Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature / People

Pioneers No. 1 women’s tennis player works to make DU No. 1

Annette Aksdal, DU’s No. 1 woman tennis player, has until Jan. 12 to fix her forehand.

That’s the first day of the Michigan Invitational in Ann Arbor. If by then, her forehand stroke hasn’t improved, she won’t be able to handle the top-flight national competition she’ll face.

Aksdal’s forehand weakness was exposed in a national tournament early in November when she lost in three tough sets to a nationally ranked opponent.

Aksdal, a sophomore, wants none of that again. So, she’s focusing on that hand, subtly adjusting her grip and swing. Trying to improve. Getting ready for the national stage she was on in November when she became the first DU woman to qualify for a national singles tournament. The experience was thrilling, but it ended abruptly in her second match, a hard-fought, three-set, consolation-round showdown against the reigning 2005 NCAA singles champion.

Every afternoon since those losses, when there isn’t snow on the ground, Aksdal dons a warm-up suit, walks out on the Stapleton tennis courts amid wind, chill or gloom and blasts balls until it hurts.

Most days she’s joined by teammates like sophomore Lorinda Boothman or others from the DU squad. Some days it’s with last year’s No. 1, Susana Maksovik, who’s now a part-time coach, feeding balls from an oversized grocery cart and running drills. Maksovik is encouraging, but also prodding. And challenging. Sometimes in Swedish, her native tongue; sometimes in English. Always in the language of the athlete.

“Set your feet! Check your grip! Bend your knees! Snap your wrist! Move it, move it, move it!”

Maksovik offers no mercy; Aksdal seeks none. She listens and responds, dancing toward the net with the grace of the ballet dancer she used to be. She leans into a forehand and snaps hard. The ball flies out and she frowns. Another ball arrives. She whips that one deep into the corner of the court, the whistle of topspin punctuating the crisp, azure afternoon.

A hard forehand down the middle pastes Maksovik in the chest. She had no time to get out of the way. The players gasp.

Maksovik blows it off. “Hey, I’m not made of glass.”

The drills continue. Forehands, backhands and approach shots. Volleys off both sides and an overhead finish the drill. Then they run back and get ready for the next set of balls.

The wind whips and the 50 yellow spheres they’ve already hit go rolling into the corner of the court like a crate of overturned lemons.

No one notices. Court conditions are what they are. Get over it and get on with it. What matters is too many of Aksdal’s shots are still flying long. Work harder. Move faster. She has a forehand to fix and no time to lose.

“By the time the season starts,” Maksovik says with a wry smile, “that forehand will be a weapon.”

The players smile and exchange high fives. They grab some water, pick up the balls and get back to the drills. More stroking. More running side to side. More charging the net. More focus. More sweat. No tears.

An hour later, they work on serves: low slices out wide; kickers that spin fast and bounce high; flat power shots right down the gut. Without all three serves at your command, you aren’t going to win.

The DU women know that. They also know what’s ahead of them. Their team is young: four sophomores, two seniors and two freshmen, including Ute Shnoy, a top player from Germany they won’t meet until January. Their coach, Amy Jensen, a former All-American from California, is brand new, too.

And the competition that’s coming is prodigious. At the end of the 2006 season, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association ranked DU eighth in the central region. Ahead this year lie matches against William & Mary, No. 2 in the East; Georgia Tech, No. 3 in the South; Iowa, No. 4 in the Midwest; Arizona, No. 6 in the West; and Brigham Young University, No. 1 in the Central.

“We’re a good team, we’re not great,” Jensen says. “We’re looking for a couple of people to step up. It’s going to be that 2 or 3 position where we’re going to need to elevate, and I really believe that all of them are capable of doing it.”

It’ll take plenty of depth and balance on the eight-woman roster. Each match is six singles and three doubles. Some are indoors; some outdoors. Eight are at home; 13 on the road. From January to May. Then the tournaments begin and they go against the best players in the nation.

For now, it’s preparation — six hours a week of strength and conditioning and 14 hours on the court. Two hours a week of private lessons with Jensen and a lot of extra work on their own.

“This is our off-season,” Jensen says. “This is where I see who the excellent players are and who the average players are — not by how well they’re hitting the ball, but by their work ethic, their commitment to the game.”

For Aksdal, commitment means going home to Oslo, Norway, after exams and playing tournaments. For the other women on the team, it’s whatever extra play they can line up in their hometowns, places like Naples, Fla.; Alpharetta, Ga.; Kaernten, Austria; and Ljubljana, Slovenia.

“You have to be at your best and compete well at every position,” Aksdal says. “It’s going to be tough, but I think we can do well.

“And nothing is going to come for free.”

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