Former doubles ace impressed with Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex, Atkins Tennis Center.
URBANA — Jessie Daw admits she can’t help but be envious of the tennis facilities at her alma mater.
When Daw played the sport at the University of Illinois in the 1980s, structures like the Atkins Tennis Center and layouts like the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex still were years away from being constructed and light years from the hodgepodge of the campus practice and competition courts of her era.
Outdoors, Daw and her Illini women’s tennis teammates might compete on courts adjacent to Huff Hall or Freer Hall — playing surfaces both now long gone — or at Illini Grove.
Indoors? As a freshman, the Sioux Falls, S.D., native practiced at the UI Armory — hitting shots inside the track on which Illini runners trained. That’s where the UI football team worked out, too, in the offseason.
“So it was pretty crazy,” Daw said Thursday.
So were the hours. Alternating weekly with the UI men’s team, the Illini women practiced mornings or nights. In the latter case, the workouts didn’t start until 8 p.m., typically lasting until 11.
Thankfully, by her sophomore year, the Illini had access to the Champaign Park District’s indoor facility.
Now, as Daw surveys what her alma mater’s tennis program has at its disposal, the 1988 UI graduate can only marvel at how much things had changed. And wish, too, that Atkins and Khan had been around during her own college career.
“It would have been fantastic,” she said. “This is just amazing.”
Daw is getting an up-close-and-personal view of UI tennis facilities this week as a volunteer at the NCAA Championships. Working as a practice court monitor, she makes sure teams and individual entrants are steered to their assigned courts at assigned times.
On Wednesday, Daw was at Illini Grove. On Thursday, she was working at Atkins.
Now living in Aberdeen, S.D., and teaching at Northern State University, Daw has been planning this trip since learning that the UI was awarded hosting rights for the 2013 nationals.
“When they got the bid, I thought, ‘I have to put this on my radar,’ ” she said.
Through the Illini women’s tennis Facebook page, Daw later learned the UI was seeking tournament volunteers, so she signed up.
Clearly, this is a proud time for a proud alum.
“To come and see something like this and to know that I have a connection to it in some small, tiny way, it’s exciting for me,” the 48-year-old said. “As you get a little bit older you maybe appreciate the connections that you have and the places that really impact who you became. And certainly for me, my time at Illinois has just been invaluable in terms of influencing who I am as a person. And tennis is a big part of that, obviously.”
Tennis continued to play a prominent role in Daw’s post-college life. She served as assistant men’s and women’s coach at the University of Idaho and was the women’s coach at Illinois State, earning Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year with the Redbirds in 1993.
Daw, who earned her Ph.D. at the UI in 1999, now is an associate professor in health and physical education at Northern State, with an emphasis in sports psychology and sociology.
After being away from tennis for about 10 years, Daw was asked in 2006 to start a women’s tennis program at Northern State. Ultimately, the combination of teaching and coaching left Daw with the feeling she was not doing full justice to either, so she returned to full-time teaching after the spring of 2011.
However, that experience reignited her passion for the sport, and she continues to run tennis clinics and coach a junior tennis team in Aberdeen.
If only there was an Atkins-type facility there, too, she says. Instead, Daw and her young students make do with an indoor court on the second floor of a downtown building. The surface is carpet. The ceiling is much too low for tennis. And the walls are a snug 3 feet from the doubles line.
“But if you want to be on the court in the wintertime, that’s what you do,” Daw said.
Growing up in weather-challenged South Dakota didn’t prevent Daw from developing her tennis skills or from a college career in the sport. She played for the Illini from 1983 to ’88, spending her junior year on the sideline after requiring shoulder surgery.
Daw made a particular impact in doubles. Later in her college career, she and doubles partner Carrie Costigan knocked off a Top 10-ranked tandem from Cal en route to winning their flight at a tournament at Wake Forest.
Entering the 2012-13 season, Daw still ranked 14th in UI women’s tennis history in career doubles wins with 69.
Thirty years after her freshman season, Daw is watching intently this week as the current generation of college tennis’ best competes for national titles.
“I think overall the quality of play is a lot higher (now),” she said. “We always think, ‘How would you fit in today?’ But I think it’s (like) comparing apples and oranges, too, because the game is so different.
“But just to see all the younger players and the way that they compete, I really respect people who play with a lot of integrity and sportsmanship. So to see that here, it gives me a lot of hope for the younger generation coming up.”