Down-under Dominator

Melissa Anderson is an all-court artist.

Seventy-eight feet away at the other end of the tennis court, she doesn’t seem prepossessing. The young Aussie stands five feet, two inches, with small bones and a sweet face. Unlike so many American college players, she is not a trained bundle of fast-twitch muscle fibers who blasts every ball back at you. Instead, she will simply slice and dice you into small pieces. You are facing Melissa Anderson ’06, the winningest player in the history of Harvard women’s tennis. With Elsa O’Riain ’07, she formed an all-American doubles team (Harvard’s second one ever), and reached a number-three national ranking at one point, a high-water mark in the history of Crimson women’s doubles. At this year’s NCAA tournament, they lost to a talented Florida duo. Anderson and O’Riain also co-captained a Harvard squad that ended the regular season ranked seventeenth in the country (having risen as high as ninth, the best in program history) and swept through the Ivies undefeated for Harvard’s fourth consecutive league championship. Over that span, they went 28-0 against Ivy opponents.

During four years of varsity play, Anderson has compiled a singles record of 89-28 and a doubles mark of 103-30 for an overall record of 192-58 (a winning percentage of 77). That’s even more wins than luminaries like Kathy “The Machine” Vigna ’87, a Varsity Club Hall of Fame member who posted an overall total of 185-67 (73 percent) between 1983 and 1987. To be sure, Vigna won most of her singles matches playing at number one and number two; Anderson logged the bulk of her singles victories at numbers four, five, or six, and she is quick to qualify her win total: “It’s not the same as winning lots of matches at number one.”

The simple fact is that a dominant player like Anderson has competed at the lower end of the lineup because during all four of her college years, Harvard has “had some pretty high-powered players playing ahead of her,” explains head women’s coach Gordon Graham. Those include NCAA tournament qualifiers Courtney Bergman ’05, Susanna Lingman ’05, and Eva Wang ’06, the Crimson’s number one singles player this season, who played doubles with Anderson when they were freshmen. Anderson herself has had more success at the national level in doubles.

Numbers and records may matter less than the way Anderson beats people. To watch her systematically dismantle an opponent’s game is to witness a kind of artistic achievement. Anderson constructs her points with an almost architectural design that recalls a chess game by the great José Raúl Capablanca—moving the other woman around the rectangle of the court until space opens up to hit a winner. “Once she gets control of the point, you’re pretty much her puppet,” says next year’s captain, Preethi Mukundan ’07. “She’ll accurately place a short angle, a deep corner, or a drop shot, and then surprise you by banging it right at you. Melissa can take confident players and make them extremely frustrated by moving them out of their comfort zone. You can’t guess what she is going to do. She’s a very crafty player.” Graham notes that Anderson has “a slice backhand that stays low and bites the court better than any backhand I’ve seen in college tennis this year. And Melissa has a tremendous will to win. She’s a tough competitor if there ever was one.”

Anderson honed her craft on synthetic grass, a popular surface in Sydney, where she was born into a tennis-playing family: her parents, older brother, and sister all play the game. Father Rick was a good junior player who started a health-food store and, when Anderson was three years old, built a backyard tennis court. She was soon out there with a racquet and began to play in earnest at the age of eight; older brother Michael taught her topspin. “We fought like hell as kids,” Anderson recalls. “The only time Michael and I got along was when he was hitting with me on the tennis court.”

A good coach at the Kooroora Tennis Club brought her along. From seventh grade onward, Anderson was a student at North Sydney Girls’ High School, a public, all-girls school, but her real athletic development came not on its team, but with her own coaching and play and, from age 10 on, in age-graded tournaments that she entered on nearly all school holidays. Anderson rose to become the third-ranked Australian girl aged 16 and under.

There are virtually no intercollegiate athletic programs in Australia. “If you go to university, you go to study,” Anderson explains. Most top Aussie juniors who are not turning professional try to land an athletic scholarship at an American college, and many succeed. Taking a different path, Anderson stumbled on a website recruiting questionnaire and filled it out. Soon thereafter, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton joined forces to underwrite a visit to their campuses. She watched the Crimson beat Yale in New Haven and “The van ride back was fun,” Anderson recalls. “The women on the Harvard team had a good sense of humor. That was important to me. And Harvard was the best tennis school.”

Anderson’s four Ivy championship squads have all gone to the NCAA tourney, and in 2003 and 2005, made it to the round of 16. She’s won at doubles with various partners, including Mukundan, Celia Durkin ’08 (who transferred to Stanford last fall), and O’Riain, a player from Ireland who can hit not only powerful serves and backhands but astonishing volleys and angles. “I just need to stand there and not screw up while Elsa hits all the winners,” Anderson explains. They’ve gone a dominating 27-7 this year.

A government concentrator, Anderson will return home after graduation and plans to attend law school in Australia. (During college, she made it home only at Christmas and over summers.) American life certainly has influenced her; she counts herself a member of Red Sox Nation, having gotten caught up in the teams’s 2004 World Series run with two rooming blockmates who hail from Boston. Down under, she’ll play high-level social tennis and “maybe enter a few tournaments and try to win some money.” Don’t bet against her.

~Craig Lambert


Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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