Girls tennis bounces back onto the court

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Elise Spenner

During practices, tennis players must wear masks at all times and maintain social distancing. Although these practices don’t feel normal to players, they provide both physical activity and social interaction.

Elise Spenner, Staff Reporter

Tennis coach Bill Smith knows the joke. The two week shut-down announced by the district in March of last year? Well, that quickly shifted from a brief hiatus to a temporary aberration to a year-long, new normal. 

For Smith and his players, the comedy was all too tragic. For almost a year, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) prevented a return to full-fledged practices and games. 

This spring, however, sports jumped the line. While the school remains shuttered and the campus is largely empty during school hours, the field and tennis courts bustle with activity in the afternoon — Panthers stretching their limbs after a long slumber. 

Smith wonders whether it was the right decision to bring student athletes back on campus for practices and games while school remains remote.  

“Sports isn’t a necessity. Academics is a necessity. We always hammer that,” Smith said. “Maybe we shouldn’t be out there with this pandemic. With the kids not actually in the classroom, should we be on the court?”

But for Smith, the value and importance of being back on the court easily outweighed any such reservations about the disparity between academics and athletics.

“It’s who I am. I’m a coach,” Smith said. “If my team’s going to be out there, I’m going to be out there.”

When the junior varsity (JV) and varsity girls teams got the go-ahead to return to the court, Smith was ready. Since Jan. 25, the varsity girls have practiced on Mondays and Wednesdays from 3:30-5 p.m., while the JV girls take Tuesdays and Thursdays at the same time. 

With daily health surveys, temperature check-ins, masks and social distancing, the practices are far different than previous seasons, but the athletic and social aspects that attracted players to the sport remain. 

“You feel like there is such a great community, especially during a pandemic when maybe you don’t see all your friends,” senior Vedika Bhaumik, a captain of the varsity team, said. “That’s one stable friend group that you can rely on.”

Although the rigorous safety protocol can detract from the game, Coach Smith feels that coaching requires versatility and a wide range of skills. 

“John Wooden, the famous basketball coach, taught his players how to tie their shoes,” Smith said. “There’s so much more to coaching than telling someone they should keep their elbow up when they’re starting to serve.”

And, most essentially, when the team was tested for COVID-19 early last week, all 42 tests returned negative. With a clean bill of health, matches are set to begin next Tuesday. Over the span of five weeks, the tennis team will compete twice against each team in the San Mateo Union High School District.

While Bhaumik — a senior in her fourth year on the tennis team — could lament the abnormal end to her high school tennis career, she prefers to savor the opportunity to be on the court. 

“I don’t think football can have games yet, but we have a match schedule,” Bhaumik said. “I think honestly I’m grateful for that and I’m grateful for whatever season we can have.”

Coach Smith, as well, sees how much the athletes appreciate the return to the court – even if he must remind them that hugs and high-fives are out of the question. 

“Smile through your mask, keep your distance,” Smith said. “But you can see how much it’s meant to them.”