Webb ready to leave game behind
By TOM TEBBUTT
Thursday, July 31, 2003
Goofy is not the first word that springs to mind when describing Vanessa Webb, Canada's No. 2 player.
Webb, who won the 1998 U.S. collegiate singles championship and graduated a year later with an A-minus average in economics, French and Canadian studies at Duke University, goes a long way towards embodying the concept of a sound mind in a sound body.
But the way she plays can safely be labelled goofy in the context of today's game.
Where most players belt ferocious groundstrokes from the baseline, Webb loops high-trajectory, low-speed forehands and underspins slinky backhands. Also against the grain, she loves to play at the net and gets there at every opportunity to keep points short as possible. The variety and improvisation of her game -- left-handed, to boot -- makes her fun to watch, if not to play.
"I'd watch players and they'd hit the ball pretty well," she said of a little epiphany she had at Duke. "But then I'd play them and by the second set they'd have trouble getting the ball in the court because they'd have no rhythm."
With obvious pride, she added, "People knew that they'd have to work to win, that it wouldn't be handed to them."
After turning pro in 1999, the 5-foot-11 player from Toronto had success, winning 10 singles titles and more than 25 in doubles at lower-level International Tennis Federation events. But she never cracked the top 100, ranking as high as No. 107 in 2000.
In December of 2000, she had shoulder surgery, which interrupted a positive phase of her game.
Late last year, she began to think about leaving the game.
"I studied for my GMATs [graduate management aptitude tests] while I was in Asia last fall and wrote them when I came back," she said. "Then I spent most of November and December writing my entrance essays, getting recommendations et cetera. I did the interviews at the end of January and February."
She was accepted into the master of business administration program of the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and also into a master in public policy program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She will attend Wharton starting in September.
The granddaughter of Alastair Gillespie, who held three portfolios in then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau's cabinets from 1968 to 1979, she has always had a passion for federal politics.
"I've deferred the Kennedy School for two years," said Webb, 27. "So I could do that if I wanted because I see a lot of value in having a background in both policy and business. If I was eventually to go into politics, I think it would be the ideal background to have."
Looking back on tennis, Webb treasures her run to the team final of the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in 1998 more than her individual title that year. She also has fond memories of playing singles (except at Wimbledon) and doubles at all four Grand Slam tournaments and participating in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. "I remember walking in the opening ceremonies and thinking, 'This is the tangible reward for all the hard work,' " she said.
She even got to practise against her childhood idol, Martina Navratilova, in Japan three years ago.
Summing up, she said: "I was never going to be a lifer in tennis. There have always been other things I've wanted to do. I love to compete, but I'm ready to use my brain again, to have a different challenge."
Ranked No. 137 in the world, Webb is No. 2 in Canada behind Maureen Drake of Toronto, whose world ranking is No. 126. She should be entitled to a wild card into the Rogers AT&T Cup in Toronto next month, but Tennis Canada decided she is ineligible because she is retiring. So her final appearance will be in the U.S. Open qualifying matches in late August.
Webb is departing the Canadian sports scene as a player, but it would not be surprising to see her involved later in another capacity.
"I'd like to get involved in sport policy in Canada," she said. "On my Kennedy school application, I had to analyze a policy and offer solutions. What I chose was actually something from the Canadian sport policy, which I sort of thought was way off."
Webb's years on the professional tour may eventually seem but a fleeting moment in a career that is even more high-profile, one that accentuates her intellectual wattage rather than her offbeat and ingenious way of coaxing a tennis ball around a court.