Bainbridge alum shines in fledgling program

Whitney Cheng went 11-3 in singles during her first season at Seattle University.   - Eric Badeau
Whitney Cheng went 11-3 in singles during her first season at Seattle University.
— image credit: Eric Badeau

Three years after breaking Bainbridge High School’s record for career wins, Whitney Cheng thought her tennis days were over.

Cheng, a 2005 BHS graduate, earned three top-five finishes in the 3A state singles tournament, placing second as a senior.

“I had told my coaches that I was not playing again,” Cheng said. “I remember practicing in the spring, ‘Whitney, finish through May, and you can finish forever.’”

But when Seattle University decided to re-instate its tennis program – after a seven-year hiatus – former Seattle Prep coach Mark Frisby was hired for the job.

Frisby, who coached the Panthers for 14 years, was familiar with Cheng and her father Uly, a BHS volunteer tennis coach. Frisby contacted Uly, and asked if his daughter was interested in joining the program.

For Cheng, a junior at the University of Washington, the thought of playing collegiate tennis had never been a serious one.

“Playing the sport in college is always in your head, whether you’re pushing it away or trying to pursue it,” Cheng said. “Did I want to make that kind of time commitment and did I want to leave UW where I had friends?”

But her brother Spencer’s freshman season at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., swayed her toward a comeback.

“I didn’t really start to realize that I missed it until I saw my brother play,” she said. “It was helping him have a focus and a purpose.

“He loved it and he was flourishing. I wanted to have that experience for myself.”

Seattle U also represented an opportunity for Cheng to revive her childhood passion for the sport.

“I think the thing I missed most was being good at something and having that kind of success,” Cheng said. “When all else fails, I’ll be able to hit a forehand.”

The 2008-2009 Seattle women’s tennis team – the first since 2002 – was composed of six freshmen and five transfer students.

“The other girls who were older definitely took a leadership role because they’d all been on a college team tennis before,” Cheng said. “There are things you do when you play college tennis that you don’t do in high school tennis. In terms of knowing what to expect, I was a freshman.”

The Redhawks, who compete at the Division I level without a league, struggled in their fall tournaments.

“We won maybe two matches between the whole team,” Cheng said.

Even though she was a bit rusty on the court, she quickly hit her stride.

“She has such good hand-eye coordination, she’s so gifted in that regard, she did well right away – much better then I thought,” Frisby said. “She knew how to play matches and she picked that up a lot faster than any of the freshmen.”

For Cheng, it was just a matter of getting back into the swing of things.

“I think that a lot of it was just getting used to being back on he court,” Cheng said. “It was like riding a bicycle, and just getting used to being competitive.”

But by the time the dual matches began in the spring, Cheng was back to old form.

She opened the season with five straight wins at the No. 4 spot, three of which were against Division I teams.

“Once she gets going, once she gets motivated, she works really hard,” Frisby said. “She has the ability to focus right away. She’s got great focus and great competitiveness at every point.”

Cheng posted an 11-3 singles record in dual meets, and the team finished 8-8 in the 2008-2009 season.

“Everybody improved so much,” Cheng said. “By the time we went down to Texas for the tournament, we were definitely a team.”

Cheng, who is one of two seniors this year, is looking forward to a successful spring season.

“Everyone’s gotten a lot better getting a lot more comfortable already,” she said. “In our fall tournament we did so much better than we did last year, I think the season’s going to be good.”

Becoming a Redhawk has also brought Cheng a sense of community on the court.

“I feel a lot more invested in the success of my teammates,” she said. “It’d be fun if we could build on the success that we started to have at the end of the season.”

The Redhawks, who don’t have their own covered courts on-campus, play all but two of their dual meets on the road this season.

“Honestly, I really just play to have fun,” she said. “It’s the last time I’ll probably play competitive tennis until I’m 40 and playing in a USTA league.”

Even though Cheng had promised herself that her tennis career ended at BHS, she doesn’t regret returning to the sport.

“Sometimes I think, would I do it again? Some parts of transferring are hard,” Cheng said. “I think I would, just because of the experience. Now I can say I played tennis in college – it’s special.”

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