Oct. 16, 2006
59, Number 7
Oct. 16, 2006
Making a ‘racquet’ at
BY Kim Urquhart
The Emory Victory Bell reverberated across Governor’s Hall in the Miller Ward Alumni House six times, celebrating the resounding success of the Oxford College men’s tennis team. Oxford’s Head Tennis Coach Brandon Feldman was among those who had the honor of ringing the bell in the tri-annual ceremony honoring Emory athletes.
Feldman led the Oxford College Eagles to victory last season, when the men’s tennis team captured the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III national championship. It was an uphill battle, marking the first time in Oxford athletics history that a team has brought home a national championship trophy, in any sport.
The win’s significance for Oxford goes beyond bragging rights. Feldman provided context: “When you look at our school’s small size, the selectivity of our students, and the academic strength of our particular athletes, it makes everything more special.” With less than 700 students, Oxford was up against schools at least 10 times its size. As part of Emory, Oxford is also one of the most academically demanding schools. Its athletes excel on and off the court, with three Academic All-Americans on the men’s tennis team matched by three on the women’s.
“It shows that we can do all these things and still compete,” Feldman said.
Now in his fourth year as Oxford’s first full-time tennis coach, Feldman also guided the women’s team to their debut at the NJCAA women’s national tennis tournament.
“It’s the first time the women ever ranked as a team in the tournament,” Feldman said. “My first year here we brought one player. This year we brought the whole team, and finished third.” The women had to reschedule their final exams to compete, “which made it even more amazing,” Feldman said.
Before Feldman arrived to transform Oxford tennis into a force to be reckoned with, the tennis program was sandwiched between soccer and basketball season and lacked a full-time coach. The men’s team had made it to the national tournament once before, and finished fifth. “I had a lot to work with,” Feldman recalled, and set about improving that record. “My first year here, we finished third with the men, and then second, and then we won the championship.”
Feldman demands the most out of his athletes, yet understands that college comes first. “I try to be a little more laid back, more flexible,” he said. “You have to be kind of relaxed here, because the class work is so hard and our players are involved in so much. At Oxford, everybody is a leader in some way, and I don’t want to take away from that experience.”
Feldman varies the times of daily practices to accommodate those schedules, and it sometimes involves early mornings. “Somebody said last year that I said if we won nationals I’d get rid of 7 a.m. practices, but I don’t really remember saying that,” he said with a laugh. “The sophomores are trying to push me on that, so we’ll see.”
Feldman’s philosophy on the court is to “adapt without panicking.” He often refers to Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem, “If,” to motivate the team. The players are also motivated by a potential future on Emory’s UAA team, which is one of the best tennis teams in the country. “They see how well the Emory team does and it motivates them, as well as having that carrot out there—winning the national championship,” Feldman said.
But he also strives to keep things in perspective. “I try to put it into context for them and say ‘it doesn’t matter what Emory does or what the big schools do.’ It’s like when you were growing up and you were the best jump-roper on your street. You can jump higher and faster and better than all the kids on your block, and outside of that there is no world,” he said. “I tell them this is our little neighborhood, and we can try to be the best on our block.”
Feldman’s competitive streak started at a young age. A natural athlete, his childhood in Florida was spent playing tennis, soccer, volleyball and baseball. By age 12, he had won the state championship in soccer and was an All-Star baseball player. “I thought, ‘I haven’t done anything yet in tennis,’” he recalled, so at age 13 he decided “to put everything into tennis.” Little did he know this would be the defining focus of his life.
At Skidmore College, Feldman earned his undergraduate degree in government with a minor in coaching. He went on to study exercise physiology at the University of Miami, where he was also an assistant coach for the women’s tennis team. “I decided that I liked being on the tennis court more than I liked being in my laboratory,” he said, and his career choice changed course.
He was working as a USPTA certified tennis pro in a Miami tennis center when his best friend, a coach at Washington College in Maryland, invited Feldman to work with the NCAA Division III powerhouse.
He was at a turning point. Did he stay at the club level, or go into college coaching? “I thrive on competition and enjoy being in a healthy competitive environment, and college sports can provide that,” Feldman explained of his decision to coach.
At Washington College, Feldman helped guide the men’s team to a spot in the NCAA tournament and take the women’s doubles team to nationals. A year later, he left to join Oxford.
Feldman’s arrival allowed Oxford’s tennis season to extend into the fall. “That was the first thing that really kick-started everybody into thinking this was something serious,” he said. Oxford tennis is funded by an endowment from a community leader who gave tennis lessons, and was always a popular sport. Yet the program needed direction. “When they saw that tennis could do something on a varsity level in junior college, the athletic director, Edgar Flores, put the push in for getting a real coach,” Feldman explained.
As Oxford’s athletic coordinator, Feldman directs the school’s intramural programs, which range from flag football to ultimate frisbee. He also maintains the athletics home page on Oxford’s Web site, and performs other duties on campus as needed. Feldman’s typical week includes about 14 hours in practices and another six to eight in individual workouts with team members. Two assistant coaches offer support.
Unlike some of the faculty and staff, who commute to the college from elsewhere in metro Atlanta, Feldman has made Oxford his home. “I like being around so I can get with the players for whatever they need,” he said. Feldman and his wife are active in the community: he leading tennis clinics and lessons for local residents; she teaching jazz, tap and modern dance. Oxford has become “a big playground” for their infant daughter, Davina. “The baby knows everybody on campus,” Feldman said, and is never lacking for babysitters.
Currently, Feldman is concentrating on the Eagles’ fall season. The mens’ and womens’ teams have continued their strong performance, most recently at the Southeast Regional Inter-Collegiate Tennis Association Tournament.
Feldman, who has always taken pride in being the “hardest working guy on the court,” hopes his Oxford players will exhibit the same attitude. “My ultimate aspiration,” he said, “is to show our players that they are capable of reaching deep down and achieving goals on the court, just as they hope to in the classroom and in life.”