The fear of COVID-19 infiltrated the Kansas State tennis program weeks before the virus began to dominate the American psyche.
At the time, sports still were taking place. The spring sports season had just begun, with the Wildcats starting their campaign 8-4 in non-conference play. The looming cancellation still hadn’t revealed itself as a possibility for college athletics.
However, the virus hadn’t escaped the sight of the tennis team. Most of its players were watching as the virus spread from China into Europe, first capsizing Italy and threatening to do the same to surrounding countries.
The players were watching as it turned their homes upside down.
Eight of K-State’s nine players are international athletes. Seven of the eight are European, including two Italians. It allowed them to have the foresight into just how bad it could, and would, get for college athletics and the United States as a whole.
“We knew it was going to be — obviously you don’t know how drastic it’s going to be — but we knew the way it was spreading through Europe and Asia that it would come here,” head coach Jordan Smith said.
The virus started making its presence known to Smith through his players’ energy levels in practice.
Unlike many other sports, which involve a large number of athletes per team, there are only nine players on the tennis roster. The small group allows Smith to see and talk to each of his players in practice.
“One day, a couple days, some of the girls were quiet, obviously thinking about family back home,” Smith said. “A lot of their families were already under quarantine prior to when we got started in the states.”
Despite the virus grinding many of their home countries to a standstill, the Wildcats continued to improve. They were set to head into Big 12 play with a two-match win streak, having beaten Southern Methodist and Nebraska.
However, prior to its March 13 match against Oklahoma State, K-State was told the Big 12 would be holding off on spring sports to combat the spread of COVID-19 until March 31.
Smith offered his team the weekend off for a chance to regroup from the disappointment. The players declined, instead opting to return to the courts to train for the day their season could resume.
That day never came. The next day, during what Smith saw as one of the team’s best practices of the season, K-State athletics director Gene Taylor reached out with the news: The Big 12 was canceling the remainder of its spring sports season.
“We had our sights set on some good things,” Smith said. “It sucks that we weren’t able to see where we could go.”
COVID-19 didn’t stop shifting the Wildcats’ dynamic with the canceled season. A few days later, Kansas State canceled its in-person classes for the remainder of the semester.
For American students, that meant many would return to their home inside the country. For the team’s international tennis players, the cancellation meant a new predicament.
Normally, the team’s foreign players returned to their home countries once or twice a year during the winter holidays and over summer break. However, with the United States and countries across the world becoming more strict with international travel, their ability to organize return home would be tested — not to mention the possibility of contracting the virus as they stopped through airports across the world.
In the end, only two of the team’s international players opted to return home. Four remained in Manhattan, while one joined relatives in Pennsylvania and the other is staying with the team’s lone American-born player, Meghan King, in Kansas City.
The two players who went home, Hungary’s Lilla Barzó and Italy’s Rosanna Maffei, safely returned to their respective countries but entered a strict quarantine as soon as they did so. (At the time of this story’s publication, neither player is showing any symptoms of the virus and are believed to be healthy, according to Smith.)
With his players spread far and wide, Smith is trying to maintain the chemistry his team built throughout its first 12 matches. The Wildcats communicate through a WhatsApp group message daily and recently held their first videochat team meeting using Zoom.
“We’ve communicated as best as we can,” Smith said. “We’re still communicating and trying to do fun things with them, like where they send a motivational piece to the group or we have two girls who did an Instagram takeover.”
While communication has been fine, the team’s ability to train has been reduced drastically. With stay-at-home orders active across the country and abroad, players aren’t able to make their way to tennis courts to train with others. Instead, they are forced to do wall drills, assuming they do have a wall they can practice on.
The players’ ability to stay in physical shape also is being tested by the constraints. Team strength and conditioning coach AJ Kloss provided each player with a set of bodyweight exercises tailored to the sport. Besides those, Smith admits running is basically the team’s only other option to stay in shape.
“I don’t have that worry, because for the most part, our group is very mature,” Smith said. “They know what they need to do and what their responsibilities are. If they feel themselves losing a little, they’ll get refocused and going again.”
The coach hopes his team can maintain the same attitude when it starts training again, whenever that may be. The two seniors on this year’s roster will have the opportunity to return next season thanks to an NCAA ruling, meaning the team’s roster has a chance to stay fully intact.
“This is a global pandemic and our season was taken away,” Smith said. “So if we can get back out there in the near future, I would say you have to make the most of every time you’re on the court. ... If we go forward with that mindset to enjoy every moment you’re out there, then I think that will show more appreciation and desire to do your best.”