More Than Luck
April 9, 2007
With her team on the brink of history, searching for a record ninth-straight Big Ten crown, Northwestern women's tennis coach Claire Pollard says it takes some luck to win championships. But the Wildcat mentor knows it takes a whole lot more than luck to build a dynasty.
Well-regarded as an exceptional motivator, Pollard has crafted an empire in Evanston, Ill., with a well-balanced blend of talent, discipline, fun and opportunity.
Since her arrival in 1999, Pollard's recipe has taken a program that routinely finished among the top three teams in the conference to unparalleled heights. But it was with a dose of luck and opportunity that the England-bred, three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year took her passion for tennis to the United States and the collegiate ranks.
Growing up in Surrey, England, just outside of London, Pollard picked up the game of tennis from her parents and often practiced on the back courts of the historic All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon.
When the time came for British students of her age to take a year off between high school and college, Pollard was faced with a choice between academics and athletics. With an opportunity to continue both at Mississippi State University in Starkville, she crossed the pond in 1985 for the first time. Pollard had never stepped foot in the U.S. - let alone among the archetypical southern culture she found in Mississippi.
"It was a tough transition," Pollard said. "It was a much bigger culture shock than I ever would have imagined but certainly something that I really cherished and enjoyed. The people were so great, so warm and friendly."
The rules were different back then, Pollard explained. Helping in her transition was a host family, to whom she could go if she needed a familiar face or a home-cooked meal. She moved to Starkville with only temporary plans, but semester after semester, Pollard found herself entrenched in the life of a student-athlete.
"I didn't plan to stay," said Pollard. "But during my third year I decided I wanted to become a coach. I thought, `Wow, someone will actually pay me to do this?' I couldn't think of anything better that I wanted to do - and I still don't. I still can't believe I get paid to do this job. To do something I love every day, it's just really fun."
But at that time, Pollard still had a collegiate career of her own to decorate - both on and off the court.
After claiming back-to-back Southeastern Conference Indoor and Outdoor Doubles Championships, Pollard teamed with fellow Bulldog senior Jackie Holden to win the 1989 NCAA Doubles Championship in thrilling fashion.
"We narrowly escaped in the semis when I feel like we should have lost," Pollard said. "We were down two match points, really down and out, but managed to come back. To win a championship, you need a little luck here or there."
It was hardly luck or happenstance that earned Pollard the honor of Mississippi State's Female Athlete of the Year in 1989. An Academic All-America selection, Pollard remains the Bulldogs' single-season leader for doubles victories with 39 during her championship season.
"There's no opportunity to combine both academics and sport at a high level in England, so it's one or the other," Pollard explained. "Here, you really get the best of both worlds because you can pursue both at an incredibly high level. It's so intriguing for international players to come to the U.S. because that opportunity isn't afforded to us over in Europe."
After graduating magna cum laude from Mississippi State with a degree in fitness management, Pollard stayed in Starkville to add a master's in sports administration to her resume. Not long after, she secured her first head coaching position at her alma mater for the 1990-91 season.
The former Wimbledon and U.S. Open participant had long known her calling was as a coach, but thrust among her former Bulldog teammates and peers, that initial season at the helm was full of unforeseen challenges.
"Now that I'm much older and wiser, I feel sorry for those girls who had to put up with me as a coach," Pollard laughed. "Back then it was very different; there were no assistant coaches and it was much more informal. I really wasn't qualified for the job when I look back. But back then, it was very much a carousel. You coached for a couple of years, then you left and you did something else because it just really wasn't a way to make a living.
"Everything helps you become a better coach as you go along. I wouldn't be the coach I am today if I didn't have that experience."
After an 11-10 learning experience at Mississippi State, Pollard returned to England to work with the Chris Lane Tennis Club, a junior tennis program. But being back in her native country, Pollard could not help but think of her career in the United States. She missed college tennis.
"I really like the idealistic amateur athlete, but life is just very different here," said Pollard. "I think you just had to change in every aspect, every way that you thought."
Her stint in England did not last long. Pollard was back in the head coaching ranks at Lamar University, a small Division I school in Beaumont, Texas. At Lamar, she guided both the men's and women's teams to impressive records. But perhaps the most important discovery she made was about her ability to adapt at almost any program.
"One thing I've learned about myself is that I can be happy anywhere," she said. "The community really got behind the program. It was the ultimate team effort."
After serving on the NCAA Tennis Committee for several years, opportunity knocked again for Pollard, who befriended former Northwestern coach Lisa Fortman. In 1998, Fortman announced she would be leaving the program and encouraged Pollard to apply for the Wildcats' head spot.
