A Different World
June 7, 2010
By Larry Watts
Amid the trophies and awards Hannah Berner has collected back in her Brooklyn, N.Y. home is one special memento -- a broken tennis racket. That prize came in the Public Schools Athletic League team championship last May courtesy of her opponent -- a boy.
"I thought it was pretty funny when my coach (Bayard Faithful) retrieved the racket for me," says Hannah, now in her freshman season playing for the University of Wisconsin women's team. "It's a symbol of what I went through."
The opposing coach from Cardozo High School didn't see anything funny about Berner's victory. He told any reporter willing to listen that his player was at a disadvantage because he was playing a girl.
He went on to claim if the best girls at his school were allowed to play, his team would have won the title. The only trouble was Beacon High School, where Berner played, didn't offer a girls program.
When the two schools met again for the prestigious Mayor's Cup team title, the Cardozo coach juggled his lineup and his player beat Berner during a 10-point tiebreaker in the third set. But Berner's Beacon High squad had already wrapped up the team title at the time.
"It was actually a lot better playing a very talented freshman rather than some guy with a huge ego," says Berner, who posted a 16-2 record in her senior season. "We could have played out the third set, but the guy was cramping up, so I was fine with going with the tiebreaker."
Berner went on to claim the individual girls title in the Mayor's Cup. Ironically, the Mayor's Cup is conducted each year at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. Along with her numerous titles, King attracted the national spotlight in 1973 when she defeated Bobby Riggs in "The Battle of the Sexes."
The controversy the Cardozo coach stirred up drew the attention of a number of media outlets, including the New York Daily News and the New York Times.
"That's my claim to fame, making the New York Times," Berner says with a laugh. "It started getting out of control with the feminist blogs and I was really stressed at one point. I would go out to practice and there would be reporters waiting for me. But in the end, I did love the attention.
"The experience of working with the media helped me a lot. I tend to talk a lot, but I do know my boundaries. It was fun to see how reporters could twist stuff and give their take on everything."
Pure and simple, Berner just wanted to play tennis. After playing on a girls team at Poly Prep as an eighth grader and freshman, where she was named an All-Ivy player, she headed off to Adams/Flynn International Tennis Academy in Pembroke Pines, Fla. to prepare for a professional career. But after nearly two years of playing tennis six hours a day and obtaining an international ranking of No. 267, Berner elected to return to Brooklyn and enrolled at Beacon midway through her junior year.
"I went to Florida because I wanted to realize my full potential in tennis," she says. "I was ranked No. No 15 nationally in 14s and I improved a lot, but I was young and getting burned out from so much tennis. When I came back to New York, I went from playing six hours a day to one or two. It was a good decision.
"The time I spent in Florida taught me a lot about hard work, nutrition, focus and determination. I learned what it felt like to put everything into a sport and I had to see if I really loved the sport or not. I had some shaky moments where I wasn't having any fun and it just felt like a job. I had a really intense coach and the competition was hard. I was tired, so I came back to New York in order to find my game and myself again."
When it came to making a college choice, Berner was thinking about the Ivy League and had already started talking to coaches from Penn, Michigan and Northwestern.
"The problem was not all these schools knew who I was because I had been playing internationally out of Florida, so I wasn't in the mix with most of the American girls," she says. "They never made offers, but they did say they would try to get out and see me."
Then during the 2008 National Clay Courts in Memphis, Wisconsin head coach Brian Fleishman happened to spot her playing doubles.
"I had lost both of my singles matches, but he saw us upset a nationally-ranked team in doubles," she says. "I took my only visit to Wisconsin. They took me to a football game and it was a sea of red. I thought coming to the Midwest would be boring, nothing like New York, but I really fell in love with Madison."
With a scholarship secured, Berner took a break from tournaments this past summer and mainly trained with the St. John's men's team. Some of the players had been her teammates at Beacon.
"Brian was really on me about making sure I was fit when I got here (to Madison), so I was out running the mile and doing all the training with the St. John's players," she says. "I didn't worry about tournaments because I knew I had a lot of tennis ahead of me at Wisconsin."
And now she is back playing with the girls again, something she hasn't done since her freshman year at Poly Prep.
"It's different, but it's like a real tight family," she says. "I had always practiced with guys and I loved my teammates back at Beacon. They looked up to me because I was one of the older players and they would always joke with me about my opponents taking it easy on me because I was a girl. It was a lot of fun until that controversy in the tournament and that coach freaked out. But my teammates always had my back.
"Mentally, it's a lot different playing with girls than guys. The guys are always thinking about hitting harder and looking their best while girls will play all sorts of mind games in order to beat you. The head games are my one pet peeve about playing with girls, but I think playing in Florida really helped me in my mental game."
In her first season at Wisconsin, Berner played anywhere from No. 1 to No. 6 singles and was usually on one of the Badgers' top two entrants in doubles. She posted a 6-2 record in singles and 4-4 mark in doubles during the fall. In the spring, she was 14-9 in singles, 11-14 in doubles.
"College tennis is a lot of fun because not only do you have your teammates pulling for you, but we also attract a lot of athletes from other sports at Wisconsin," she says. "It's quite a thrill to be part of all this and know you are playing for something other than yourself. You want to make the institution proud."
Berner says her ultimate goal is to be at the top of the Wisconsin lineup. "But I want to do whatever is best for the team," she says. "We have some great players here and I still have a ways to go in maturity. I just have to step it up and work hard."
And the best thing to come out of her little controversy last spring, according to Berner, is Beacon High School finally came up with the funding to field a girls tennis team this spring.
"And my father is going to be the coach," she says with a laugh. "So the legacy moves on and I actually feel like I had a positive influence on it."