Vassar Today

Built to Last

By Juliana Kiyan ’09

His teammates refer to it as the “grandma racquet,” but men’s tennis player Greg Katz ’11 takes such commentary in stride. Since he was 12, Katz has played with the same enormous wooden racquet, which has provoked double takes and the amusement of his teammates and opponents.

Regardless of its unusual appearance, the racquet has seen Katz through several victories over the years and has not failed him in his first year at Vassar, where he and fellow freshman Max Willner made college history and advanced to the nationals.

Katz shrugs off the special attention his racquet receives. “I don’t really think racquets are as important as people say,” he says. “A lot of people have superstitions about their racquets and their strings — if they play well with the racquet one day, this is the one they’re going to keep, and if they play badly with it, they just want to quit on it. But I think the point of the racquet is to use whatever makes you feel the most comfortable.” He acknowledges that others constantly express surprise that he is able to play well with such a piece of equipment, but their remarks are “nothing too mean.”

Katz, who is originally from Baldwin on Long Island, New York, started playing tennis at age three, though it initially took a bit of coaxing from his parents. “They tell the story that right before I was supposed to go out on the court, I cried that I didn’t want to go,” he says. “But they forced me to, and eventually I ended up really loving it.”

When Katz reached the 12–14 age division, he made it to the national championships. During his high-school years, he was ranked number one in singles and nearly remained undefeated. “I was kind of looked up to a lot in terms of tennis,” he says. “I wasn’t used to that kind of attention.”

Katz’s prowess on the court caught the eye of Ki Kroll, the head coach of men’s tennis at Vassar. Kroll introduced himself to Katz and his parents at a high-school tennis tournament while he was recruiting prospective players. After visiting the campus, Katz, who had never heard of Vassar before meeting Kroll, made the decision to apply early.

His experience at Vassar has varied significantly from his years on a high-school team. No longer ranked first or considered an automatic win, Katz is under a different kind of pressure to do well on the courts in both singles and doubles. “[In high school] I didn’t feel like I was playing for a team; I felt like I was playing for myself, and I let that affect my personality when it came to playing for the team,” says Katz. “Here, it’s much more team-oriented — I’m [still] playing for myself, but I also don’t want to let everyone else down.”

This past October, Katz and Willner made Vassar history when they made it to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Small College Championships in Alabama. They qualified for the tournament after winning at the Wilson/ITA Northeast Championship that was held at Vassar in September 2007. While Katz hits from the baseline, he says that Willner is aggressive at the net and has emerged as the more vocal leader of the group. “What has always stood out about Greg,” says Coach Kroll, “is that he is a crafty player. Greg can do things that tend to surprise you.”

Though the two freshmen were eliminated from the tournament after losing their first three matches, Katz took away a great deal from the experience, including strategy in competitive doubles and maintaining his focus. “When you play better guys, they definitely bring out the flaws to a much higher level,” he says.

Looking ahead, Katz plans to come away with a victory should he go to the nationals again. “I think I went [to the tournament] just not focused enough,” he says. “I was a little too happy to be there, and if I ever get a chance to go again, I’ll go with the intent of winning. Now that I’ve enjoyed it, I want to win next time.”

As for the next three years, Katz says that he will continue to play tennis for Vassar. However, it is likely that he will retire the “grandma racquet” sometime soon. “It’s possible I may have stuck with my racquet a little too long,” he says.