"I think the Big Ten really fits my philosophy on life in general: don't put all your eggs in one basket," Pollard said. "I think we do a good job of that philosophically, really believing in the student-athlete and living what we preach. I feel it's a good fit for me."
Although the team had consistently finished in the upper half of the conference before Pollard took over, her new regime was like a rocket-powered boost to the upper echelon of college tennis.
With a litter of gifted players left from Fortman's team and a little more good fortune, Pollard was ready to put the finishing touches on her program with a firm belief in discipline and pride.
"I certainly was lucky," Pollard said. "[Fortman] has to get some credit for the success we had in the early years. But the very first practice we had - I didn't intend to kill the players - but supposedly none of them could walk after we finished.
"Those players, who have graduated and are older, still look back to that first day where they felt I really set the tone for the program and set the standard of expectations. They knew they would be higher from now on."
By the end of the season, the Wildcats secured the school's first Big Ten Championship in 13 years, winning both the regular- and post-season titles. During the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons, Pollard led the team to two straight undefeated Big Ten campaigns and continued the string conference championships with the program's third- and fourth-straight titles.
That initial success, coupled with Northwestern's esteemed academic program, helped the Wildcats compete for some of the best tennis talent in the country - and eventually across the globe.
Pollard's tenure has encompassed five consecutive Big Ten Athlete of the Year selections, two of which were also distinguished as the conference's Freshman of the Year in the same season - an honor that has only been achieved three times in conference history. In 2003, Northwestern's exposure reaped huge dividends when newly recruited Cristelle Grier became the first Northwestern player to accomplish this feat - a tremendous foreshadowing of the London-born Wildcat's illustrious career.
Grier grew up a few serve-and-volleys from the courts of Wimbledon, where her father served as the director of championships. Her home was also not far from Pollard's childhood stomping grounds in Surrey, but the coach said they had no connection before a last-minute bit of chance interfered.
"I just got lucky," Pollard said. "I heard about her through the grapevine. You would have thought I had an `in,' but once we got a relationship going and we got to know each other, I do think there was some comfort there that I could bring. I know what it's like to up-root and move to a different country.
"I think I have an understanding of that, and while I think all of us coaches are learning it because we're all recruiting internationally, I've actually been there and done that."
When Grier made the move to Evanston, she dismissed any signs of a rough transition on the court. She finished her career as the winningest player in Northwestern and Big Ten history. The four-time All-America selection posted a career conference singles record of 46-1 - the league's best-ever individual mark.
"I think she really took us to a whole different level," Pollard said. "Once she got herself established, we went from being a really good team to now one of the very best. When you have the opportunity to win at No. 1 singles against any team in the country, it elevates the whole level of your program.
"Not only was she a great tennis player, but she was also just class on the court, a real class act. I think that's how the Big Ten wants to be represented."
For Grier and the top recruits that have followed her, it is Pollard's individualistic philosophy that has drawn them to the Wildcat program. With a shrewd pulse and feel for what each athlete needs to work on, Pollard has been able to sustain Northwestern's success year after year.
"I'm definitely sensitive to the individual needs of each player," she said. "I think it's so easy as a coach to come up with one practice where everyone does the same thing. I think I try really hard to meet those individual needs, so that each player, I tell them that when they leave this door they can't look at me and tell me I did not do my job."
Her innate sense of motivation and constant search for improvement pushes Pollard's Northwestern players to the limits of their potential, but the most important thing she searches for in her coaching strategy is keeping that work ethic balanced with plenty of fun.
"Sometimes as a coach you can forget that it's supposed to be fun and forget that it's supposed to be enjoyable," Pollard said. "We've obviously positioned ourselves where there's a lot of competition from a tennis point of view, but these girls should have time to be themselves as well. Sometimes it's so serious, so competitive; you can't forget to keep it fun for them. And I do think that helps us down the stretch."
This season, a few days before the Wildcats hit the road for a couple of grueling road tests against No. 13 William & Mary and No. 34 Indiana, the team dropped its rackets in favor of some soccer balls. For senior Alexis Prousis, it is activities like soccer that give the team enough time to regroup without looking ahead to the next weekend's matches too early.
"During the week we do work on things to get better, but come game day we know we have to play to win," Prousis said. "I think that's a really good mentality because a lot of time people get into that mindset of wanting to play matches in practice to work on things, but you're not playing a match just for yourself. You're playing it for eight other people, so she tells us to go out there and play to win. I think that's a really good philosophy."
