USD media relations intern Kiva Herman, a senior Communications major, had a chance to sit down with USD women's tennis coach Sherri Stephens recently for a short Question & Answer interview. Stephens just completed her 25th year coaching the Toreros with the team placing 3rd at the West Coast Conference Championships; finishing with a 13-9 overall record and national ranking of 57th.
Kiva: First of all, can you believe you have been here 25 years?
Coach Stephens: No!! (Laughs) Does that answer that question. It's surreal. No, I don't believe it.
Kiva: What has been the biggest change, if anything, in the sport of women's tennis during this time?
Coach Stephens: I think the sport has changed quite a bit, for a couple reasons. One, being the rackets are made a lot differently now, so there is a lot more power on the ball. The athletes are a lot bigger and stronger, so all of that together makes for a faster game. A faster game adds to more conditioning and strengthening, and this keeps going up and up. The good news is that the game has improved; the bad news is that I feel like it has put an incredible stress on the athletes' bodies. Whereas when I played and first got here, people were not really injured. We did all of our training on the court. All of our running, sprints, and everything. Now I am not sure if it's because the sport has gotten faster, but we are pushing everybody to be stronger and faster, and it's creating so many more injuries, and they are pretty significant. So right now the teams that can hold their players together, not get hurt, are the ones that are rising to the top.
Kiva: Although you've coached numerous All-Americans, what was it like to coach Zuzana Lesenarova in the late 90's who went on to win the national singles title in 1999?
Coach Stephens: Well, when you have a player of her caliber, it's a different kind of coaching. She had a God given gift; an ability that I haven't seen in many players ever at the collegiate level. And so it takes a special care with her, because she is so good that we had to pretty much structure things around her as an individual. And that's hard because collegiate tennis is a team sport and it is hard for people to understand this. But it is, so there were difficulties having her be on a team. At the same time she was giving to the program and to the university by being an All-American, National Champion and all the other accolades she got as a player here.
Kiva: Zuzana is being inducted into USD's Hall of Fame on May 2nd. I'm sure you are looking forward to that. Are some of her teammates going to be able to join in on the festivities?
Coach Stephens: Yes, actually I know there is a player coming from Sweden and a player coming from Mexico and some players in California that are hoping to make it here. I know they had some prior commitments and they are trying to get here.
Kiva: What is it that you like most about USD and being a member of the Athletics staff here?
Coach Stephens: What I like most about the University of San Diego is the size. I like having more personal contacts with teachers, whether it's the training room or weight room, you have this personal touch that's a lot different. I came from the University of Arizona where I was an athlete and a coach and it's completely different. So I really enjoy the feel; obviously the location is unbelievable. For tennis you can't ask for much more than a beautiful facility, good weather and good academics. With all of these things, the department itself has gone through a major transition from the day that I got here to now. When I came for my job interview I came from the University of Arizona and we were top-10 in the country. When I came for my interview I asked where the weight room was and they said, `Oh, its right here' and they open this door and a bunch of weights fell out of a closet. My jaw just fell to the ground, because I was in shock. As things have progressed, especially in these past five or six years, I feel in all our sports we are nationally competitive and we have what it takes to be on that level, which is what I've always wanted. It's kind of cool to see USD in all the national rankings in most of the sports.
Kiva: College tennis has become such an international sport. What is your view on the state of tennis in the United States for youngsters and high school athletes?
Coach Stephens: Well, there is a little bit of a conflict between the United States Tennis Association and the Collegiate Tennis Association in that the USTA wants, especially for females, to take their career onto the professional level and not go to college. The players that are the most talented American players, the research says that females' peak performance time is between 18, 19, and 20 years old. So the USTA is taking these players and putting them in performance academy's. Everybody gets to thinking that they are going to play professional and they don't really think about college tennis. I think that is sad. Once they don't make it professionally, very few make it to that level, then they can't go to college. You are only allowed a year out of high school or otherwise you have to go to college, so that bothers me. Recruiting international players, and not Americans, doesn't bother me. It does a little bit because I feel like maybe you are giving scholarships to international kids, but every international kid that I've had has been hard working and appreciative. I mean there's very few that haven't been appreciative for what they have here at USD and I like that. It also teaches us a lot about the world, no matter where you come from, we are all the same.
Kiva: This year's WCC Tennis Championships was held at a local neutral site, the Barnes Tennis Center, along with the men's teams. How did you like this format and why?
Coach Stephens: A couple years ago I presented the WCC with having the men and women together at our conference championships. What I wanted was the feel of it being a conference championship, not just a tennis tournament.
Kiva: Like other WCC sports.
Coach Stephens: Yes. We really felt that this year, with the men and women being together at one site, there was always something going on. There was cheering, people everywhere, and one match would be close here and there. When it came down to, for example, the men's final between Pepperdine and USD, it was really close. You couldn't find a spot on the fence to watch the match because there were so many people. And to me, that's exciting. That's what I coach for, the excitement of the fans and the people. I thought it was awesome, I think all the conference teams felt the same.
Kiva: What was the impact of your newcomers this past season?
Coach Stephens: Well they turned our program around. We have had a couple rough years in the past due to a lot of reasons and one of them being the injury thing that I talked about. But the three freshmen that came in, well first of all none of them were injured. I think Juliette sprained her ankle once, but she still played. Injury-wise they were always there. I was lucky enough to get three very competitive athletes that hate to lose. And so for me, it got me even more excited. Marite was 17-2, Maja was 18-10 and Juliette the number one player is amazing. I think she has the potential to be as good as Zuzana. She just gave us that edge of a little bit of higher-class standard player. I am really lucky to have all three of them. We had great chemistry. Those things you can't buy.
Kiva: Where do you see the future of women's tennis headed at USD, since you have those three (Juliette, Maja, Marite) for three more years?
Coach Stephens: We have nowhere to go but up, up, up. I felt like there were two teams that outright beat us this year: USC being one of them. But we also played them really close. Boise State being another one - they caught us off guard. But the rest of them I think we could have beaten anybody else we played. So that being said with those three, we have two new recruits coming in next year that are just as good as they are. Hopefully the year after that, we continue to build. Once you have a player, the level of Juliette, then it's easier to recruit. They see a big player coming to a smaller school. Clemson, which is top-ten in tennis, recruited her; Miami is top-10 in tennis and Virginia. She came to USD and that helps a lot.
Kiva: You spend so much time with coaching, recruiting, and with camps and lessons. How do you like to spend your free time away from USD and what are some of your hobbies?
Coach Stephens: Sleeping (Laughs). I love the outdoors, not that I don't get enough of it. Standing on the court all day, I am outdoors all the time. But I love hiking in the mountains; I love anything that I can do to be outside. I love photography, so usually I'm hiking with my camera and putting the two together. And I have a little girl that I love spending time with.
Kiva: Okay, final question. What was your favorite part of the season?
Coach Stephens: Well beating San Diego State, the girls really enjoyed that. It's been a while since we've done that. They were ranked #28 at one point during season. So I think for them that was a really exciting thing. For me it was the chemistry. We had some sad moments this year, losing Tom (men's coach Tom Hagedorn lost his battle with leukemia); he was a good friend of mine. The girls, because we had such good chemistry, I looked forward to going to practice every single day. I looked forward to going to dinner with them; I looked forward to going on trips because we would laugh and we would win. And for me, I almost would rather be with them more than anywhere else. So for me, my favorite part was them, and for them I'm sure their favorite part was winning which we haven't done in a little while.