March 1, 2000
By Bo Rottenborn
The date of February 18, 2000 will be remembered as the day college tennis players, coaches and fans around the country learned the name of a new competitor who had established herself as one of the best in the country. This was the day Becky Varnum came of age.
After an impressive 23-6 singles campaign as a freshman, Varnum was hardly an unknown commodity coming into this season. But, even after earning some hard-fought victories for a top-20 Notre Dame squad, Varnum still needed to establish herself against the best in the country.
In the second round of the USTA/ITA National Team Indoor Championships, Varnum and the Irish got just that chance as they took on top-ranked and undefeated Stanford. The Cardinal were riding a 26-match winning and were headed for their fifth straight National Indoor title. But that doesn’t mean Stanford was the big story in this match.
On the contrary, it was Notre Dame’s 5-2 sophomore that caused people to take notice of this contest. Before the match everyone knew Notre Dame had All-American Michelle Dasso, but afterward the Irish were seen as a two-weapon team.
Varnum was scheduled to take on All-American Laura Granville at number-two singles.
“I watched her play the day before and she just creamed the girl,” says Varnum, “I knew that I was going to be going into an especially tough match. I just went in saying ‘I have absolutely nothing to lose.'”
That attitude allowed Varnum to stretch Granville, the second-ranked player in the country, to the limit before eventually dropping a close match, 6-3, 6-4, after being on serve in the second set until the final game. This was the closest match Granville had competed in all season.
Notre Dame women’s tennis coach Jay Louderback stated succinctly the importance of the match.
“It shows she can play with anybody in the country.”
But the real show was in doubles, when Varnum teamed with Dasso to dispose of Stanford’s number-one doubles team with shocking ease, 8-4.
This wasn’t just any doubles team that Varnum and Dasso dismantled. It consisted of nationally-ranked veteran Teryn Ashley and Marissa Irvin, the highest-ranked amateur player in the world. Irvin, who is ranked 98th in the WTA World Rankings, has battled with the likes of Lindsay Davenport on the professional circuit, while leading Stanford to victory after victory. The team of Ashley and Irvin was ranked as high as second in the nation a season ago and has seldom been challenged this year.
Varnum says she remembers being intimidated by Irvin in junior competition but that Dasso made sure her partner wouldn’t be intimidated again.
“Michelle got in my face and said, “We deserve to win this match. I don’t care who these people are. Let’s just play.” So when I got to the court, I basically tuned them out and all I thought of was the ball and Michelle and making my shots.”
“It was a big win for them because they (Ashley and Irvin) are world-class players,” emphasized Louderback, adding that the Irish duo controlled the match from the outset.
This has been the highlight so far of a 2000 campaign that has seen Varnum make the relatively difficult jump from number-four singles to number two, as well as second doubles to first.
Louderback views these as tough changes to make, saying that “when you play a little lower in the lineup it always looks easy at the top. But, once you move up, the top two or three players on every team are very good. It’s more of a mental thing. You have to be ready to play tough matches every time you go out and play.”
As the one making the move, Varnum agrees, commenting that, “At number four last year, I could count on some easier matches, especially against lower-ranked teams. This year, playing the second spot, I know I’m going to have a tough match every time I play. It’s really hard going into every match knowing I’m going to have a really tough time. I really had to mentally prepare better for the matches.” She has made the adjustment and has performed brilliantly.
A season ago Varnum moved into Notre Dame’s lineup and contributed, winning 58 combined singles and doubles matches. She was hardly a stranger to success though, as she did not drop a set in four years of high school tennis, finishing a perfect 68-0 with four Colorado State championships.
This year the Colorado Springs native moved up to the number-two singles spot and was listed as 57th in the national preseason rankings. She reached the third round of the ITA Midwest Singles Championships and then notched wins in five of her first six dual matches of the season before suffering a back injury that is still bothering her.
Louderback emphasizes the importance of Varnum’s play.
“It’s been big for us because, for us to be good, we have to stay good at the top of our lineup. She’s been able to step up and for us to be able to compete with the top -10 teams, we’ve got to be good all through our lineup.”
On the doubles side this year, Dasso and Varnum started out by winning the ITA Midwest Doubles Championship in November. That helped them get ranked 10th in the country for the dual match season, in which they are 6-3, including an undefeated mark against other ranked teams. Varnum’s career goals center on one thing only – team success.
“I just want to try my hardest to pull matches out for my team. That’s my first goal, by far,” she asserts, adding that she “would definitely like to be an All-American while at Notre Dame.”
The Irish women’s tennis team, now ranked 15th in the country, has an important triad of home matches against ranked teams this week. They play #11 Northwestern Wednesday and will face #30 Iowa on Saturday and #21 Kentucky on Sunday. In order to continue their success, the Irish will need a strong presence at the top of the lineup. But it has recently become a much more daunting task to defeat Notre Dame since you now have to deal not one, but two of the best players in the country.