Although Pollard says there is much more by which a season should be measured than wins and losses, her method is paying off big in the record books. Despite a rocky start to February that saw the Wildcats drop three matches to top 10 teams by one point, the team has won seven of its last eight - including a pivotal conference victory over the Hoosiers to solidify its place atop the Big Ten standings. But Pollard knows there is plenty of tennis yet to be played by her young team.
"We understand the target gets bigger every year," Pollard said. "We expect our teams to play their very best against us, and I'm really proud of the way the girls have handled the quote-unquote pressure that is on them. You sort of downplay it, but we know that we are really lucky to have this opportunity.
"Hopefully with a young team, we're getting better each week and we'll see their best tennis at the end of the year. We're not taking anything for granted."
During the 2004-05 season, the Wildcats spent most of the year ranked among the nation's top five teams and advanced to the NCAA Championships Round of 16. Adding a seventh Big Ten title in the mix, the season was one of the finest in program history. But those achievements could not have forecasted the unprecedented triumphs the team would find in the following season - a tribute to Pollard's unwavering resolve for continual improvement.
Despite the departure of Audra Cohen, who was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's Rookie of the Year, Northwestern picked up exactly where it left off. The Wildcats nabbed their eighth-consecutive Big Ten Championship, after constructing the fourth unblemished regular-season record in Pollard's tenure. They advanced to the NCAA Championship quarterfinals before falling in a hard-fought, 4-3 match to USC.
"We were so bitterly disappointed losing to USC," Pollard said. "We were kind of down and none of us really wanted to be there for the day after."
It was an individual accomplishment that quickly erased that feeling of defeat and had Pollard dreaming of her memorable senior year at Mississippi State.
The coach had paired Grier and then-junior Prousis together in the middle of February while experimenting with different doubles combinations. But the seemingly match-made-in-heaven pair of Northwestern's top two players struggled.
"We definitely clicked, but we had some ups and downs," Prousis said. "I think we really got committed after we took a loss in the Big Ten's, and then we really pulled together. We were really committed and knew we had something special that we couldn't let go to waste."
The two started coming in before practice to work together, tuning their level of dedication to a whole new decibel. During the next month leading up to the NCAA Championships, Prousis said the duo's commitment was unmatched. When they entered the tournament underrated, she said it started to pay off, slowly but surely.
In their first-round match versus No. 16 Arizona State, the unseeded Wildcat duo found themselves staring up at a huge deficit. But rather than give up, the pair stormed back to take out the Sun Devils in three sets. From there on out, Grier and Prousis railed through higher-ranked teams - No. 8 California, No. 10 Georgia and No. 1 Stanford - before reaching the championship final.
"We were down in that first match and maybe should have lost that one, but instead we just got better," Pollard said. "When they got to the last match, we thought, `Hey we have a chance to win this.'"
The tandem became an experiment-turned-national-champion when it took out seventh-ranked Fresno State in straight sets to claim the program's second-ever NCAA doubles title and first in nearly two decades. The first was won by Katrina Adams and Diane Donnelly in 1987.
As the team's only senior, Prousis did not have long to dwell on her newfound title; she was busy taking over Grier's place as team leader. Along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Georgia Rose, Prousis has kept the squad a force to be reckoned with among the nation's top teams, and Pollard said she expected nothing less from her perfectionist team captain.
"It's her year. It's all eyes on her," Pollard said. "Prousis has got a big target on her back after the championship last year. It's been a tough year as far as balancing those aspects as well as performing on the court. But I think she has risen to the occasion."
With a chance to tie Indiana tennis' streak of nine consecutive Big Ten Championships at this year's conference tournament in Minneapolis, Pollard and the Wildcats know that the team's bull's-eye looms even bigger than ever. But the Wildcat mentor is pleased with how her young team has responded to the pressure.
"Everyone says sport builds character, but I think it exposes you," said Pollard. "When you're out there and it's all on the line, you're in that tough spot with nobody else but you. It really tells you a lot about yourself."
Pollard has seen that character rise above all else in herself and in her team. And with each challenge, their confidence - and the program - continues to flourish.
"I felt like they went through what Jackie and I did that in the first match, when they were really, really down," Pollard said. "My first title was in doubles, and now they say I've got nothing over them."
The reigning NCAA doubles champions may have matched their coach's first title run, but judging from the ever-growing trophy collection at Northwestern, matching Pollard's legend will take more than a little luck.