The fate of a dynasty sat on Linda Shin’s racquet.
Then a freshman at Williams College, Shin wasn’t aware at first that her match at No. 2 singles in the 2014 NCAA Division III national semifinals versus Amherst was the deciding point. The Ephs entered singles play down 0-3 after dropping all three doubles points, but rallied to even the match at 4-4, leaving the unassuming freshman to try and pick up an improbable win and propel Williams a step closer to what would’ve been its seventh-straight National Championship.
With all of her teammates huddled together and cheering her on, Shin fought courageously, but ultimately she and the Ephs came up a little shy of the ultimate goal as Gabby Devlin of Amherst walked away with a 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (7) victory.
“It was incredibly motivating to have all of my teammates out there supporting me,” said Shin, now a junior. “It was a very close match and I was the last match on. We were all very sad when we lost, but Alison (Swain) was so proud of us and how we competed. It made us hungrier and made us a better team the following season.”
In the heat of the moment, when emotions are at their zenith, it would’ve been understandable for coach Swain to express regret or frustration over her team’s loss. That, however, is not who Swain is or what she stands for as a person and a coach.
Immediately after the loss, this is what she said about her team:
"In doubles, we fought hard when we were down and we played well at times, but they played better throughout to take all three points. It's possible to come back from that, but it's incredibly difficult, especially against Amherst,” said Swain. “We played courageous tennis to come all the way back from 3-0 down, and the girls just had so much pressure on them with the weight of six national championships on their shoulders. It isn't fair to them, and they handled it wonderfully. The heart and the team-spirit that they played with all season, not just today, is something that can't be described, and I am so proud of them.”
Looking back on that national semifinal loss a year-and-a-half later, Swain has grown to cherish that moment even more.
“I have a ton of pride for that season,” said Swain, who began coaching at Williams in 2007. “One of my favorite pictures I have is the entire team cheering for (Shin) out on the court. Obviously, it was hard for the team, but that comeback that we mounted really showed what Williams tennis was about, maybe more than winning a national championship could. It was about being close and supportive as a team. (Shin) said it wasn’t just me out there, and she’d never felt like that before. That loss is actually one of my favorite matches of all-time.
“It was an amazing match, and I wouldn’t trade it for a win.”
Winning national championships may not have been easy, but the Williams College women’s tennis team certainly made it appear that way to the casual observer of college tennis.
The Ephs, under the direction of Swain, won Division III National Championships in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. The 2014 season proved to be only a speed bump (and really, a national semifinal appearance is still an incredibly successful season, no matter how many titles you’ve won) as Williams rolled through the competition in 2015, finishing the year with a perfect 25-0 record and the program’s ninth national title, and seventh in the last eight years.
“We had a great run (in 2014), but we absolutely used that result to fuel us last year,” said senior Maya Hart. “We were really excited to prove ourselves and show that we were the best team out there.”
To be the best team in any sport, you have to put in the work both on and off the court, but you also need good leadership. Regarded as one of the best coaches in collegiate athletics, Swain’s coaching philosophy isn’t complicated.
“My coaching philosophy surrounds me becoming a better person, a better coach at my profession, improving the relationships with my players and helping my players become better players and better people,” said Swain. “I am striving for improvement all the time.”
Four years ago, Swain instilled a set of core values and team expectations that continue to this day. Like her coaching philosophy, it’s not about the complexity of the values, it’s about the execution and implementation of the messages she is trying to get across to her student-athletes.
Those core values are:
-Embody an inclusive team-first attitude.
-Work hard 100% of the time.
-Love the battle and compete with heart.
-Bring positive energy to the court.
Instilling the core values has been a rite of passage for the upperclassmen, something that players like Hannah Atkinson, now a junior, recall fondly.
“I had great upperclassmen when I was a freshman, so I tried to follow their lead,” said Atkinson. “I picked it up quickly. Freshmen look up to the upperclassmen, and it’s now my responsibility to set the example.”
While Williams is certainly known for its athletic success, it’s also known as being one of the top liberal arts institutions in the country. Balancing academics and athletics is a challenge for all student-athletes, and that’s why the fourth core value is perhaps the most crucial to the Ephs’ success.
“We talk about that a lot,” said Shin. “Everyone has bad days on the courts. In junior tennis, you can throw it away because it’s just you, but in college, if you have a bad day, it can be contagious. You have to think of the team and how it affects them. It makes us all stronger mentally and gets us thinking team-first, which is important.”
If anyone can relate to the on- and off-court pressures a student-athlete faces, it’s Swain.
“My senior year, I didn’t make the singles lineup and just played doubles,” said Swain, who as a senior was a member of the 2001 national championship team at Williams. “I was never in the top of the line-up, always the middle or bottom. I think in tennis it’s easy to value the best players; everyone wants to know who the stars are. What I love about tennis is that every position is worth a point. You really value the fact that we all have a role to play and that has led to our success.”
Swain’s coaching career unofficially began that senior year in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The Ephs didn’t have an assistant coach at the time so after doubles, Swain (remember that team-first core value?) would help coach the singles matches.
Swain moved to Georgia following graduation and was a teacher and coached tennis for a private school in Atlanta. It was at that moment she realized her future was in coaching, and several years later, found her way back to her alma mater and instantly knew the fit was perfect.
“This was my dream career and job,” said Swain. “Something in me knew it was the right place to be.”
As the Ephs prepare to kick off the 2016 season on Saturday, excitement again hangs in the air. But, don’t expect Swain or the players to be thinking national championship or bust.
“We do not think about the previous year at all, especially with incoming freshmen,” said Hart. “We do a good job of understanding that the year before is the year before, and we have to work just as hard to get back there. As a senior and a captain, I want to make sure we are instilling the core values of Williams tennis to the underclassmen so that when they are upperclassmen, they can pass those values down.”
“With the upperclassmen and Alison, I feel like we have a good viewpoint on focusing on the present,” said Shin. “We talk about Nationals and wanting to be there, but we focus on the next match ahead of us. It really is one step at a time, and I think that helps drive attention away from Nationals a little.”