In the latest installment of our “Freshmen to Watch” series, we had the privilege of speaking with Rachel Cross, a freshman player at Williams College, and her coach Anik Cepeda, about NESCAC tennis, balancing a rigorous academic and athletic schedule, and staying motivated on the court.
Rachel hails from Charlottesville, VA and excelled in Juniors tennis, representing Team USA in Monte Carlo. Now she’s a top player for the Ephs, working with the team to defend their NCAA D-III Championship title, and continue their record-breaking streak to capture an 11th national championship win.
Universal Tennis: How did you start playing tennis?
Rachel Cross: My grandpa was a huge tennis fan and he would give me lessons as presents for my birthday and Christmas. As I got older, I fell in love with the game and started playing more in clinics and tournaments.
UT: Why did you choose Williams?
RC: I chose Williams because I wanted a balance between academics and tennis. Academics are a top priority for me and Williams is allowing me to get a great education and play at a winning Division-3 level. I also love the team attitude here, we support each other and push each other to do our best and work hard every single day.
UT: What has been your tennis career highlight so far? College highlight?
RC: In Juniors, I got the chance to go to Monte Carlo to represent team USA. We played Argentina, France, Japan, South Africa and Spain on the red clay courts where the Monte Carlo is held - the scenery was amazing. And we were able to meet new people and make new friends from around the world. As for college, we haven’t played too many matches yet, but we have our first match this weekend at Skidmore.
UT: What’s your playing style like?
RC: I’m an all-court player and I play a fairly consistent game because I don’t like to make too many errors! I like to mix up my shots and hit a heavy flat ball, or mix in a slice.
UT: What type of adjustment has it been for you to play on the college level?
RC: It’s been a little bit of an adjustment. The main difference is in juniors when you are practicing and playing, the focus is all on yourself. Now, we are focused on the team as a whole and what the team needs to do. I like the team-oriented nature, it’s fun to encourage and support everyone.
UT: What tournaments are you most looking forward to playing this year?
RC: I’m really excited for NESCACs and Nationals!
UT: Did you think about playing futures or were you always looking towards college?
RC: I was always looking towards college because I came into the game a little bit later. I wanted to focus on the college experience and tennis, and also be able to have an emphasis on academics.
UT: What tips would you give to a player going out for college tennis?
"Playing on a team is a great experience. The team is your family for the next four years, so jump in and get comfortable with everyone!"
RC: It’s going to be a lot of fun! Playing on a team is a great experience. The team is your family for the next four years, so jump in and get comfortable with everyone!Look for programs and coaches that care about you both as a player and as a person.
UT: What’s a day in the life of a Williams tennis player like?
RC: I wake up and go get breakfast, and I try to do a little bit of work before class or lift. After that, I have lunch and then we have more classes until 4. Then we have practice from 4:15 - 6:15, dinner as a team and after dinner, the girls and I will go back to the library for more schoolwork!
UT: How do you balance academics and athletics?
RC: It’s pretty tough to balance but you just have to use every minute that you have and stay focused when you are doing your work. I do best when I wake up early to get work done, and then finish the rest of my work later in the day. I also work with friends that I have the same classes with which helps!
UT: Which team is your biggest rival?
UT: How do you use UTR? How do you see it affecting / improving the game?
RC: I use it to check the ratings of people I play - I did that more in juniors and I use it a little bit now in college. It’s an accurate look at skill level because it looks at how close matches are, rather than just winning and losing.
"It’s an accurate look at skill level because it looks at how close matches are, rather than just winning and losing."
Forehand inside the baseline
Singles vs doubles:
Forehand vs backhand:
Favorite tennis player:
Clay vs Hard:
Babolat Pure Arrow
Best nutrition advice:
Have a balanced diet of veggies, carbs and protein!
Best training advice:
Always give it your best, no matter what you’re doing.
Biology or psychology
When I’m playing in a match and I’m winning, I try to win quickly. If I’m losing, I try to stay on court for as long as I can to give myself the best chance to come back.
