutes before you start a match, and you’re all sitting around in a circle with your hands in the middle, and you feel the energy.”

Miller will take a degree in international studies to the job market after graduation and plans to remain in Chicago.