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.” ••