COLUMBUS — One of the doors in Melissa Schaub’s office opens to a balcony overlooking the upscale hardcourt playground befitting one of the nation’s top collegiate tennis programs.
But no matter how many millions Ohio State has poured into its state-of-the-art, 3-year-old Ty Tucker Tennis Center at the Auer Family Tennis Complex, the view will never match what the four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year remembers from being in and around the News Journal Tennis Tournament during her formative years.
“What I remember most is not even the tennis,” Schaub said recently as she sat at her desk and reflected on the two-week summer ritual celebrating its 90th birthday this summer. “It’s my grandparents having the Pepsi stand and making chili dogs (on the grounds of Lakewood Racquet Club). It was just so fun. That’s the stuff I remember.
“I remember eating dinner at home and my dad (Ron Schaub, Lakewood’s teaching pro and tournament director since 1982) calling about someone pulling out of the tournament and I’m putting on my shoes and trying to get down to the club to fill in. I remember cars lined up down the street. It just felt like this huge social event.
“I just felt like I was part of an amazing community. I remember going to other tournaments and clubs and not having the same feeling.”
Back before she became one of the top 18-year-olds in the country, before she won a 2001 state singles championship as a Lexington High School senior, before she became a freshman All-American at the University of Tennessee, Schaub was this pre-teen dynamo, the likes of which the News Journal Tournament had never seen.
She won her first NJ title at 7 and became the youngest women’s singles champ in the history of the event five years later, beating former finalist and University of Toledo player Jane Jimenez in the quarterfinals, then-recent college grad and three-time defending champ Sue Beathler in a three-set semifinal and two-time champ Brenda Conley, a former Bowling Green player, 6-2, 6-1 in the finals.
Schaub, mind you, was 12.
“I looked to them almost to know my own level,” Schaub said. “I was probably too young (to comprehend that title run). I was just having fun. Now that I know a little bit more, it was probably hard for them to play because they had the pressure. I didn’t have the pressure.
“It would probably serve me right to come back now and play against some of the younger kids, and I’m the one sweating it.”
Older players welcomed her
Schaub’s ascension to that throne paved the way to four more crowns, the last in 2008 when she and her younger brother, Ty, won the tourney’s two marquee events – men’s and women’s singles – each for the fifth time.
Looking back on it now, Schaub feels indebted to players like Jimenez, Beathler, Conley and four-time women’s champ Bonnie (Mills) Ahmed. In her mind, they deserve to be on a pedestal.
“At that age, I was obviously training a lot, and playing (national) tournaments and traveling a lot,” she said. “They probably weren’t playing as much anymore. I just loved playing with them. I even remember coming down in the evening and playing with them, outside of the News Journal tournament. I just felt super welcomed by them.
“That was one of the things so cool about the tournament, being so young and having success, and still the older players agreed to play me. Without them, I don’t know that anything I’ve been able to do happens because so much of it was people older than me letting me practice with them and play them and playing five age groups in one week of the News Journal and getting a lot of matches in. Today I don’t know if any of that happens.”
Schaub doesn’t remember scores. She remembers being caught up, as cliche as it sounds, in the heat of battle.
“It wasn’t the Xs and Os, it was Jane (Jimenez) being upset during a match, being competitive, and Brenda Conley and Sue Beather and Bonnie Ahmed .. they were competitive,” Schaub said. “I admired that and wanted to be that.
“I didn’t think about it then, but they’re probably not at their prime then. They were finished with college. They had jobs, what everyone else is trying to do now, but they were competitive and they didn’t want to lose and it meant a lot to them. And that, in turn, meant a lot to me.
“It wasn’t something I took lightly. I always say I would love to come back and play and I would hope to be somewhat like them. I’m much older, I think, than they were at that time, but I’m still competitive.”
Buckeyes flourish under her watch
Her job precludes Schaub from doing much more these days than hitting with her players, but, yes, she’s still able to scratch that competitive itch. Those are coaching awards adorning a shelf in her office, not any of the hardware she won as a player.
On Schaub’s watch, the Ohio State women’s program has qualified for the NCAA Tournament nine years in a row, reaching the semifinals in 2017 when she was National Coach of the Year.
She has produced an NCAA Championship doubles team, three Big Ten Players of the Year and seven All-Americans. Three times her teams have swept Big Ten regular season and tournament championships and the Buckeyes were undefeated regular season champs in 2022.
Schaub has just started her second decade in charge of the program, something she’s still wrapping her head around.
“Someone mentioned it to me the other day and I’m like, oh, my gosh,” she said. “The seniors this year were here for five years because they got that extra year (because of COVID) and one of them made the comment that she’s been here for half of my time here, and then I realized it. It’s just flown by.”
Schaub was head coach at Middle Tennessee State when then-Ohio State coach Chuck Merzbacher offered her a job as an assistant coach. She had already turned him down once as a player and was wavering on whether to do it again.
