Vo, Willett lead Nazareth Academy tennis turnaround

  • Tennis twosome: Head coach Shakir Willett (left) and sophomore Alex Vo have guided the Pandas’ tennis program to the top of Nazareth Academy’s league. PHOTO COURTESY OF BINH VO

  • Sophomore Alex Vo has had back-to-back undefeated regular season as Nazareth Academy’s top tennis singles player. PHOTO COURTESY OF BINH VO

Shakir Wil­lett has been play­ing ten­nis since her days as a middle school­er in Bell­port, N.Y., and she’s nev­er seen a stu­dent-ath­lete with more poise and de­term­in­a­tion than Alex Vo.

Luck­ily for Wil­lett, the head coach of the Naz­areth Academy ten­nis team, Vo is on her side. To­geth­er, the fifth-year head coach who took the reins of a dir­ec­tion­less pro­gram im­me­di­ately upon her gradu­ation as a col­legi­ate ten­nis play­er at Holy Fam­ily in 2009 and the su­per-skilled sopho­more have turned the Pan­das in­to a force to be reckoned with. 

Fresh off a 12-2 reg­u­lar sea­son (giv­ing Naz­areth its first reg­u­lar sea­son Cath­ol­ic Academies cham­pi­on­ship since 1991, well be­fore Vo was even born), the Pan­das have rolled in­to the PI­AA Dis­trict One Class AA fi­nals fol­low­ing a 5-0 team semi­final win over Lower Mo­re­land on Oct. 15. And though the dis­trict cham­pi­on­ship was played be­fore the Times went to press (with a berth in the state tour­na­ment on the line), Wil­lett’s group has been a rev­el­a­tion in 2013, mainly due to Vo’s dy­nam­ic per­form­ance as the team’s top-ranked singles play­er.

“My first year was a little rough, but then things got bet­ter fast,” Wil­lett said. “This sea­son has def­in­itely been our best year. This school de­serves it, be­cause the girls have worked hard to get their names out there. The pro­gram went from noth­ing, from oth­er teams look­ing at Naz­areth as an easy win, to first place. I knew what I had in my army, and they showed every­body that hard work pays off.”

Vo has been the Pan­das’ best and most fear­some singles play­er since she first stepped on the court as a fresh­man. She’s had back-to-back un­defeated reg­u­lar sea­sons to go along with con­sec­ut­ive run­ner-up fin­ishes in the Dis­trict One singles cham­pi­on­ships. Vo, like Wil­lett, got her com­pet­it­ive start around age 12. Her fath­er, Binh, an avid ten­nis play­er him­self, signed his daugh­ter up for private and semi-private les­sons at the Prin­ceton Rac­quet Club and Northamp­ton Ten­nis Fit­ness Club once both real­ized Alex had the tal­ents to be an im­pact­ful play­er. 

And while Vo is cer­tainly plenty skilled on the court, it’s the killer in­stinct she’s rap­idly de­veloped that have cata­pul­ted her in­to a top play­er. 

“One of my coaches al­ways tells me that ten­nis is 70 per­cent men­tal and 30 per­cent phys­ic­al,” Vo said dur­ing a Monday night phone con­ver­sa­tion after Naz­areth had de­feated Lower Mo­re­land in the dis­trict semis. “I think the men­tal game is my biggest strength. Some­times I get so ex­hausted … one time, be­fore a match in 90-de­gree weath­er I drank too much wa­ter and I got sick. I didn’t want to de­fault the match, so I went out and played even though I lit­er­ally thought I was go­ing to die out there. I lost, but I still played.

“You have to stay men­tally tough, tough­er than your op­pon­ent. I play a lot of play­ers I know are bet­ter than me, so it’s about out­last­ing them and ex­pos­ing their weak­nesses. My coach al­ways tells me I can nev­er let any­one out­work me, al­ways be tough­er than they are.”

