Playing The Angles
Feb. 17, 2009
By Larry Watts
Stephanie Wooten has learned to play the angles. That's why the redshirt senior feels right at home on the No. 1 court for the Purdue women's tennis team.
"There's a wall right next to our No. 1 court," Wooten says. "I'm small (5-foot-1) and not an overpowering player, so what I've learned to do is play my angles. I like to lead my opponent right into that wall. I guess you could say it's a little trick I've picked up that I'm trying to pass down to the younger players."
Transfers and injuries have left Wooten as the grande dame of tennis for the Boilermakers. The Combine, Texas native is the lone player on the roster to have any experience playing against Big Ten competition. Juniors Tatiana Ganzha, who played two years at Boise State and missed last season with an injury, and Michelle Sammons, who spent two seasons at Texas A&M, will be tasting their first Big Ten action this spring along with four freshmen.
"I'm just trying to do my part -- work hard and set the right tone for the younger players so they all go along in the right direction even when I'm gone," Wooten says. "Obviously it doesn't help the progression of your program when people leave (early).
"I just want to keep things as light as possible because the Big Ten season can be a grind with one match coming right after another. The freshmen can't freak out after a loss because it's still a long season. They have to realize this isn't an individual sport; you're playing for Purdue, your coaches and your teammates."
Even Wooten hasn't escaped the injury bug. Had it not been for ankle surgery following her sophomore year, she would have graduated along with good friend Brooke Bier last spring, leaving the Boilers with no senior leadership for the 2008-09 campaign.
Wooten actually had two surgeries on her right ankle, one following the first semester of her sophomore year and the second the following November, eliminating her entire junior season.
"I guess all the wear and tear of playing tennis caught up with me," she says. "My ankle started hurting during my freshman season so I finally went in to see a specialist. They wound up cutting all my ligaments, drilled a hole through the bone and tied them together.
"That wasn't much fun, especially when I was trying to go through the snow on crutches. I was living and sleeping in a boot. One day my crutches were wet and slipped out from under me while I was going through a tunnel in Mackey Arena. I got up fast so no one would see me or my reputation would have ruined."
But Wooten did learn to milk the recovery for all it was worth. Noticing she was holding up the line for everyone heading up the stairs to one of her classes, two of the Purdue football players took immediate action. One of them grabbed the crutches and the other one carried her up the stairs and then they would trade going down the stairs after class.
"This must have gone on for about a month," Wooten says with a laugh. "They didn't want me to make everyone late for class. I wish they had been a little cuter though. I was really eating it up."
But Wooten may have tried to make her comeback too soon. Experiencing tightness and further pain, she went in for a second surgery to clean things up.
"No problem with the crutches this time; I was experienced," she says.
Wooten started out her Purdue career playing No. 2 singles, played the No. 4 and 5 slots as a sophomore and spent her time at No. 2 and 3 last year. Her Big Ten record each season has been 6-4.
"I'm getting sick of that (6-4)," she says. "Maybe this year I'll shoot for 7-3 or 8-2."
But Wooten also knows making that kind of improvement in the No. 1 position is a tall task. Now she'll be facing a nationally-ranked player nearly every match in conference play.
"Playing No. 2 was always hard, but now I have the added pressure of setting the tone for the rest of my team," she says. "There are no easy matches in the Big Ten; there are so many amazing players. You go up against a team like Northwestern and their No. 3 player can play No. 1 at most schools.
"But facing these kind of players can only make me better. Why should I dread playing them because I know I have to do it? I'm just going to go out there and swing from the heels with no pressure. On a given day, anyone can win."
Majoring in organizational leadership and supervision, Wooten plans to head back to Texas, where her close-knit family all live within an hour of each other. She still hasn't decided on a career destination.
"I'd probably like to work for a sports agency or be a tennis coach," she says. "I've made a lot of friends and had some great teammates during my five years at Purdue, but I haven't been back home much. It hasn't bothered me too much, only when my parents call me in the middle of April and tell me they've been out in the boat at our lake house and I'm sitting here all bundled up.
"I'm going to really miss the road trips and doing all the stupid stuff with the other girls. I'm the one who usually sneaks in the unhealthy snacks in my backpack and the team mooches on them. I'm going to miss those moments."