All-In column: From tennis to tutus, Guilderland coach makes her mark – Times Union

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Guilderland tennis coach Deb O’Brien. (Provided)
Guilderland tennis coach Deb O’Brien and her team wore tutus in 2018 in support of Serena Williams. (Provided)
Guilderland High School girls’ tennis team wearing pink for breast cancer awareness during a 2020 match against Shenendehowa High School. (Provided)
During a lifetime of playing and coaching tennis, Guilderland High coach Deb O’Brien has earned an award that stands above the rest. 
She was named the 2019-20 National Federation of State High School Associations’ northeast section Girls Tennis Coach of the Year.
Her latest honor is a testament to her dedication to the sport — serving as a role model for young players during a 24-year career as a coach in the Guilderland school district. It also reflects her community service, something coaches in the sport are smashingly good at pulling off in big ways. 
Because of COVID-19, her recognition was delayed. The northeast section includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. O’Brien also was named the 2019-20 NFHS New York Girls Tennis Coach of the Year.
Winning honors is nothing new to the Section II chairperson for girls’ tennis. The Guilderland teacher has won a Section II championship and Section II Coach of the Year honors twice along with several Suburban Council championships.
“I want kids to learn about perseverance and practice, sportsmanship, courtesy on the court and camaraderie with your teammates,” she said. “I see the benefits of being a part of a team, whether you are one of the better players or not. It’s a fact that kids who play sports or other activities learn to manage their time better.”
Part of her dedication involves recruiting young athletes to a sport that for some reason isn’t seen as “cool” right now, she said. 
“I can take any athlete and make them a tennis player,” she said. 
She has worked in the summer as a volunteer coach with Domingo Montes, who coordinates the Capital Region’s 15-LOVE program, dedicated to giving youths the opportunity to  participate. The program, started in part by the late Arthur Ashe, “uses tennis to teach the game of life.”
O’Brien also has been involved the past 16 years with Junior Team Tennis, played in the winter inside. Her JTT team would play against the 15-LOVE players on a Saturday night, keeping youngsters busy on the weekend and off the streets during their critical teenage years.
One of her most memorable events as the Guilderland coach was when one of her students came up with the idea of wearing black tutus in honor of Serena Williams. 
“We were supporting her at the time she wore a catsuit and people were saying disparaging things about her,” she said.
That was in 2018, when Williams was returning to the sport after having a baby and was involved in a whirlwind of controversy — from her choice of playing attire to getting penalized for receiving coaching from the sidelines to unsportsmanlike behavior during her loss to then 20-year-old Naomi Osaka in the U.S. Open final. 
The body shaming of Williams by French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, who claimed that the catsuit was disrespectful to the sport and the venue, was the catalyst for the symbolic gesture. 
“We stood by her after all that happened,” O’Brien said, who joined her players wearing a tutu.  All the outfits later were donated to a charity. 
As a player, O’Brien has gone from being the Vermont state champion as a 12-year-old to getting back to the competitive grind and earning a spot at the 40-plus national championships in Orlando and Texas in 2018.
“Now I’m bumped up to a higher level. So I haven’t made it back yet, but I’m trying,” she said. 
[email protected] • @joyceb10bassett •

After a 4-0 win over Jamaica, the US Women’s National Soccer Team’s unbeaten streak is at 41 matches, the third longest in program history.  Up next: the team wraps up their Summer Series Wednesday against Nigeria, 9:00p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Read about how New York Liberty’s Betnijah Laney became one of the WNBA’s top scorers via Just Women’s Sports. 
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Joyce Bassett is a sports columnist for the Times Union, specializing in women and girls in sports and golf. She was the creator and main contributor to the Times Union’s Youth Sports blog from 2007-2017. Joyce worked at the Times Union as an editor, graphic and web producer from 1997-2020. 


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