A letter from Clemson Women’s Tennis Head Coach Nancy Harris.
It was late afternoon in August of 1998. There was little activity at the Hoke Sloan Tennis Center. Standing on the balcony of the tennis office, I remember looking down upon the tennis courts, thinking about the incredible potential of this place and what the future had in store. I was hoping I would have a long career at Clemson.
Fast forward 23 years, and my head and my heart are so full of life’s experiences. It is impossible for me to believe how fast this time has passed. I have always heard when you love what you do, there is no clock and times disappears. And so that has been true for my life at Clemson.
Although time disappears, the memories stay with you. Our teams were blessed with so many great Clemson moments. One of my first recollections of an important win was with my very first team here. It illustrated one of Clemson’s greatest values: genuine support of the students and their quest for excellence as “One Clemson” on the field and in the classroom.
Our team was playing at home in a really close indoor match and not expected to win against a No. 38-ranked Indiana team. Christina Oldock, a freshman with magical hands, hit a lob volley winner to clinch the match. It was a phenomenal moment for our team that truly needed a confidence booster. It was a glimpse into the future of the next two decades for Clemson women’s tennis.
Immediately following the match, I congratulated Christina and encouraged her to believe in her talent. I noticed she kept looking over my shoulder, and I was wondering what was distracting her. I turned around to find then-President Jim Barker, who had attended the match with his wife, Marcia. It was a wonderful moment for our team to know the leader of our great University had come to support our team.
When I first arrived at Clemson, the university was ranked in the 70s academically amongst public universities. By the time President Barker retired from Clemson in 2014, the national rankings placed Clemson in the top 25 in the country. President Barker left us the legacy that leadership has no boundaries. How fortunate for our Clemson Family that his vision and example carried us to “One Clemson.”
In 2004, our program reached the NCAA Final Four, won an ACC Conference Championship and finished in the top 5 in the country. That season, our team went undefeated in conference play at 8-0, setting an ACC record. What few people know is that two former Tigers were tragically killed the night before the second round of the NCAA tournament. Many of the current players on the team had been teammates with the two Tigers. It was a devastating blow to our team. We played South Carolina on Sunday and would have to endure the loss of these two Tigers only to play again on Thursday in Athens, Ga., in the NCAA Round of 16. We played in their honor the rest of the way through the tournament, and, when we came together for our final cheer, I told the players they would be known as the “Legacy Team.” The 2004 Legacy Team is still very close today. They honor all of us with their courage as they fought bravely to accomplish a seemingly impossible feat in a time of great personal tragedy.
In 2008, Clemson Tiger Julie Coin, a member of the Legacy Team, defeated the No. 1 player in the world, Ana Ivanovic, at the U.S. Open, marking the first tennis player (man or woman) to defeat the No. 1 player in the world as early as the second round. This historical win had never been accomplished in U.S. Open history during the Open Era of tennis.
The night before the match, Julie, her French professional coach, a former teammate and I met for dinner. While walking to dinner, I remember sharing with Julie that her career would change forever following her match with Ivanovic. Typical for Julie, her humble response was, “I don’t know Nance. I will be happy if I play well.” Julie was ranked 188th in the world at the time she defeated the No. 1 player in the world. To her humble spirit, in the media interview after the match, she was asked, “What next?” She replied, “Well, if I am not successful, I have a math degree from Clemson.” Julie continued to be a great ambassador for Clemson tennis, reaching the ranks of top 60 in the world in singles and the top 100 in doubles. She never forgets her Clemson family: “Once a Tiger, always a Tiger.”
Another great Clemson moment occurred when Carol Salge prevailed despite great physical agony in the 2008 ACC Championship. Carol was down 2-5 in the third set of the title match and with the temperatures close to 100 degrees. She was dehydrated and nearing defeat. When Carol learned her teammate, Ina, had just lost her match, though, she knew it was up to her to win the title for Clemson. Fighting cramps and a tough Duke player, she turned to her teammates on the sideline and said, “I’ve got this!” We were all cheering on the sideline and Ani Mijacika, Clemson’s first No. 1 nationally ranked player, was behind the fence, encouraging Carol to “believe.” With determination, Carol was able to turn the match around and complete one of the greatest comebacks in Clemson tennis history.
There are so many more stories of courage and valor presented by our Clemson teams over the years. Within each of our ACC Championships, NCAA Tournaments and regular season matches, our Tigers represented Clemson with great grit, honor and sportsmanship. These moments that I have shared with you are only a small sample of what I experienced as Clemson’s head coach.
In my last official meeting with my final team of 2020, we met online due to the COVID-19 virus. As we were wrapping up the meeting, Associate Head Coach Darrell Jernigan said, “Coach, we have a surprise for you.” Then, within moments, appearing before me on the screen were the former and current Clemson Tigers, dating all the way back to my first team in 1998. From all around the world, there were over 50 Tigers before me. We talked for over three hours, reminiscing, laughing, crying and sharing our memories and our thanks. It meant the world to me because I knew in that moment that my work at Clemson was complete.
I want to first begin by thanking my former and current players for their sincere dedication and loyalty to this great University. Because of you, we all had the opportunity to do what we love. Thank you for being amazing in the classroom and on the courts and for your extraordinary accomplishments. Thank you for your care, your kindness and being strong even when it was very difficult. To you Tigers, I salute you, love you and will never forget you.
To all of my staff members, associate head and assistant coaches, volunteer coaches, administrative assistants, medical trainers, performance trainers, academic advisors, managers, stringers, sports information assistants, sports psychologists, facility mangers, compliance staff and nutritionists, I thank you for your hard work and dedication to our teams. Each of you have made a significant difference in the success of our program, and without your expertise and commitment, none of our accomplishments would have been possible. I am most grateful to each of you for how you genuinely cared for and nurtured our student-athletes. You have made a difference, and I will always be thankful for each of you.
To Jane and Ed Duckworth, who worked tirelessly over eight years, fundraising to help build a new state-of-the-art tennis facility, thank you. We are so grateful for the commitment Jane and Ed made and for sharing the vision with Athletic Director Dan Radakovich to make a dream become a reality.
To my coaching colleagues, I thank you for the privilege to serve Clemson alongside you. I have learned so much from all of you. Each of you are remarkable coaches. and I wish you all great success in these coming years. Dream big and you will accomplish it, of this I am sure. Thank you for your friendship, and I send each of you my personal best.
To our presidents, athletic directors, sports supervisors and IPTAY, thank you for your never-ending support. From my first days at Clemson as a coach to my final days, I will always be grateful for your incredible leadership, your respect and the genuine care that continues under the leadership of Radakovich and President Jim Clements. Your visions and works ethics are endless, and, for that, we will always be grateful as you move this great University forward.
In my final meeting with our Tigers, we shared words and phrases that are important to us, such as staying positive, integrity, kindness, honesty, trust, thank you, being a hard worker, commitment, discipline, listening, family, legacy and so on. These words came from athletes that spanned 23 years, proving that what we say and do in college athletics can make a long-lasting difference in another person’s life.
To the Clemson family, I want to thank you for the privilege you have given me to be your coach. It has been my great honor to serve you. There are no words to measure the gratitude of my heart for being a part of the Clemson family. I am excited for the future of Clemson tennis and certain this decade will be its greatest. I look forward to more NCAA Final Fours and our first national championship. I am forever a Tiger!
Until we meet again,
Nancy A. Harris