The Best Team You Haven’t Seen Play
By: Michael Quirk
Michael Quirk is a print journalism major at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.
Athletics are a preeminent passion on the Ole Miss campus. The football team is coming off of a victory in the BBVA Compass Bowl. The basketball team has been in-and-out of the top 25 all season and find themselves on the verge of their first NCAA Tournament birth in more than a decade. Add that to the fact that the baseball team is No. 8 in the country and coming off a sweep of No. 14 TCU. What gets overlooked in the hoopla of the major sorts is that the Ole Miss women’s tennis team is a more consistent winner than all of them.
The Lady Rebel Netters are currently 2-3 and ranked No. 26 in the nation. Unlike the three major sports teams (football, basketball and baseball), the women’s tennis team has reached four straight postseasons under Head Coach Mark Beyers, including a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2010. Despite the team’s success, they still rank far below the major sports in attendance.
The average football attendance at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in 2012 was 57,066. The average baseball attendance at Oxford-University Stadium in 2012 was 7,450. The average basketball attendance at Tad Smith Coliseum for the 2011-12 season was 5,770. When it comes to women’s tennis, Beyers said that he typically sees between 300-500 fans per game.
“We are in the top ten for attendance every year, competing with the likes of Ohio State and Texas A&M each season,” said Beyers. Just because the attendance ranks among the best in the sport does not mean that he thinks there is not room for higher numbers. “Each match is free, the courts are in a good location, and when the nice weather rolls around, you have the opportunity to sit back and watch some really talented tennis.”
In 2012, the Palmer-Salloum Tennis Center underwent a $2 million renovation that greatly improved the fan experience. Two additional pavilions were added, pushing the capacity to around 1,000. A computerized scoreboard was installed along with smaller scoreboards for each individual court. These individual scoreboards make the game much easier to follow given the new ability to see the score on each point throughout the match.
The effects of the new facilities reach beyond the limits of Oxford. Ricky Doverspike, a 2012 graduate of the University of Alabama and four-year tennis letterman, left impressed with the stadium after a 2012 match against the Rebels.
“We have new facilities at Alabama that are nice too, but they’re way at the edge (of campus). Because (Palmer-Salloum Tennis Center) is in the middle of campus, they get more fans, and the design of the stadium allows them to be right on the action which was hard for us,” Doverspike said.
Professional tennis player and University of Georgia graduate John Isner echoed Doverspike’s statements, calling Ole Miss the “toughest place I’ve ever had to play”.
While the Palmer-Salloum Tennis Center may be a nightmare for opposing players, the renovations have made the facilities top notch for players on the Ole Miss team. The men’s and women’s teams previously shared a commons room with one television, but now have the luxury of separate rooms on different wings. The modernized team rooms give the players a place to relax in between classes and before and after practices. New locker rooms for both teams also accompany the team rooms on either wing, as well as a stringing room.
Both Beyers and men’s Head Coach Billy Chadwick have new offices at the facilities that are smaller but more modern. Every assistant has their own office, and there is a new locker room for opponents. Still, Beyers says that it is the fans and the players who benefitted the most by the renovations.
Kayle Jacks, a 20-year-old Dietetics and Nutrition major at Ole Miss, admits that she knows very little about the men’s tennis team and even less about the women’s.
“I know the (men’s) tennis team has a bunch of Swedish dudes so maybe the girl’s team has a lot of foreigners,” said Jacks, accompanied by a chuckle. “Sorry I even know more about the women’s rifling team than I do about tennis.”
This lack of awareness is of little concern to Beyers, but he says there are efforts in place to raise the community’s knowledge of the team.
“There are still a lot of people who don’t know what days or times the matches even are, so that is why we have the marketing and sports information people working on that,” said Beyers. “We just want people to know that they are missing an amazing level of tennis in the dead-center of campus.”