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CMS women's tennis celebrates the national title

Words over the photo read: Championship Memories Saturday. 2018 CMS Women's Tennis, NCAA Division III National Championship, CMS 5 Emory 4

Championship Memories Saturday: 2018 CMS Women's Tennis Wins National Title

2018 NCAA Women's Tennis National Championship Links
National Championship Match vs. Emory: Recap | Highlights | NCAA Video | Press Conference | Photo Gallery
Semifinal Match vs. Williams: Recap | Photo Gallery 
Quarterfinal Match vs. MIT: Recap | Photo Gallery 

There are a lot of differences between collegiate team tennis and all of the junior tournaments where student-athletes have played most of their biggest matches before enrolling in college. Being part of a team and trying to win your matches not just for your own benefit, but also for your teammates and your program, often brings a greater sense of motivation beforehand, and a greater sense of fulfillment afterwards.

It also creates more drama, as tight matches gradually come down to the final couple of courts to determine the winner. And if you are on one of those courts, you typically get more eyes on you than you ever would in a junior tournament, where your immediate family often doubles as your transportation and your cheering section.

There is also more unpredictability to the team tennis format. After the three doubles matches finish, the six singles courts start simultaneously, and there is no way to know which match might be the one to ultimately determine the team victory. You can't strategize like in most other sports. You can pick your order in a soccer or hockey shootout, call a play for your best player in football or basketball, or call on your designated closer in baseball or softball. But in team tennis, it is mostly chance as to who ends up with the pressure on them to come through in the clutch.

In the 2018 NCAA Division III Women's Tennis National Championship between Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and Emory, it was first-year Rebecca Berger who found herself in that spot. She was the last one playing on Court 5 at CMS' home Biszantz Family Tennis Center, with the match tied up 4-4 … and all eyes on her.

Berger, who had played a lot of long points with her steady baseline game, played the slowest-moving of the six singles matches, leaving her as the last to finish, even though she was on top of her game and led throughout. As more and more people packed in around her court, the pressure intensified, as she had her teammates' hopes, as well as her own, riding on her shoulders.

Her teammates couldn't have been more confident.

Fellow first-year Caroline Cox, who had won her match for the third CMS point at No. 6 singles in a second-set tiebreaker, and ran down to cheer on her doubles partner, Catherine Allen, at No. 2. After Allen won in another second-set tiebreaker to tie Emory 4-4, Cox made the U-turn back to court No. 5 and the last match left, and she liked what she saw with Berger up a set and in the lead in the second.

"I have to admit that by the time I finished watching Cat's match and ran over to watch the end of Rebecca's," she recalled, "knowing her determination and seeing her score … I already knew we had won."

Playing for a national championship is enough pressure, but this was also program history at stake. CMS was playing in its first-ever NCAA title match, after reaching the semifinals in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Williams knocked the Athenas out in 2013, with Emory earning the semifinal wins over CMS in 2015 and 2017.

CMS was in good company, though, coming up short to those two programs. From 2001-17, Williams and Emory combined to win 16 of the 17 national championships (Williams 10, Emory six) with only Washington & Lee breaking the two-team stranglehold in 2007. In the previous three seasons before CMS hosted in 2018, Williams and Emory met in the title match all three times, with Williams winning in 2015, Emory taking the title in 2016, and Williams earning it back in 2017.

In the 2018 regular season, CMS lost only twice … to Williams and Emory (both by 5-4 scores). So when the Athenas prevailed in the NCAA Semifinals over Williams 5-3 to advance to the national championship (with Berger winning the clincher), they had already accomplished a lot.  It was their first title match, it avenged one of their two regular season losses, and it eliminated one of the two programs with the strangehold on the national championship.  

Meeting Emory in the finals was a golden chance to take out the other.

"Coming into the tournament, we were the underdogs," said Berger. "Up until 2018, Williams and Emory had dominated the title. Going into the match, it was the underdog factor fueling our extra motivation. We knew we could beat them, and so all we had to do was believe in ourselves and fight for every point." 

"Williams and Emory were and are still known for being such powerhouses in DIII women's tennis," said Cox. "We were always motivated to play our hardest against them and hopefully come out on top, but I'm actually glad we had played them before because that meant we weren't walking into the unknown. We had just played these players and knew a bit more what to expect, unlike when we played them the first time."