Women’s Tennis Coach Anik Cepeda joined Williams as Head Coach in 2017, after serving as the assistant women’s and men’s tennis coach during the 2013-2014 season, and a stint at Marshall University as assistant women’s coach. Coach Cepeda competed at the college level as a student at The College of William and Mary, qualifying for the NCAA team tournament twice and earning one NCAA Doubles Tournament berth.
UT: When did you first notice Rachel? What did you like about her?
Anik Cepeda: I had the good fortune of inheriting Rachel – she was part of Coach Swain’s last Williams Tennis recruiting class. I first saw her play at Clay Courts and loved how well she competed on court and how kind she was off court.
UT: How do you see her contributing to the team?
AC: Rachel gives her best self to the team every day and embodies a team-first attitude. This looks like sprinting down every ball, absorbing the coaching and applying the pieces that fit, pushing the team to raise their energy by bouncing during practice and staying focused from start to finish.
She’s also a skilled listener and has an ability to zoom out and see the bigger picture.
UT: What do you look for in freshman players and college recruits?
AC: I support my first years (and the whole team, really) to have a willingness and excitement to experience growth, listen and be curious about new perspectives, and to embrace a team-first attitude.
From college recruits I look for grit and competitive spirit, an ability to bounce back from deficits, and a passion to play for something greater than themselves. I’m also looking for respectful interactions, kindness, and a curiosity for what’s just around the corner.
UT: What do you look for when you build a team?
AC: I hope to help support my student-athletes as they navigate their college experience. This mostly looks like a lot of repeating the basics. We talk and work on team-first behaviors, having empathy for one another, a competitive mindset as being the best form of cooperation, and what is inside and outside our control. I’m most alive when I’m challenging players to re-consider what’s inside their control and of course, when I’m part of a group who is excited for the challenge ahead.
UT: What do you look for in players beyond tennis abilities?
AC: Respect, kindness, and curiosity
UT: What tips would you give to a player going out for college tennis?
AC:Learn to love a battle – it’s what pushes you to raise your mental and physical game. Run down every single ball until the last point is finished.
"Learn to love a battle – it’s what pushes you to raise your mental and physical game. Run down every single ball until the last point is finished."
UT: What’s your coaching style like? How do you motivate your players?
AC: This is tough to answer! My players might know best – I’m most alive and most engaged when I’m being myself. This looks like being playful, supporting new and creative ideas, listening, and reminding them of the basics. This is how I sense I can be most motivating to the players.
UT: How do your players balance academics and athletics?
AC: Academics is invigorating and challenging at Williams. Experience plays a big roll – seniors often balance the rigors because they have learned to recognize and embrace stress, prepare ahead for the heavier academic weeks etc. Planning ahead and having conversations about the challenges of managing the two parts of their Williams experience are ways we try to find balance.
"Players with a slightly lower UTR should be motivated to have the opportunity to play higher-ranked players and those with a higher UTR should be able to show that they can grind it out on the court."
UT: How do you use UTR? What do you think of UTR? How do you see it improving the game? How would you like to see it evolve?
AC: I think UTR is a helpful tool especially for gaging general levels of play – Right now I see juniors worrying about their UTR, pulling out of matches against opponents with lower UTRs to protect their numbers, and that’s a concerning piece. “Players with a slightly lower UTR should be motivated to have the opportunity to play higher-ranked players and those with a higher UTR should be able to show that they can grind it out on the court.”
Favorite tennis player –
Most inspirational coach or athlete
– My parents, my dad was a cross country runner and soccer player, my mom got me on the right mental track for tennis (and life)
Favorite tournament –
Oh don’t make me choose! In college tennis, Team NCAAs hands down.
Toughest opponent –
The player who fights for every ball and every point
Favorite away courts –
Spring Break in California
Favorite school swag –
Our new team long sleeve
Favorite team bonding activity –
On court practice and team spin
Best nutrition advice –
Fuel your body
Best training advice –
Control the controlables
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