Talking to head coach Danielle McNamara, it would seem that the Yale women’s tennis team just won the Ivy League — or at least had finished with a winning record.
Instead, the Bulldogs (8–15, 1–6 Ivy) rescued their winless season with a victory over Columbia on the last day of the league campaign. The program has seen three coaches in as many seasons, finishing below 0.500 in each of them, and saw three players leave the team over the course of this past year.
But to the four-time league champion coach, none of that matters.
“This is my 10th year coaching in college tennis, and I’ve never seen so much growth and progress and improvement individually and collectively as I have with this team in one year,” McNamara said. “I’m not worried in the slightest based on the results about where we are and where we’re headed, not in the least bit. If you saw our first practice and the way we defined what it means to compete hard and be tough and [compared that to] now, it would be night and day. … The results will come.”
That growth and collective mindset was especially important in light of the high-profile departures the Elis faced, among them Sherry Li ’17, who played in the No. 3 and No. 4 singles spots last year, and Madison Battaglia ’20, a freshman who likely would have started at the No. 1 seed.
Those absences, along with the graduation of three consistent lineup contributors, forced McNamara to call on inexperienced players to take on major starting roles, the coach said.
Carol Finke ’18, for instance, climbed the ladder from the No. 5 and No. 6 slots to the premier position, and Elizabeth Zordani ’18 started every match of the season after rarely starting in her first two years in league play. Of the four singles players who won on Sunday to clinch Yale’s sole conference victory over Columbia, none were in the singles lineup in the Elis’ 2016 victory over the Lions.
“It was a rough ride — change is never easy,” McNamara said. “But the players that are on the team now really bought in.”
Time spent away from campus often cements a team’s chemistry and identity, but a scheduling quirk resulted in the Bulldogs playing all their matches at home in the 2017 calendar year until spring break. Unsurprisingly, Yale’s trip to California in March was a turning-point moment for the team, according to McNamara.
Though off-court bonding may have been the longer-lasting payoff of the weeklong West Coast swing, it also translated into a key in-game moment, when No. 5 Caroline Lynch ’17 crawled back from a 6–4 first-set loss to take the next two sets and clinch a 4–3 victory over San Diego State on March 13. Yale’s top two singles players dropped their matches, but the bottom four seeds, including Opala Dhingra ’20, all triumphed, a testament to the team-first, “buying in” identity McNamara hoped to cultivate.
“I learned a lot about what it means to be on and play for a team,” Dhingra said of her first year with the program.
The 4–3 win in California portended the conference season, in which five of seven Bulldog matches were decided by that margin. The parity across the Ivy League was a talking point for McNamara all season long, with 16 of the 26 fully completed matches in the conference decided by a single individual match. She took the half-full stance that the team “easily could have been 6–1” with all the close contests.
But mired at 0–6 entering their final match, the Elis sought — and could finally deliver — a substantive win that counted in the standings. Hosting Columbia on Senior Day, Yale clinched a fitting 4–3 win on a three-set victory from Zordani, one of four singles matches that went the distance.
“We had a lot of people who are banged up, and mentally it’s a long season, but still they fought so hard across the board,” McNamara said. “Going to three sets in so many of those [matches] and pulling it out, it just shows the character of the team — that’s what we’ve been talking about this whole year.”
Though by conventional standards the Bulldogs’ season was anything but a success, the team will carry not just that season-ending victory into the offseason, but also a bigger source of relief: stability. A cohort of four rising seniors will anchor the program with leadership, and only two starters will graduate next month. And for the first time in four years, the coach in September will be the same person it was in May.
With a more defined identity and a veteran-heavy lineup, Yale has good reason to anticipate a better showing in league play next year.
In her first stint with the program, McNamara notched a 56–10 record against Ivy League opponents over eight years.