“She asked the football coach at Middle Tennessee, Rick Stockstill, and he said, take it, take it, take it,” Ron Schaub said. “I told her the same thing. Man, if you’re going to go to Ohio State, you’ll have all the connections. Ohio State, are you kidding me?”
Schaub didn’t say no to Ohio State a second time after choosing Tennessee as a highly-coveted high school recruit.
“I don’t know, maybe the kid in me thought I needed to go south,” she said. “That’s what you hear with the recruiting a lot, playing outdoors a little bit (more). My recruiting year was actually 9-11, my senior year of high school, so that fall when I was taking all of my official visits, I had gone to Arizona and flown back that Sunday night. And then Tuesday was 9-11. And then I think I just rethought my process a little bit because I wasn’t ready to get on a plane again. I wanted to get away a little bit, but I wanted to be able to drive there.”
One year after Schaub joined Merzbacher’s staff at OSU, he left for his alma mater Minnesota, and she suddenly found herself in charge. Ohio State and Tennessee were her dream jobs.
“Luckily, for me it worked out because I was stressed for a little while,” she said. “I had left a head coach job for an assistant’s job. I don’t know if I would have done that for any other place except for the opportunity to come here and be close to family. It couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Family means everything
Schaub’s two siblings also live in Columbus. Courtney Schaub is a stay-at-home mother of two and Ty Schaub, a former men’s and women’s coach at several Division I colleges, is in investment planning and teaches tennis at Worthington Hills Country Club, with a second child on the way.
Their mom, Mindy Cooper, like their dad is still in Lexington. So family is always nearby.
Ron and Mindy’s two other children made their mark, like Melissa, as players. Ty, as mentioned earlier, is a five-time men’s singles champ in the News Journal Tournament. He finished third in singles at the state tournament for Lexington and led the Minutemen to a state title in 2004 before becoming a senior captain for Ohio State in 2008-09 when the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in the nation and finished as national runners-up. Courtney, the NJ women’s singles champ in 2006, was a state runner-up in doubles for Lex with partner Torrie Goudy and played on two state title teams.
Their dad, obviously, was a huge influence in their tennis careers. And, in Melissa’s case, still is.
“I don’t think I gave her any advice,” Ron Schaub said about her decision to pursue coaching. “She knew the game and she’s good with people. She had a lot of experience being around the game and she’s always been good-natured and a hard worker.”
Her dad molded Melissa in ways she didn’t even realize.
“I catch myself saying things now that he said all the time,” she said. “There are things tactically I’ve taken from him, drills we do, but more than anything it was just his joy. The guy just loves tennis.
“Now I’m coaching at a level where you put so much in it, it’s easy to lose the love. The players are doing it because they’re good, they’re doing it because they’ve had success and they’re on a scholarship here. When I talk to my dad or think back to my days playing in the News Journal it was fun. That’s the biggest thing, bringing it back to just enjoying it.
“I get to coach a sport I love and, hopefully, have an impact on the players who play here. My dad’s had a much bigger impact on kids, starting at a younger age and going through. But, hopefully, I have a little impact on people while they’re here.”
Strong connection with OSU players
Schaub sounded serious about someday coming home and playing in the tournament that has been her dad’s other baby for over 40 years. But as much as she’d like to be part of this year’s 90th birthday celebration, the USTA’s National Hardcourts tournament is next weekend and a major stop on the recruiting trail.
Like virtually all of the top college programs, Schaub’s OSU team has a strong international flavor. Most of the best foreign players fly in for the top U.S. tourneys, but to seal the deal with a recruit usually requires Schaub or her assistant getting on a plane and going to a player’s homeland.
She recently got back from the Netherlands, so one of the perks of her job is getting to see the world and being exposed to different cultures. And she feels strongly about the players on her team having the same experiences.
Of the 12 players on her roster this past season, five were from Columbus, one from California and one from Illinois. The other five were foreign-born, from Israel, India, Belgium, Spain and Canada.
“I feel a strong connection with the players,” Schaub said. “That’s a big reason I do what I do. I want them to have the best four years of their career. Hopefully, they’ll play professionally afterwards or, if not, are successful in a career.
“College tennis is so much fun. You can be competitive. I get to let that part out of me even if I’m not playing. We have really good kids here and we’re bringing in the next group of student-athletes here in a month and I’m excited about working with them. That’s what motivates me and, hopefully, I’m giving my best all the time.”
Schaub tries to build a sense of community within her program that she enjoyed growing up – those halcyon days at the club when her dad presided over the organized chaos, the smell of chili dogs wafted over the always-occupied courts from her grandma’s food stand, and kids took a dip in the Lakewood pool after a hard-fought victory on the steamy clay.
“You think of Ohio State as this big Midwestern school, so the international kids come here and get a good feel of what college tennis is in the United States and the American kids learn about different cultures, different ways of living and different languages,” Schaub said. “Five of them went over to Spain to visit a teammate, and that’s cool. It’s good for them. They all come together and they have this common thread – playing college tennis.”
This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: ‘Just having fun’: NJ Tournament helped shape Melissa Schaub’s love for tennis community