March 18, 2009
By Larry Watts
Even after a high school career, when she posted a dual meet record of 151-0 and won the California state singles title as a senior, Nazlie Ghazal had no visions of grandeur when she arrived on the Northwestern University campus in the fall of 2005.
It was like trying to crack the lineup of the 1927 New York Yankees and the Wildcats have yet to miss a beat under the reign of head tennis coach Claire Pollard. Northwestern was amidst a Big Ten title run, which currently stands at 10 straight, and the top three positions in the lineup always seem to be filled with nationally-ranked players.
During Ghazal's four seasons, three different players have occupied the No. 1 position for the Wildcats. As one player moves on, Pollard always seems ready to reload with another dynamic new face, accounting for the fact she has had six players earn Big Ten freshman of the year honors during her 10-year span.
But while others seem to bask in the limelight, Ghazal has been happy to prosper in the lower half of the lineup. Playing primarily at No. 5 singles, all the Temecula, Calif. native has done is compile a singles record of 133-33. She is nowhere close to threatening Cristelle Grier's record of 181 victories, but Ghazal has clearly been a steady force for the Wildcats.
Even more amazing might be her Big Ten record, which currently stands at 35-1. She won 22 straight matches before falling in a third set tiebreaker to Michigan's Denise Muresan in the opening Big Ten match last year but has since put together a 13-match win streak.
"Obviously you want to be the best you can be, but coming into such a great team and seeing the people ahead of me, that has been satisfying enough for me," she says. "I knew I was part of something far greater when I came here. I was playing with the best and we all had one goal in mind.
"Playing No. 5 on the No. 1 team in the nation is nothing to complain about or be ashamed of. It's a point no matter where you play in the lineup. As long as I get my wins, it (not playing in the top half) doesn't bother me at all."
With No. 2 player Georgia Rose hobbled by an ankle injury, Ghazal recently has had a chance to play in the No. 4 position. She has responded with a 4-0 start to the Big Ten season.
"Georgia decided to start her spring break a little earlier than the rest of us," Ghazal says with a laugh. "I never really keep track of my wins; I don't think any of us really pay attention to individual stats. We're more concerned about where we are as a team. If we're all winning, then that's great."
According to Ghazal, winning this year's national indoor team title only means the Wildcats' job is half finished.
"We have shown how much better and mature we've gotten, but we want to keep that level going on the outdoor courts," she says. "I think we have the right chemistry this year.
"What's weird about winning that indoor title is you would think that would be a great relief, but it has really motivated us to do it again in May. We love that feeling so much and we want to do it again."
While Ghazal may be flying under the radar on the national scale, she has become one of the fan favorites at Northwestern. She has become known for her illuminating smile and the way she quickly dissects an opponent. It is that speed to make quick work of the opposition that sometimes draws a frown from Pollard.
"There has been a little competition (to see who finishes first) since my freshman year, but we try to keep it on the hush," Ghazal says. "I remember some matches where I felt like we were racing, especially in the Big Ten Tournament (where the match ends as soon as a team clinches the winning point). You want to make sure your match counts. It's never that serious, but at the same time it puts a little extra pressure on you.
"I know Claire doesn't appreciate that. She doesn't want us to make it look obvious and she wants us to respect our opponent. She wants us to focus on our match and work on our game."
Ghazal knows she has caught Pollard's attention more than once. With that broad smile, it's difficult to hide the obvious.
"She'll go like 'Uh Naz. Pay attention and focus,"' Ghazal says. "It's a little more obvious on the outdoor courts when she sees me looking through the fence at the three courts behind me. The ultimate is we all come out with a win, but this little race is just some extra fun we have."
Growing up near San Diego, Ghazal, who is of Iranian heritage, said she "wanted to try something different" when making her college selection. She also took recruiting visits to Michigan, Princeton, Virginia and Duke before settling on Northwestern.
"It's a long process and so hard when you're that young," she says. "I came out here and saw how the players interact with each other and how Claire interacts with the girls. I know high school tennis is different than college, but that was the first time I had ever been on a team and it was so much fun to be playing for other people. I felt the same way after visiting Northwestern."
But there was quite an adjustment moving from San Diego to Chicago, especially as the weather grew colder.
"I think the first thing I bought was a pair of Uggs," Ghazal says. "Then I had to get a good winter coat, gloves and scarves. And I always needed more shoes. You know you have to be able to accessorize!"
Aside from leaving her family and many friends behind, Ghazal said she hated giving up her trips to the beaches around San Diego.
"For my entire freshman year I refused to call what we had here a beach," she says. "Now I love it. As soon as the weather gets warm, I'm out there as much as possible studying or just relaxing."
Going from high school to college, Ghazal knew she would have to pick it up a notch in her training regime.
"I had an idea there was going to be more running and weight training, but I had never done anything like this," she says. "I knew it was going to be a little shocking, but I'm used to how Claire works now. I expect the worst and hope for the best when it comes to workouts.
"But Claire really does a good job of balancing the practices for everyone. I know Maria Mosolova would love to just go out there and hit for three hours straight, but there are certain drills you have to do and Claire knows how to pattern them where I can work on certain things that are better for my game. It makes you want to come out to practice the next day because she knows what fits your game and that keeps everyone excited."
Ghazal has grown so attached to the Northwestern community that she plans on sticking around for a year after graduation before heading off to business school.
"I'd like to land a job in public relations or doing social work," she says. "Let's face it; I'm a very social young lady. I know Claire doesn't like it all the time, but something not worth doing if I'm not enjoying myself. The highlight of my week is game day because that's when I'm having the most fun. There's no greater feeling than seeing how well other people are doing and how much better we're getting as a team."
And if she ever decides to head back to California, what will happen to all the winter wardrobe she has picked up in Chicago?
"I guess I'll just have to cut off some sleeves," she says with a laugh.