The Vanderbilt women’s tennis team (the tournament’s #4 seed) claimed its first-ever national title by defeating UCLA 4–2 in the NCAA Championship match May 19. The victory marked only the third time in school history that Vanderbilt has won an NCAA national championship. (Bowling won one in 2007, and baseball in 2014).
The only other time the Commodores made the final was in 2001, when they lost 4-0 to Stanford.
Vanderbilt coach Geoff Macdonald said: “We were in new water for us. I have to say, hats off to my team for handling an incredibly large moment, with class, guts, and great spirit. It’s a dream come true. It’s such an elusive, difficult thing to accomplish”.
The clincher came at No. 2 singles as redshirt freshman Astra Sharma won 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 against Chanelle Van Nguyen (video of match point below). For those unfamiliar with American college sports, a redshirt means that a player sits out a year due to injury and therefore does not lose a year of eligibility to play as an amateur, for which there is a four-year limit. Sharma, from Perth, Australia, also clinched the 4-0 semifinals shutout of top-seeded Southern California.
A couple of months later Astra Sharma decided to play three ITF Pro Circuit events in Egypt (funnily, Sharma played in Sharm El Sheikh): she ended her trip with a title and a great 10-2 record in singles so I was really curious to have an interview with her about her past months and her future.
She is not only a beast on court:
— Ryan Lipman (@CoachRyanLipman) May 20, 2015
She was also super kind replying to my twenty questions.
Why did you decide to go to University instead of turning pro? And why choosing to go abroad?
Well I wasn’t too happy with my development in Perth and felt maybe getting out and training in a different environment would give me a boost.
You are having an outstanding NCAA career: how is University improving you as person and as a tennis player?
As a person I would say I am a lot more independent and driven. Getting out of my comfort zone and having to be my own boss was a huge growth step for me. As a player I would definitely say my mental and tactical approach to the game has improved drastically. Something I give full credit to my coaches, Aleke and Geoff. They are really helping me understand my game and how to play.
How did you feel when Chanelle Van Nguyen’s forehand went out giving Vanderbilt the 2015 National Championship?
Probably relief was the first, followed by a feeling of overwhelming happiness and pride in the team.
After earning a redshirt status for 2014-15 campaign you won the National Team Championship and you were awarded with the 2015 NCAA Tournament MVP: how could you reach such achievements after the hand-wrist tendonitis?
I think the injury really made me appreciate the time I have on court. For me, the drive to do well became huge after just sitting around for a year. I didn’t lose my motivation but went the opposite way and got hungry. I wouldn’t say the injury was the sole reason but I think my perspective changed and I really was just grateful to play and was really happy to be out there competing, win or lose.
I read during your redshirt status you did some coaching: how was that experience?
It was really weird for me. I usually don’t really like watching tennis, only like pro tournaments on tv but to sit down and really look at what was happening with players, I started putting myself in their shoes, feeling their pressure and decisions and that really helped me when I got back because I learnt from their mistakes. I charted a bunch of my teammates’ matches, and grew a bit smarter about things like patterns.
What are your goals for next season? You will not miss self-confidence but you also will have a lot of pressure on your shoulders.
It’s a new challenge. I definitely try and stay grounded, the girls I play against can all easily sweep me off the court me if I don’t do the right things and stay focused. It’s a new match and I think just staying confident in myself but respectful of my opponents is a big thing in every match.
Astra Sharma in 2025: where are you and doing what?
Hopefully I’ll be having a successful career on the circuit, travelling and whatnot. I’d like to play for as long as I can at the highest level.
What is your opinion about ITA rule changes?
Not a fan, I would prefer the old classic format, three sets all the way with no short games.
What is your favourite surface?
Do you have any pre-match rituals?
Really depends on what time and the environment, but usually I like a set routine that I establish once I get there. It’s hard sometimes when your environment is always changing, you can’t really do things exactly the same way everytime but the one thing is, I play with the same racket if I am winning till it breaks or if it’s a new tournament.
Does cheering from the stands help to get you play better play or not?
For me it makes little difference because I get too focused.
I read your favourite tennis player is Justine Henin, is this correct?
Yep, favourite woman player. I love her game and how athletic and creative she was on court, while at the same time being one of the grittiest competitors out there. She came to Perth one time for the Hopman Cup and I was trying really hard to get her autograph but she kept skipping me, so I had to keep running around further down the line till she gave it to me. Good times.
Your opinion about anti-doping program: have you have ever been tested in competition or out of competition?
Yes, I got tested at school out of competition. I understand the need for it but I am pretty shy so having to pee in a cup in front of someone was horrendous. I drank so much water too. Obviously it’s not the best experience but I understand the need for it and support keeping the integrity of sports.
Have you ever been approached (Skype, Facebook etc…) by someone to fix a pro match?
No, I don’t think I’m quite on that level.
After the great NCAA season you played some futures in Egypt with great results (10W-2L): how did you feel when you saw the cheque for the tournament you won and it was just $ 1,440?
Well to be honest, I was pretty happy, winning money is still a novelty for me. It didn’t cover anything in terms of the cost to go there but it was nice to get some money back and hand it proudly to my dad.
How was the condition of courts/organization in Sharm El Sheikh?
I thought the courts were really odd. They were hard courts but quick and slicey like grass and you could slide on them like clay. I was pretty confused the first few practices and did some great air swings.
Three things/rules you would change on Pro Circuit if you had the power.
Drinks on court (coolers of Gatorade and water, just a couple each person), more prize money, ad in doubles.
What is your opinion about equal prize money for women/men in pro tennis?
I love it obviously, expenses are the same either way and women can never be as strong so we play to our maximum biological ability and effort, which entitles us to the same. I do understand the other point of view, I do think it’s harder for guys to be professionals, it’s a lot more competitive with numbers and they do have to do a lot more work off court and on court to reach the same level. Sorry though guys, equality all the way.
What are your interests? What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Interests would be reading. I love expanding on my literature. I love watching a good movie and some tv shows (Game of Thrones, The Office…). Definitely an outdoors person though, I play soccer in my free time, play rounds of golf, go for walks around parks with my dogs. Love hitting the beach or going hiking or fishing, anything physical really. When I’m home I do all these things with my family, we’re all really close and it’s good to relax with them.
Your favourite movie and music?
Too hard, I have so many. Movies would be Forrest Gump, Sherlock Holmes, Hot Fuzz. Music would be The Script, Maroon 5, Gavin Degraw.