Rachel Stuhlmann is a former tennis player for the Missouri Tigers and earned an NCAA national ranking of 77. Call it intuition, but the now 26-year old told her parents that she wanted to play tennis when she was 5 years old – without having ever seen or experienced tennis before. In the following two decades, the St. Louis native developed a love and passion for the sport that is hard to come by these days. Aside from being a personal trainer and tennis coach, Rachel works for a tennis software company called Courtly. As part of the job, she spearheaded the production of a tennis show called “The Toss Up” that plans on making the sport of tennis more relatable and reach a bigger audience.
Enjoy the following interview with Rachel and learn from her inspiring and knowledgeable insights.
Tell us a little bit about your early tennis days. Specifically, your time as a junior tennis player.
I was an average player when I was younger. But in my early high school years, I realized how serious I was about the sport. Already at a young age, I was eager to be the best player out there. I was focusing really hard on getting better and since I wasn’t born super athletic, I had to put in a lot of extra hours on and off the court. As a result, I developed a passion for fitness quite early as well.
Then, In my junior year, I went to the Newk Tennis Academy in Texas. They provided us with all the resources needed to become a great player (e.g. top coaches, players from all over the world, a weight room, 24/7 access to tennis courts, etc.). Eventually, I reached a top 50 national ranking and got recruited by colleges.
You ended up going to Missouri. What made you sign with the Tigers?
I was recruited by a couple of schools. Colorado, Texas Tech, Penn State, etc. I actually almost ended up going to LSU but I have to say, I like being close to my family and home. When I was younger, my mom and dad always drove me to tournaments and we frequently stopped at Columbia. My mom also went there for a couple of years. I simply felt comfortable about the decision and thought I could really make an impact on that program.
Can you elaborate on your time at Missouri and college tennis in general?
I really enjoyed my time at Missouri. For me, one of the coolest parts was that I got to play two years in the Big 12 and two years in the SEC without having to transfer. And simply playing on a team is just phenomenal. As a junior, you more or less play for yourself. You play to get a national ranking and to get into the college you want. It’s an individual sport. And in college, it is not. It makes such a big difference as you are now not only playing for yourself, but for the players besides you, the team, and the whole school. It makes you want to win so much more. You want to be a part of it and contribute to the success.
What would you describe as your most memorable college sports moment?
I have to list two experiences here. Both were against the Georgia Bulldogs. The first one was during my sophomore year against the #22 ranked player in the nation. It was one of those rare matches where everything falls into place, nothing distracts you, and just everything works. Being “in a zone” likely only happens a few times in a tennis player’s career. For me, it happened this day. I felt untouchable and was able to execute the game plan perfectly. This match was career-changing and I ended up going on an 8-match win streak. After the match, I was in tears because everything I worked on seemed to have finally paid off. It was a big time for me.
The second one was my senior day. They had just started College Gameday in tennis and picked 10 different matches to feature. Our coach submitted a request and we got chosen for our match against Georgia on my senior day. The College Gameday bus was there, we were all interviewed, and my match was on ESPN 3. We also had a crowd of over 600 people which is a lot for tennis. It was simply amazing to experience this with my team.
What was one of the most challenging aspects of being a college athlete?
Many athletes would likely talk about the frequency and intensity of the workouts, however, for me, that was the fun part. But I struggled with staying on top of school. My life has always been about tennis and it was sometimes not easy to show a similar level of excitement for academics. Luckily, our school had amazing resources available that helped me with it.
You currently work for a tennis management software company called Courtly. As part of your involvement, you actively worked on a tennis show called “The Toss Up”. Talk about the show and what we can expect from it.
Our first episode actually aired on May 9th. Each episode is about 3-5 minutes long and we interview many different people (players, coaches, entertainers, etc.) in the tennis industry and ask tennis-related questions with the intention to make the sport more relatable and mainstream.
In this first episode, for example, I interviewed Omar Benson Miller (famous actor from CSI Miami, Miracle at St. Anna, etc.) who is a huge tennis fan and has his own tennis show called “Advantage Omar” on the tennis channel. When I explained to him what I want to accomplish with “The Toss Up”, he was right on board with it. This almost reassured me that there is a need for the game to change it a little bit.
This sounds like a really cool show. Is that something you see yourself doing for the next couple of years or do you have other plans?
I definitely realized that I have a big passion for creating this show and sharing my opinions and knowledge of the sport. At the end of the day, I really just want to be happy and content with my life and have “The Toss Up” and my articles on my website make an impact. This is what I really hope for.
You clearly have a lot of expertise in the tennis industry. Which piece of advice would you give to aspiring juniors that might consider going to college as well?
In one of the segments of our show, we actually ask college players a similar question. Many kids and parents often ask me what they have to do to get the attention of college coaches. Personally, I never created a tape but I put myself out there, emailed coaches, and really stated everything I had accomplished and stood for. You have to sell yourself. List your ranking, how much you practice, what your goals are, etc.
As far as the game itself goes, I actually recommend players to focus a lot on doubles. It plays a huge role in college tennis and is often neglected in the early years of a player. At the end of the day, not every team is going to be the perfect fit for you. But if you stick to what you know, trust and believe in yourself, you’ll be good.
Last but not least. Would you advise aspiring players to go to college or try the pro tour right away?
College is often a very cost-effective way to be exposed to a professional environment. Coaching, equipment, high-level match play, and much more. Besides, you are getting a degree which I consider critical to have in your back pocket if your tennis career does not work out as planned. There is also no rush to get on the tour anymore. Look at the age of some of the most dominant players on the tour right now. Federer and Serena Williams, for example, are both in their mid-30s. So yes, I am definitely an advocate of going to college.
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