May 9, 2005
Best of both worlds
BY Eric Rangus
Amy Smith knows a lot about firsts. Emory’s women’s tennis coach is the first woman (and fifth person all time, regardless of division) to win NCAA team titles as a player (1996) and a coach (2003–04). She was the first Emory women’s tennis player to be named All American in both singles and doubles.
Depending on the results of the NCAA Div. III national tournament, May 18–23, if Emory—the No. 1 ranked team at the end of the regular season—wins once again, Smith will be the first women’s coach to win three consecutive national team titles, and the program will tie the University of California, San Diego (now a Div. I institution) for most Div. III team titles ever with four.
It’s pretty heady stuff, and Smith approaches the possible milestone with just the right amount of understatement. “Is it more stressful to go into this national tournament? No,” said Smith, a 1996 graduate of Goizueta Business School. “The pressure we feel about playing in a national tournament after winning the last two is pressure we put on ourselves. We are all guilty of that a little, but we’re all cognizant of the fact that if we don’t put that pressure on ourselves, we can play it like it’s any other match.”
Emory boasts one of Div. III’s elite athletic programs. The Eagles are regulars in the top 10 of the Director’s Cup standings, which ranks the Div. III schools based on performance, and most every sport has had its share of success. None more so than women’s tennis.
In addition to their three national team titles, Emory players have won two singles and four national doubles titles, all under Smith’s guidance. The team has finished in the top 10 each of the last 14 years and 19 out of the last 20. Emory hasn’t been out of the top 3 since 2000, Smith’s first year.
But Smith’s 2005 squad is much different than those previous championship teams. From 2001–04, the Eagles were anchored by Mary Ellen Gordon, the player behind those consecutive national singles titles and four doubles titles. Her graduation, along with the loss of national runner-up Jolyn Taylor, who did not return for her junior year in 2005, depleted the team, which nevertheless retained its No. 1 ranking all year.
With seven freshmen on the tea—and four in the regular lineup—Emory may not be as invincible as it was in 2003–04 (the Eagles’ 76-match winning streak against Div. III opponents was broken earlier this year, and it may take three sets to close out some matches rather than two), but there is no doubt they are the team to beat.
“This is probably the most challenging year I’ve had so far,” said Smith, whose career record is 115–21 and includes national Div. III Coach of the Year honors in 2003. “Freshmen have a lot of developing, and part of my job as a coach is to develop them off the court as well as on it. But we’re a good team and we could win the national championship.
“We’re going to enjoy every moment for the rest of the season. It’s not for me to say, if we don’t win the national championship, that we haven’t succeeded. As long as I can look back and say we learned a lot about ourselves individually and as a team, and that we had a lot of fun—that’s all that matters.”
Smith’s current outlook is not the one she had when started as a player.
“I wasn’t exactly the epitome of a good team player when I came to Emory,” Smith said. “I’d grown up with the typical junior tennis lifestyle where it was all about me.” The fact that she had three coaches over four years didn’t help matters. But she remembers a turning point.
During a match in Smith’s sophomore year, she wasn’t playing very well—and she didn’t care who knew. “I was having a temper tantrum,” she said. “I must have broken two or three rackets.”
Then-coach Mark Braitman saw this and took Smith aside. “If you don’t want to play, you don’t have to,” he told her. “I’m not going to let you play, if you play like this.” Following that dressing down, Smith returned to the court. She lost the match but gained something much more—a nice dose of perspective.
“I went home, thought about it, and my whole outlook on college athletics and why I was doing it changed,” Smith said. “I’m on a team. I see these people every day. We’re a family. This isn’t all about me. It’s a team thing. It’s all about sacrifice and commitment, and my teammates don’t want to see me throw a temper tantrum on the court because I’m unhappy about the way I’m playing. They want to know I’m giving it my all and that I care about what they are doing.
“These are very simple concepts, and you’d be surprised how many people don’t understand them—including myself for a time.”
If there ever was a time when Smith was a bit too obsessed with the whole tennis attitude, it’s long gone now. Her main athletic activity outside Emory is running. She rarely plays tennis, except for the occasional ALTA match (“It’s my job; I don’t want to do my job outside work,” she said), and coaches primarily because of her love of working with the players.
Still, sports is in her blood. Smith grew up in Orlando, Fla., an area that, among its many attributes, allowed her to play sports year-round. She was about 8 years old when she started playing tennis. Smith’s mom, a huge fan of the sport, lined her up with one of her friends, who was an instructor at a local club.
Tennis was a nice distraction growing up, but Smith’s first love was soccer. She played club ball for years and her high school team won state championships both her junior and senior years. The team was stacked. Several of Smith’s teammates advanced to Div. I schools and beyond, including national team member Danielle Fotopoulos (a member of the World Cup championship team in 1999), who also was Smith’s doubles teammate in high school.
Rather than join her teammates at the Div. I level, where women’s soccer was just starting to boom in the early 1990s, Smith had other aspirations. She wanted a school close to home where she could play two sports (two-sport athletes are very rare at the Div. I level).
“Emory is in a great location and has great academics,” said Smith. “I liked the idea that I could play sports here and potentially excel. I looked at it and saw the best of both worlds.”
That Smith would work “best of both worlds,” Emory’s athletics tagline, into casual conversation shows her knowledge of sports marketing, her desired career after graduating with a degree in organization and management in 1996. It didn’t exactly work out that way.
Smith worked at IBM for about a year before quitting and taking a job with a nonprofit that was involved in youth leadership development in Israel. That experience, as well as some world traveling that followed, prompted a lot of soul searching. When she returned to the States, Smith came back to the place she loved best.
In 2000, Emory was looking not only for assistant coaches for women’s tennis and women’s soccer, but also wanted to ramp up its sports marketing efforts. Smith filled all three roles. When the women’s tennis head coach left in the middle of the season, Smith took over on an interim basis. After the Eagles advanced to the national quarterfinals (bettering the previous season’s result), Smith was elevated to the full-time job. On the side she earned a master’s in sports management from Georgia State in 2002.
“Emory is a great working environment, and I loved being an athlete here,” Smith said. “The athletic department was like my family, so it was very easy to come back.”
Smith excelled not only in tennis, where she is ranked in the top 10 all time in both singles and doubles wins, but also in soccer. She graduated as Emory’s all-time leader in goals and points (she is now third in both categories) and twice won the school’s Bridges Award, which is given to Emory’s most outstanding male and female athletes. Perhaps her crowning athletic achievement as a player (her 1995 national runner-up in singles and 1996 semifinalist in doubles finishes notwithstanding) was her induction into the Emory Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.
“That added a whole new level of pride for me,” Smith said. “It was an amazing feeling knowing that I was appreciated for everything I did when I was in college, and here I am now working in this place.”
Regardless of what happens at the nationals, Smith’s current place at Emory is as secure as her past. “I belong here,” she said.