At a place like Michigan, freshmen enter in the fall as faceless kids who struggle to learn their way around campus and university life. At parties, they stand around nervously admiring their newfound freedom. They often come from a high school where they are one of the best or brightest but become nothing more than another face in the crowd at Michigan.
At first glance this could have been the description of tennis player Chrissi Nolan. She does not strike one as a tennis player. She is not the fastest member of the team and would rather stay back and play the baseline than move up to play the net.
If not for a “Michigan Tennis” t-shirt, one would never guess she was a varsity athlete. She wears an unassuming smile and is a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority. Not the typical rap sheet for the average Michigan athlete.
What she has in common with most Michigan athletes is her unparalleled success in high school athletics. Nolan won three state singles championships in tennis, amassed a career record of 103-3 and at one point, had an 80-match win streak. This stellar play earned her a place in the national spotlight when she was named as one of Sport Illustrated”s “Faces in the Crowd” in the December 6, 1999 issue.
Nolan came into Michigan as one of the top freshmen in the nation, playing the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Not even Brooke Hart who was named to the Big Ten Conference Team last year and sits in the top 10 in career wins at Michigan started at the top spot her freshman year.
As the top spot in the lineup, she has routinely played against top players on the opposing teams, often juniors and seniors with a wealth of experience. It has meant she has faced players who capitalize on mistakes and don”t commit any errors themselves.
“Chrissi has learned a lot playing one or two singles this year,” coach Bitsy Ritt said. “I think she realizes she is going to play a good player every match. She has to be really ready to play. In college, it is not enough to put a lot of balls in the court. You have to really step up and do something with the ball whether it is working the point and finishing at the net.”
Nolan has spent the year learning how to adjust her game from juniors. In juniors, she could play a laid-back style in which she could sit back on the baseline and hit low-percentage shots down the baseline and cross court. In college, the level of competition takes a quantum leap and every player is on her level.
“College is much more intense than juniors,” Nolan said. “I didn”t even warm up for some matches in juniors. But in college you have to take each match seriously.”
The disparity in the level of play in juniors allows players like Nolan to coast through early rounds of tournaments on natural talent alone. The college game lacks these “coasting” players and force players to be mentally sharp for every point.
The other major adjustment from juniors to college is the importance of team play. While players do play on teams in high school, the disparity in skill level is even greater than in juniors. Furthermore, not all of their efforts go into their high school team, and they divide much of their time between high school and juniors.
While tennis is considered to be an individual sport, it is very much a team sport. With the exception of an occasionally cheering teammate, players are playing by themselves but represent the entire team. They are no longer playing for themselves, as is the case with juniors, but playing for a greater cause. Consequently, there is much more external pressure to win in college tennis than in juniors.
“Emphasis is on individual success in juniors,” Nolan said. “While in college you succeed as a team, there are no teams in junior tennis. In college, you are not just winning for yourself but your team and Michigan. It gives what you do more purpose. It makes the game more intense.”
This can create strange situations where a player can win, yet have the team lose and vice-versa. That was the case this weekend when Nolan won a close match in doubles with partner Kavitha Tippirneni and then won her singles match in three sets.
Despite her stellar play, Michigan lost the match against Iowa 5-2.
“It is a great (individual) win, so it is hard to be negative after the match,” Nolan said of the match. “College tennis is still a team sport. I did everything I could to win, so I am satisfied with myself but disappointed to lose to Iowa in general.”
As the season has continued, Nolan has learned to adjust to the new level of play, becoming stronger and gaining experience.
“As the season has gone on I have learned to work points better, put the ball away and finish points at the net,” Nolan said.
This newfound knowledge has helped Nolan blossom into one of the team”s most consistent players in singles which has led to an eight-match winning streak in doubles. She is leading the team in wins with 18 and has won five out of eight three-set matches this year, all while playing against the opponents” best players.
These accomplishments, along with an outstanding freshman year, have prevented Nolan from becoming just another face in the crowd.