Perhaps no major sport in the world other than golf relies on its individual stars more than tennis. It’s defined by personal competition and glory. Cal State Fullerton senior Tiffany Mai, a health science major and a captain of the women’s tennis team, is an exception—the camaraderie of a team is a huge factor in her love for the game.
Mai first began playing tennis at the tender age of seven and a half and was put into tournaments about a year later, learning the game from her mother who had an active role in the sport and encouraged young Tiffany to play and compete. Tennis wasn’t her first love, however.
“I actually started swimming when I was three and later on I qualified for the junior Olympics,” said Mai. “Eventually, I got a little burned out from swimming, but I loved tennis. I was better at swimming but it came down to it that I had to choose between the two and I ended up choosing tennis. I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
The senior ended up leaving swimming behind not because she had lost her love for the sport, but because of the limited interaction with other athletes. She found her social outlet with tennis.
“At tennis tournaments every weekend, I would meet so many new people. The tennis community is big and they become like your weekend family because you see them so much. I also played it with my parents a lot too,” Mai said with a smile.
These weekend tournaments that Mai became a part of were put on by the United States Tennis Association (USTA). Mai feels the competition the USTA provided was extremely beneficial in her development as a player. The exposure she received was second to none.
“I knew about Tiffany (Mai) way back when she was in the 12-year- olds division in the USTA,” said Bill Reynolds, head coach of CSUF’s women’s tennis team. “I was one of the coaches of the team she was on and right away we knew that she had special talent. You could see exactly what she was going to be on court and off court even back when she was 12. She’s a natural.”
Going into high school however, Mai felt her love for the game waning quite a bit.
From the age of 12 to 14, tennis was all she knew. Anything that didn’t involve tennis, Mai was not a part of. The constant pressure from her mother to compete at a high level also weighed heavily on the younger Mai.
“My mom is into it more so than other tennis fans I think,” Mai said. “She pulled me out of school for a semester and I would play tennis for like six hours a day and had a really good year, but I never got to do anything else. Right when I hit high school, I pretty much quit.”
Mai would hit every now and then throughout her time at Westminster High School in Westminster, Calif. until her senior year when she got a call from CSUF assistant coach Chico Bonner asking to practice and hit around. Being on the courts and practicing finally felt good again. Her love for the game was back.
Bonner encouraged Mai to start thinking about playing college tennis and helped with her letters of intent. Eventually, she felt CSUF was the best fit and where she would be the happiest.
“Words can’t even really describe my experience here at Fullerton,” Mai said gleamingly. “Most of my memories are going to be from being on the team and playing for this school. Your best memories are from your teammates and your coaches because you play with them everyday. It’s been the best experience of my life.”
Throughout her time here at CSUF, Mai says the relationships she’s built with her teammates and coaches is what she’s going to cherish the most.
Morgan McIntosh, co-captain of the tennis team and one of Mai’s best friends, knows just how important Mai has been to the team these past four years.
“I don’t know how the team would be without her. She’s always happy, always cheering the team on, she’s very organized and always a step ahead,” said McIntosh.
Reynolds knows Mai has elite talent but praises her off-court exploits just as much.
“She’s a natural team leader. She organizes team-bonding events, leads those and just keeps the team’s chemistry strong,” he said.
With her career at Cal State Fullerton coming to an end at the culmination of this semester, Mai feels tennis will still be a part of her life regardless.
“Most players still pick up a racquet. It’s not something you can just let go of completely,” Mai said.