Doubles saw the Eagles take a 2-1 lead, with Juliette Martin and Kyla Scott earning a key 8-3 win at No. 3 doubles to tie the score 1-1. Scott was a senior, who had lost twice to Emory in the NCAA Semifinals in her career already, so there were many layers to her motivation, along with fellow senior Linsday Brown (who was part of the No. 1 CMS doubles team with sophomore Nicole Tan). After all, she was playing her final collegiate match, at home, in the program's first-ever national championship, against the team that had eliminated her from nationals twice before.

The main upper courts at the Biszantz Family Tennis Center are laid out horizontally 1-6, with Court 1 closest to the clubhouse. There is a divider between Court 3 and Court 4 with some shaded bleachers for spectators, as well as a path down to the lower courts (No. 7-12), so Scott (No. 4 singles), Berger (No. 5) and Cox (No. 6) were sent to the far end of the complex for their singles matches.  

The three of them cheered each other on throughout, and their support for each other represents one of Berger's favorite memories of the championship run.

"My favorite moment would have to be playing alongside Kyla and Caroline," she said. "I was playing in between them and we were constantly firing each other up and cheering. That feeling of energy that I felt coming from both of them was indescribable and is my favorite memory of that day. Accomplishing the national championship title was a great moment, but it was the moments leading up to the title that I will always look back to."

Scott was the only one of the six Athenas playing in singles who had to go to a third set, but she played at a fast pace and was the first one to finish, earning a 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 victory to tie the overall match at 2-2. Ysabel Gonzalez-Rico, the No. 2 ranked singles player in the nation, gave Emory back the lead at 3-2 with a No. 1 singles, but Cox answered at No. 6 in the biggest win of her young career.

Cox came out flying with a 6-0 win in the first set, before Emory's Stephanie Taylor had a comeback to battle deep into the second set. Cox held serve in a big game to tie the score 6-6 and force a tiebreaker, and then the tiebreaker also went to 6-6, adding to the drama. Taylor, of course, had the pressure of trying to stay alive in the match, but in many ways Cox had just as much pressure on her shoulders despite having the lead. A third set would swing all the momentum Taylor's way and force Cox into the challenging mental grind of trying to dig down and earn back the momentum in the third. Instead of facing that daunting task, she was able to dig down in the short term, taking the final two pressure-packed points went her way for an 8-6 win, and the Athenas were back even at 3-3.  

"I can't remember a specific point in the tiebreaker that stands out," said Cox of her dramatic win, "besides the very last point in which my opponent missed a groundstroke wide. I'm really proud of the way I played in the first set as a whole. I played with absolutely no fear and nothing to lose, and I always play best when I have this mentality because I get super loose and can hit out."   

As the cadence of the match developed, Emory led 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, and 4-3 before the Athenas answered every time to tie it. After the Eagles went up 4-3, it was Allen's turn to take a big tiebreaker, finishing off a 6-2, 7-6 (7-2) win to avoid a third set and have the entire season come down to just one match on one court.

Cox and the rest of the Athenas fans watching Allen then made the sprint down to Berger's court, or perhaps a speed walk which was as quick as is appropriate for tennis spectators. Although Cox was confident in her classmate, tennis is a funny sport where momentum can take a sudden turn on one big point or one big break. Taking control of a match is one thing, closing it out is another. 

Berger had been remarkably steady for a player in her first NCAA Tournament, earning the pressure-packed clincher against Williams and then consistently winning long points and long games to hold a 6-2, 4-2 advantage against Emory. But Emory's Defne Olcay was not giving in, matching Berger shot for shot on long points. With the entire Biszantz complex and the NCAA video feed suddenly now funneling around just the one court left, Berger had to stay sharp and not let the change in the atmosphere keep her from doing what she was doing.  

As the saying goes, pressure makes diamonds, and Berger handled the intensity dial going up to 11 with aplomb, closing out her match with confidence. She felt that the extra support, which would fill plenty of family vehicles, didn't faze her at all. In fact, it made all the difference.   

"I think my teammates being there, watching me and hearing them pumping me up only fueled my focus more," she said. "I did not want to win just for myself but for the team that I have come to consider my family. I knew what I had to do to win and I wanted to do that for my team, so it felt pretty natural to stay focused on the match and not pay attention to what was going on in the stands or anywhere else."

Olcay was locked in as well trying to keep her team's hopes alive, and the pivotal moment of the match, and by extension the CMS season and the program's history, came with Berger up 4-2. NCAA Division I tennis has recently removed deuces to try to shorten matches and make them more TV friendly, and the drama in Berger's 15th game would be Exhibit A as to what the rule change takes away from the sport.

"I played a game that lasted about 10 minutes with over 5-6 deuces," Berger recalled. "I knew how crucial that game was because a 5-2 lead is much different than a 4-3 lead. I was proud of my ability to persevere in that game and not give my opponent any unnecessary opportunities."

