Novak Excelled After Singles Switch for Valley Girls’ Tennis
Natalie Novak showed her stuff as the ultimate team player and courageous competitor–suddenly stepping up to a higher rank on her squad, standing tall on that elevated pedestal, and delivering.
The Valley Regional girls’ tennis team junior was first exposed to the court through doing tennis camps as a youngster before rediscovering her affinity for the sport upon arriving at high school. After playing her freshman season at No. 1 doubles, Natalie was shifted into solo action as the No. 3 singles player a year later.
In 2023, Natalie was perfectly poised this year to go undefeated in the No. 3 singles position and was on that trajectory with a 4-0 start. When Valley’s top singles player couldn’t return to play this season, Natalie was tasked with playing up at the No. 2 position. She stepped up to the challenge and earned an 8-2 record at her new singles’ perch, only losing to Shoreline conference-champion Old Lyme twice for a Warriors’ squad that finished 11-3 and qualified for the Class M State Tournament. She additionally notched Second Team All-Shoreline accolades for the second consecutive spring.
“Playing tennis here was one of the best decisions I ever made,” says Natalie, who also plays volleyball for the Warriors. “After freshman year with volleyball season, it was hard to tell how things would be with tennis due to COVID, but I loved [Head Coach Sally Riggio] as the school nurse, and it has been an amazing experience. The unit we have as a team has helped take off all the pressure of playing. Keeping a calm and level mindset is helpful. It is up to your mentality on the court that makes or breaks you.”
Playing with a partner as a rookie proved to be beneficial for Natalie when it came to getting acclimated to the Warriors’ order of operations. She adds that when it came to moving up to facing a different tier of competitors, it helped her believe in herself while showing her stuff to the rest of the Shoreline Conference.
“Playing doubles as a freshman helped me, because I had a partner, and it was a great way to re-introduce me to the game,” Natalie says. “As a sophomore, I was a little nervous, because it is a different strategy with singles, but the entire support of the team helped me. I came into this year more mentally prepared for singles. The shift to No. 2 singles involved a different level of players. I learned that being confident in your play and just being strong overall goes a long way.”
Riggio exclaims that Natalie not only found her niche within the team as an intermediate between coach and players with respect to scheming, but she also influences the group with her beaming positivity.
“Natalie has been an integral part of the Warriors’ team for the past three years,” says Riggio. “I couldn’t be more proud to work with Natalie as we continue to develop on court strategies. She is a delightful young lady, and I love watching her play. Natalie is a determined player with beautiful strokes. She has excelled in her mental game, which demonstrates a fortitude that is rare at her age. Natalie is a true competitor. Off the court, Natalie is involved in many activities and has a great sense of humor. Natalie’s winning smile definitely lights up a room. I am already looking forward to Natalie’s senior tennis year. She is a coach’s recipe for success.”
When two schools are deadlocked at three match wins apiece and you are center court for the decider, it can be a very strenuous situation both mentally and physically.
“The pressure can come from how your match and every other match for your team goes,” says Natalie. “It can be tough when you are the last match of the day that decides which team wins the overall match. It can also be hard when you are playing singles matches by yourself that sometimes run three hours. You can get worried about how the whole team is doing and your mentality can crack.”
Natalie is a big proponent of out-of-season preparation as being someone who has diligently been trying to increase her tenacity with tennis, but then also balancing that with a cerebral component of being tactful and knowing when to strike and place the ball.
“I have seen improvement each year after doing camps and lessons in the offseason. Offseason work is extremely important to see your strengths and weaknesses as a player,” Natalie says. “I tried to be more aggressive and also strategic. I am also looking to work more on running to the net. Consistency and knowing when and where to hit the next shot are both crucial.”
Natalie tested her mettle against the best the league had to offer, as her lone two defeats at the second slot came against the eventual winners of the Shoreline with Old Lyme. Yet even in a losing effort, Natalie emerged with a winning psyche by coming to the realization of the time-honored truth that iron sharpens iron.
“Old Lyme has always been our rival, and I lost two mentally and physically challenging matches to them,” says Natalie. “But it helped me in being able to accept defeats and being good with not putting too much pressure on myself. I am proud to play tougher teams at the No. 1-2 singles level in the Shoreline.”
As she begins to embark on her senior season, Natalie, who will serve as a co-captain, takes note that many underclassmen stepped up and proved themselves by earning valuable varsity wings–paving the way for an even brighter future in 2024 bolstered by what will look to be a squad deep in numbers.
“We had a great year this season because we did not lose any seniors from last year and gained a ton of freshmen who have great mentalities and are supportive of everyone,” Natalie says. “We will lose four seniors from this year’s team, but we are hoping to step up and be more confident in ourselves. We also had tons of signups for the team from Jon Winthrop Middle School, so it hopefully sets us up for a good season next year.”