Steve Saltarelli, third-year tennis co-captain, writes a letter to teammate Will Zhang before his opening-round match at Nationals.
Dear Will Zhang,
When I heard that you were selected as one of the top eight singles players from the central region to compete at Nationals in Claremont, CA, there was only one thing on my mind: Don’t cramp.
After all, tomorrow’s high on the shared campuses of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps will be 78 degrees—more than enough to give your cramp-prone hamstrings a run for their money, especially now that you’re without your teammates to remind you to hydrate, and not to drink Sunkist and Dr. Pibb before matches.
Nevertheless, if you can win your first round match today, you’ll be the first U of C men’s tennis player to gain All-American status since Ward Bortz in 2005.
In order to attain that high honor though, you’ll have to get through a pretty tough opponent—one who has already solidified his All-American standing this year—Chris Goodwin, the tournament’s sixth seed. Yes, the Emory freshman boasts a 27-5 record on the year, but don’t be intimidated—he has lost one match to a Division-III opponent. At the end of the day, he’s a freshman, and as a sophomore, you benefit from the experience of an entire season playing tough matches day in and day out at the first singles position.
In addition, you’re fresh. While Goodwin has spent the last week playing grueling matches in the team portion of the NCAA Tournament, you’ve been strengthening up at Ratner and tuning up on court with the likes of second-year starter Paul Namkoong. Your selection to the tournament has set the whole campus ablaze, and there has been talk of President Obama calling you before your match. To put it simply, this is your time.
While Goodwin should be a challenge to take down, at least he’s a familiar one. In the UAA semifinals, you were on an adjacent court playing Emory number one Michael Goodwin as his younger brother defeated our very own Garrett Brinker 6-2, 6-0. After watching that, you should know a bit about his game. Firstly, and most importantly, the kid’s got great groundstrokes. His backhand is pure and he can hit the forehand with both power and depth. While he is not amazingly fast, his court coverage is well above average. His serve is streaky, but dangerous. In all of the above respects, his game is nearly identical to yours. Except, remember, he’s a freshman.
This is the key fact. This is why you will win your match today. Here’s how.
From the start, you have to take the younger Goodwin out of his comfort zone. This means showcasing every last iota of variety in the Will Zhang repertoire. Mix up your serves. Step in and try to attack the occasional second serve return. And most importantly, utilize short slices and drop shots to lure Goodwin to the net and expose his only true weakness—his volleys. This strategy fits perfectly into your game style. You are well-versed in the drop-shot and “mixing it up,” so much so that you earned the nickname of “Zhangzini” from opposing teams. It’s time for Zhangzini to come out.
Hopefully this game plan should keep you hanging around the match long enough to let your experience take over. Your drop-shots will confuse him. Your slice will baffle him. Your serve will leave him guessing...
Ultimately, as it is so often with tennis, claiming victory in the match will come down to who wants it more. He’ll automatically be an All-American, and he has endured a long week already—one that ended in a slightly disappointing third-place finish for the title-favored Eagles. You’re fresh. You’re hungry. You’re a sophomore.
It’s going to be a battle, no doubt, one that might even push you to the brink of cramping. But at the end of the day, the match (and the potassium-rich banana) should be in your hands. After all, if you can beat Chris Goodwin in the round of 32 in the singles tournament, you deserve to be an All-American.