When the game finally ended with Berger up 5-2, and the CMS cheering section let out a loud holler, she was in full control going into the final changeover. As hard as it is for the last player left competing, sometimes it's just as hard on her teammates, who have packed their rackets away and can't do anything but try to will their teammate to a win with their persistent vocal support.

"It sometimes can be harder because you have absolutely no control over the outcome," said Cox, "but it can also be nice to sit and watch knowing that the pressure is completely off of you. After finishing, I knew we needed 2 out of the 3 courts left on to win and I felt confident because both Rebecca and Cat were in good shape to win their matches at that point. So even though my heart was pounding from just finishing a tiebreaker, I was at ease because I had a lot of confidence in the girls still playing."

Cox also pointed out that the task was made easier by the fact that it wasn't just the Athenas themselves trying to push CMS over the finish line.   

"We were all kinda disappointed the school year ended before NCAAs so most of our non-tennis friends had left campus," said Cox. "But we had so many faculty members, Claremont residents, and other people connected to CMS that most of us had never met who came out to cheer us on. That support we received from people who had no obligation to come watch was incredible and I still really appreciate it."    

After the changeover, Olcay won the ensuing game to stay alive and close to within 6-2, 5-3, but Berger continued to remain steady, confidently hitting her groundstrokes and keeping the pressure on. When match point came around, Olcay momentarily had an advantage, stepping inside on a shallow Berger shot for a sharp backhand that painted the baseline. Berger's return, though, was perfect, pinning Olcay against the back fence. Olcay's defensive backhand lob kept her in the point, but Berger went back to the same spot, forcing Olcay to go back to another defensive backhand, which jumped off her racket with what seemed like a little too much force.

A Hollywood film would go to slow motion at this point to prolong the drama, but the ball probably felt like it was in slow motion to everyone watching anyway. Berger backpedaled, getting ready for another key swing if the ball managed to tuck in on the baseline, but her eyes lit up as she tracked its path and realized that was unlikely. The murmur from everyone watching also slowly gathered intensity, as the thought crept in, "this could be it."

No swing needed, as the ball fell to the court a few inches on the wrong side of the baseline, followed quickly by Berger's racket, and then Berger herself, as the national championship moment overwhelmed her, and all of Biszantz.

"I was in disbelief," she said. "It felt surreal to know that the goal we were all working towards had become reality. In the moment, I felt nothing but pride in my teammates' dedication and hard work." 

Cox, who was confident all along and 100 percent believed that the national championship was imminent, still said that moment when it became reality was unforgettable.

"I had already started to process it (the national championship)," she said, "but Rebecca closing out the match and all of us running out to dog pile her together was still so exhilarating. We were jumping, crying and laughing all together and it truly is the best I have ever felt in my life."

Celebrating with teammates is another big factor that separates team tennis from individual tournaments. In addition to the 2018 national championship over Emory, Cox and Allen have also won national doubles championships in both the fall and spring, major accomplishments that they also take great pride in. But having a full squad share in the excitement makes that 5-4 win over Emory feel different.

"Being able to celebrate with a group of teammates was so much more exciting," said Cox. "Junior tennis is so individual, and after spending nearly a decade driving to tournaments with just my mom and playing mainly for myself, it made this even more special. We trained all year together and so it was amazing to be able to play next to each other one last time for the season and have our hard work really pay off." 

Berger had the exact same emotions. Even though the decisive clincher was a personal win, and one which she will certainly always take great pride in, the thrill of victory wasn't one she had to keep to herself.

"Growing up, I never enjoyed junior tennis," she admitted. "When I got to college and developed such a strong bond with my teammates, I no longer felt that I was winning or losing for myself. Winning the national championship with my teammates on our home courts is, to this day, the best day of my life. Knowing that the victory was accomplished by the entire team's hard work and efforts is what made the victory so much better. We pushed each other, each and every day, and for that I will be forever grateful to them."

What's also true of team sport championships is that the thrill of victory is only part of the full story. It's months of training to get to that point, and moments shared off the court that make the final chapter of the story so rewarding. 

"I will never forget the feeling of running onto the court when Rebecca won her last point and the joy we collectively felt afterward," said Cox. "But apart from that, I loved the nights we spent together before our matches watching Mulan and eating Thai food because in those moments we weren't hyper focused on tennis and could just be friends. Friends who loved hanging out together and who wanted to win for each other, which I think made all the difference."

Championship memories almost always go beyond the championship alone.