I had great intentions to write a deeply thought out feature on Vanderbilt women's tennis redshirt junior Astra Sharma, the phenomenal Vanderbilt player, but then I spoke with Coach Geoff McDonald and Astra on Tuesday and their comments were so captivating that I decided to make this a Q&A with these engaging two people. This is Geoff's account of Astra, her background, what type of player she has become, and most importantly, the development of her as a person. I also got Astra's riveting comments about her life as a Vanderbilt tennis player, and as a student at one of the most academically demanding schools in the country. Here are Geoff and Astra.
DW: Tell me about Astra's backstory?
Geoff: We lost a recruit to Stanford. It's incredibly hard to recruit against Stanford. They have the best tennis tradition in the country. So we lost a kid to them. I got an email from a coach in Australia that said I'm coaching a really good student, and on top of that she has really high aspirations to play the game. She wants to be a pro if she can. He said she was the best athlete he'd ever seen on the court. He said she was a phenomenal athlete. My associate head coach, Aleke Tsoubanos, is married to an engineering professor, Jason Valentine. She is a co-head coach with me and was a 3 time All American here. She came to me and said Jason has a conference in Melbourne, Australia in December and what do I think if she took 10 days off and went with him to Australia. Sure enough the Australian juniors were at the same time. I said not only can you go, but we'll pay for it. It'll be a recruiting trip.
So she went and recruited Astra. She saw a lot of potential. Aleke said Astra was a bit raw, but her athleticism was off the charts. Not only that, Aleke said she was well spoken, respectful, just a good person.
So Astra came to us and in her first year she suffered a hand and wrist over-use injury and it didn't heal. We wanted to rest it for 6 weeks thinking it would flare up again if we pushed her. So we redshirted her and what impressed me was I would give her a book to read and she'd read it. If I gave her an article or youtube clip, she'd read or watch. I had her, even when she was injured, practicing things that didn't hurt her hand like her toss, things you did that wouldn't hurt her injury but maybe help her game a little bit. She did every single thing I asked her to do with just a remarkable attitude.
It's hard to be redshirted. You feel like you're not part of things and you also wonder if you can ever get over the injury. But she began to play in the summer and she did solidly. My timetable for her was she's going to develop in a year or 2 and she's going to be quite good. The next spring (her sophomore season), she just took off and she was the story of the 2015 national championship team. Just an amazing effort by her.
DW: Geoff, where have you seen the most improvement in her game?
GM: Understanding how to play, decision making. It's like baseball, there are a lot of nuances. There's a lot of stuff that if you don't understand, you're not going to do very well. Some matches you have to be really patient and play points out, and others you have to be more aggressive. It's a blend. What we've tried to teach is what we call, ball-court game. Most of the women's game is modeled on aggressive baseline play, but that's not a lot of variety and not a lot of net play, etc.. We try to teach her all court tennis which takes the longest to develop.
DW: How is she doing with that?
GM: She's improving by the week really. It's just kind of fascinating, this year she was SEC player of the year and a lot of it was in difficult situations against the best players in the conference. She was able to come through.
DW: Will Astra be returning next season?
GM: She will come back, yes. She's going to play the pro tour this summer as an amateur from June to the beginning of the second semester (2018). You don't say this often, but she's good enough to get to the next level. She's got an extraordinary work ethic. She graduates next spring and she'll finish her course work. She's ahead on hours, and she has that season of eligibility because we redshirted her. Back in 2014, that was hard to do. We were tempted to play her, but I'm glad I held off because it's been good for her development.
DW: Where do you see Astra's future in the pro game?
GM: I think Astra is good enough to become a top 50 player and become someone who plays in Grand Slams. I think she can do it. It's a hard journey, but she loves the game, she has the work ethic, she has good feet and she also has a really big heart. She's got pretty much what you need.
DW: What's your read on your team heading into the Sweet 16?
GM: I know what I'm going to get in terms of competitiveness. You don't know about winning and losing because everybody is so good at this level. But she's going to bring her all and that's all we focus on as a team. You can't control winning and losing, you can control your effort, your resiliency, the way you work at tennis. This team has done remarkably well. They're an overachieving group. We're excited for the opportunities before us Friday. There are 8 matches on Friday and we're down to that 16 (teams) and that's pretty exciting.
DW: How does Astra's opponent look from Cal?
GM: Maegan Manasse. She's a very good player. Each day, there's no such thing as a good draw. Everybody's good, you just go into that match and battle. If somebody beats you they really have to be good. We're a tough opponent as well. Maegan has been in the top 10, but has been a little down recently (she's at No.34). We tell them the rankings are a good sign post but that doesn't matter when you're playing. It doesn't matter who's seeded higher or who's ranked. It's a contest.
DW: Can Astra reach No.1 in singles nationally?
GM: She is certainly capable. You can get hung up on rankings. Let the computers do that and you just focus on getting better and improving and have a mindset that you can keep improving in tennis and that's what we're working on now. We talked to the team a lot about let's get ready for this tournament not as a maintenance thing, but let's play to get better. We were on the court today from 8 AM to 3:30 PM with 5 players focusing on the little things to see what they can do to play a little bit better.