For her part as Vo’s coach for the last two sea­sons, Wil­lett ob­served that her star play­er would rather “pass out on the court than ever quit.” Vo’s at­ti­tude is what sets her apart, dis­play­ing the poise and fo­cus of a pro­fes­sion­al, des­pite not be­ing old enough to get her driver’s li­cense yet.

In a nearly hour­long con­ver­sa­tion, Vo talked a lot about her de­vel­op­ment as a play­er, as well as the turn­around of the Naz­areth pro­gram since she’s been on board. But per­haps most im­press­ive was her abil­ity to de­bunk off-base gen­er­al­iz­a­tions about the sport, which many in the gen­er­al pub­lic view as noth­ing more than a simple leis­ure activ­ity.

“I think ten­nis is not as pop­u­lar as it should be, mainly be­cause a lot of people think it’s just hit­ting the ball over the net un­til who­ever wins the point or misses the ball first,” she said. “After be­ing with my coaches, I learned that ten­nis is a whole new lan­guage, and there’s so many dif­fer­ent as­pects of the game, so much that I didn’t know my­self. There’s so many steps to it, dif­fer­ent ter­min­o­logy, geo­metry in­volved as far as play­ing angles on the court. 

“But really, it’s a les­son on who can ad­apt bet­ter to the ele­ments. I can re­late ten­nis to life … the abil­ity to push my­self to the ab­so­lute lim­it even when I’m ex­hausted, not giv­ing up on any­thing, stick­ing to your goals, ig­nor­ing obstacles life throws your way. I guess you could say it’s changed me and the way I see things now.”

Vo is re­mark­ably ma­ture for her age, and she needs to be, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing she routinely sees the best ten­nis play­ers that Naz­areth’s league rivals have to of­fer. Wil­lett likened it to a chess match, need­ing to con­stantly study an op­pon­ent’s strengths in or­der to off­set them dur­ing a match; like­wise, weak­nesses must be me­tic­u­lously pinned down and ex­ploited, of­ten­times in the middle of an ex­tremely hec­tic situ­ation. 

Vo’s own in­tens­ity has trickled down the rest of the roster. In­stead of work­ing with the oth­er top Panda play­ers all the time in prac­tice, Vo spreads it around, some­times hit­ting with the least ex­per­i­enced play­ers in an at­tempt to help them im­prove their own games.

“When I tell the girls to part­ner up, she’ll pick someone that’s new, someone that just picked up a rac­quet for the first time not long ago,” Wil­lett said. “She’s a very ma­ture play­er, which I could not say about my­self as a high school play­er. She loves it, and the girls love her. She’s be­come more of a lead­er. She’s just very ad­vanced. It’s an hon­or to coach this kid.”

Of course, like any truly spe­cial stu­dent-ath­lete, Vo is not rest­ing on her laurels. Rather, she’s con­stantly identi­fy­ing ways she can get bet­ter, a concept that’s already get­ting hard to fathom. With her ded­ic­a­tion to her craft, the sopho­more, also a tal­en­ted pi­ano play­er known for hav­ing the best pen­man­ship on the team, hopes to one day earn a col­legi­ate ten­nis schol­ar­ship.

Un­til then, there’s still work to be done.

“I’m more of a con­sist­ent play­er, mean­ing my style is I don’t hit the ball hard, but I also don’t make a lot of mis­takes,” said Vo, who trains and plays in tour­na­ments year-round. “I’m kind of small, so I’m work­ing on hit­ting the ball harder. My fore­hand isn’t as smooth as it could be, and we’ve worked on fix­ing my back­hand grip.

“My strokes haven’t com­pletely de­veloped yet to the point where they’re text­book per­fect. Be­cause of that, I try to al­ways have a plan. I put my heart in­to it. Even if I lose, I give it my all, no ex­cuses or ex­cep­tions. I know a lot of people think if you hit the ball the hard­est that makes you a good play­er, but in ten­nis it comes down to who can put the most balls back in play. Every one of them counts.”  ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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