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Battling Back

Sept. 23, 2003

by Brendan Lynch

Caylan Leslie first started playing tennis at the age of six when her mother sent her to tennis lessons. She began hating them so much she cried her way through each one … then she started playing well.

Deciding to stick with it, Leslie began to enjoy the lessons, and she excelled throughout her junior and high school careers. By her sophomore year at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, Calif., Leslie was voted the team’s MVP after finishing an undefeated season. Following the season, she stopped playing high school tennis and decided to focus on junior tournaments.

“It was a time in my career when I needed to step up if I wanted to play for a top team in college,” Leslie says of her decision.

That is exactly what she did. Ranked as high as 11th in singles in the United Sates Tennis Association national 18-and-under rankings and 15th nationally in doubles play, Leslie earned a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame. Despite all of her achievements in high school, Leslie considered her scholarship to be the biggest athletic thrill of her career.

“I was really excited to come to Notre Dame and get the chance to play at such a good school with a strong program,” Leslie recalls of her move to South Bend. She would use that excitement towards success her freshman year.

Playing No. 4 singles, Leslie made quite an impression on her coaches and teammates. With a singles record of 30-12, she was the seventh player in the program’s history (since 1976) to win 30 or more singles matches as a freshman. Winning her first collegiate event, the Maryland Invitational, Leslie was off with a running start. She contributed to the team through her doubles play as well. Despite playing with four different partners, Leslie was able to post a 13-3 record. She was undefeated with former high school teammate Nina Vaughan.

Speaking about her relationship on and off the court with Vaughan she says, “We were very compatible and clicked as a team. We had a good relationship off the court, which helps because if your partner isn’t playing well, you can talk to her when she’s down. When you are playing with someone you don’t know, you’re never really sure how they will respond.” Leslie had established herself as a threat to any opponent and was ready to continue her solid play during her sophomore year until she suffered a shoulder injury.

Holding a 5-1 doubles record at home and earning the seventh seed in singles at the Omni Hotels Region IV Championship, Leslie had to end her sophomore season short due to injury. She began feeling pain in her shoulder during her matches at the adidas Invitational in September of 2001. Playing through agonizing pain and tears during the tournament, Leslie was forced to undergo surgery and sit out the remainder of the season.

“It was the hardest part of my life,” she says. “But my teammates were great despite the fact it was hard for them to deal with because you never really know what to say in that situation. They were always there when I needed a shoulder to cry on or someone to talk to.”

The injury in no way hindered Leslie’s desire for the game, as she battled back and earned her way to the No. 1 spot on the team by March 1 of 2003. Playing her way to an impressive 9-5 record in the top spot, Leslie earned a berth in the NCAA Singles Championship and finished the season ranked 40th in singles. She had nine wins over ranked opponents, including against #15 Amanda Johnson of Duke.

With a 14-1 record a year ago when winning the first set of a match, Leslie says she likes to go out and get a good start to intimidate her opponents. Perhaps that is why she has been ranked 26th in singles to begin her senior year.

“I can’t wait for senior year. I’m excited to be ranked 26th and honored that people out there think I should be ranked 26th. I’d like to work hard and prove I can be number one,” Leslie comments. “But when it comes down to it, it’s not about me, it’s about the team. I would rather not be ranked in singles and have the team be ranked first.”

Despite injury, Caylan Leslie has battled back to help her team compete toward a successful 2003-2004 season.