DW: You really like this team.
GM: Yeah, they're good. There haven't been many teams I didn't love. They have a 3.6 GPA. With all the traveling in the college game and missing classes and your team gets a 3.6, that's amazing.
DW: How has Astra done academically?
GM: She got a 3.8 this time. She has a 3.4 overall GPA (majoring in Health, Medicine and Society). Her grades have gotten steadily better. When you're younger you have to take classes like Organic Chemistry and that makes it harder to get a good grade. She's done very well.
After speaking with Geoff, I got Astra on the phone. Here are Astra's comments.
DW: How does it feel to get to another Sweet 16?
AS: It was great to get by Clemson. They were a tough opponent.
DW: Tell me about your family?
AS: I have an older brother, Ashwin, who just graduated from the University of Pacific (Stockton, California). My younger sister, Tara, goes to a good university in Perth, Western Australia. She majors in Physics and Biology. She's a smart cookie. My parents are Dev and Susan.
DW: How was it growing up in Perth, Australia?
AS: We actually moved over when I was little from Singapore. It was my dad and mom's decision because they wanted us to have a more well rounded life in sports and stuff which was a really good call. I enjoyed playing a lot of soccer and tennis, track and field and swimming. I was very active. It was just loads of fun.
Perth is actually pretty similar to Nashville. It's a mediumish city (population 2 million). We lived in the suburbs. It's kind of a quiet, laid back sore of town (in southwestern Australia). It's not as busy as Melbourne or Brisbane. Still it can get pretty active. But I remember my childhood in Perth being pretty quiet. It's a very good family town, a really good place to raise a family.
DW: What was your favorite sport growing up?
AS: I always really liked soccer, and I really liked track and field events. I liked the long jump, the triple jump, that sort of thing. I was actually a pretty good runner but I didn't enjoy it as much. I thought it was a bit boring. Growing up it was usually soccer and tennis. I narrowed it down to soccer and tennis when I was 13 or 14, and only chose tennis when I was about 16.
DW: What attracted you to Vanderbilt?
AS: Actually I didn't know much about college tennis until I was in Melbourne and the assistant coach came to Australia. She talked to my coach and offered me a spot. Initially, I didn't want to come because I wanted to try my hand at the pro circuit. Then I decided to try college for a year and see how it goes because I was interested in getting a good education.
DW: What has been the key to your development as a tennis player?
AS: The main reason is the coaches, Coach McDonald and Coach Tsoubanos. They're the best coaches I've ever had in my life. I think I hit the jackpot with the right coaches. I'm very driven intrinsically. They just guide me and have challenged me to grow within myself and push myself more. Not so much physically, but mentally, and I think that's the biggest gain in my tennis, the mental aspect. Coach, from day 1, has been grooming me, I guess, with the books, and the lessons I learn every day. it's not a repetition, it's something different, something new. That's what I love. I've learned to appreciate so much more about the mental side, how to be a tennis player is what I've learned the most.
DW: What would you say are the strengths of your game?
AS: I'm a pretty good athlete and I move very well. On the court I cover quite well. My biggest strengths on the court are my serve and my forehand. They've always been my go to weapons. I'm trying to develop my volley and I'm getting there right now. It's movement, serve and forehand that are my strengths.
DW; How hard is it to handle the academic demands at Vanderbilt and be an elite tennis player?
AS: It comes in waves. It can be really busy. It takes big time management and discipline. The day is really busy. I train twice a day. I get up in the morning, train, gym, class, lunch, come out again, hit, dinner. It's just non stop. The key is finding pockets of time (to study). The normal student can take off for a couple of hours and watch NetFlix. That's not an option when you know you have a paper due in 2 days, and you can't really take time off and waste one day. There's a lot of discipline and I think a lot of student athletes come out stronger from the college experience. I'm so much more aware of what it takes to do well in both areas.
DW: How much better is it to be done with school and just be able to focus on tennis now?
AS: It's so much easier. There's so much more time to catch up on your sleep. My team, we've caught up. You always have a little bit of a sleep deficit during the season because you've gotta study. People aren't always going to have that 8 to 10 hours of sleep. Right now, everyone is feeling really great. Everything seems so much easier without having to do 2 to 3 hours of school work every night. We now go to practice, go to lunch, take a nap, come out again. It's so much better. I love it.
DW: What do you know about Cal and how do you think you stack up against their singles player (Maegan Manasse)?
AS: We haven't played them in recent memory. It's more about attitude and focus. I'm not too worried about how I stack up against someone.
DW: Where do you see your tennis future?
AS: I definitely want to try my hand at the pro circuit. I'll do a lot of that in the summer. I want to see different parts of the world and get to play the best tennis players in the world. So I'm very excited this summer to try that and see how it goes.
DW: What does it mean to get a degree from Vanderbilt?
AS: This has been one of the best experiences I've ever had. It's the best decision I could have made. Getting my degree will mean so much.
DW: How has the experience shaped you?
AS: It's a very challenging academic school and it's not easy playing in the SEC and having the demands of an Ivy League. I'll be so proud and happy with this accomplishment. I'm very excited to get a degree.
Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University Athletics