March 25, 2014
By Josh Kipnis | Subscribe to Commodore Nation
Back in early January, before classes were underway or dorms were even opened, the best place to find Vanderbilt tennis standout Ryan Lipman was in the Commodores’ Currey Tennis Center on the corner of 25th Avenue.
Rallying with his younger brother Maxx (who also competes in the Southeastern Conference at the University of Florida), Lipman could be seen stroking tennis balls for hours this winter break, remastering a craft that he once spent more than 20 years perfecting. Yes, that’s right, remastering—because for Lipman, ever since the pop he heard in his leg his sophomore season, the game of tennis just hasn’t been the same.
“Down the line, please!” Lipman begs himself in the first set of his first match in the 2014 spring season. Playing the No. 2 position for the Commodores, Lipman faces off against Marquette University’s Dan Mamalat, a senior from Philadelphia. But even more than his opponent today, Lipman seems to struggle with a tougher enemy—an inner antagonist—a mud-colored rust that has oxidized in his mind, racket and swing. It has been more than three months since his last competitive match, and the signs are beginning to grow more and more evident for Lipman, a Nashville native.
“Come on,” he tells himself after winning a long rally, pumping his fist as he retreats to find another ball. The words serve as self-encouragement; an attempt to win another point and start playing the higher-caliber tennis that he has grown so accustom to. But, just moments later, his momentum is halted by a lapse in serve—an uncharacteristic double fault. A few more points go by, and Lipman whiffs on an overhead just barely outlasting his reach. He’s out of position. His footwork is off. And alone on the court, Lipman’s contagious smile begins to hide amongst feelings of anguish and frustration.
“What is that?” Lipman screams as a flimsy, sliced attempt at a backhand hardly reaches the bottom of the net. He has grown confused as to what is occurring before him. His game is unrecognizable, hardly reminiscent of the All-American honors he earned last year. With a set of rolling eyes and long, dispirited breaths, Lipman’s unforced errors continue to pile up—a forehand pushed too far past the baseline, a volley that slips out beyond the doubles alley. Yet, as rough as his game may look, somehow or another the scoreboard tells an entirely different story— a 3-3 tie in an 11th game tiebreaker.
Could that be? Has Mamalat never broken serve? Could Lipman actually steal this first set? But, the sudden glimpse of hope comes quickly crashing down as Lipman loses the following three points. Forced into defending a triple-set-point, Lipman clenches his teeth—a face full of grit—and pounds a heavy serve down the middle of the court for an ace.
“He can’t hit your fastball!” Lipman’s best friend, Carey Spear, who is the kicker on the football team, calls out, lightening the mood in the building. The gallery of fans around him join in on the laughter, but Lipman maintains his focus, winning the next point, and the next point—tying the tiebreak at six points apiece. Once again, he’s defied all odds and silenced any thoughts of doubt.
“Wow, that’s sick,” his teammate exclaims.
“Are you kidding me?” another one remarks.
The crowd surrounding the match has doubled with the excitement. But, as has become the common theme in the match—and Lipman’s entire career—one moment of destiny is followed by a moment of despair. He loses the set.
“You know, like every tennis player—every athlete—the perfect one doesn’t exist,” Vanderbilt men’s tennis coach Ian Duvenhage explained a few days earlier in his office. “We all have our stuff and our issues that we have to overcome.”
But for some athletes the obstacles seem more daunting.
“I don’t think he’s been completely healthy in two years,” Duvenhage continued. “But, he has handled [his injury] as well as anybody could be expected to. He works very hard at rehab. He’ll play hurt. I think there’s been one time in four and a half years where he came in and said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t go.’”
That time was at the close of Lipman’s sophomore season, when a pop in his hip forced him to retire mid-match. The injury required surgery to repair a torn labrum, as well as a few other procedures to mend his femur. For the first time in his life, suddenly it was unclear whether the two-time All-SEC First Team member would ever return a serve again.
“There have been a lot of tennis players who’ve had his surgery who weren’t able to come back,” Duvenhage said. “I’m sure — I know, because I talked to him about it — in (Lipman’s) mind he was sometimes wondering whether he was going to make it back, also.”
Doubt, more so than any ounce of pain, was Lipman’s most venomous opposition.
“I remember in the fall of (2012) I had a tough conversation with my team because I didn’t feel like I was going to get back to where I was,” he said.
Spending 11 months in the athletic training room brought about the unstable fear of never returning to the game he had played as long as he can remember. While “being on your own and problem solving” had long been one of Lipman’s favorite aspects of tennis, the same could not be said about the isolation and darkness he felt on the sidelines, watching his lifelong dream of turning pro slip through his fingers. He lacked control over his own destiny, and the possibility of “not making it…having [his] career derailed from injury” turned into a legitimate trepidation.
But, remarkably, Lipman overcame his greatest obstacle yet, earning All-American honors in the process, a feat that only two other Vanderbilt tennis players have done in the program’s 34-year existence.
“Ian told me that I could do it, and he said, ‘We all believe in you.’ Yeah, that really helped me to have a great season,” Lipman said with a look of gratitude in his eyes.
“I honestly never really doubted it,” Duvenhage said. “I didn’t know to what extent he’d be back, but I knew he’d be back. What allows him to play with injuries is he’s got such a high tennis IQ. He understands the game so well. He’s so smart on the court…he’s so versatile.”
But this past fall, even Lipman’s superior knowledge of the game wouldn’t allow his body to carry on playing at an elite level. Sidelined for a second time, Lipman’s hip once again removed the racket from his hands. Three months later, however, he’s back at it—this time with an NCAA title in his view.
“I mean, I think my team and Ian all know that I could be hurt, but I’m still going to find a way to get the job done out there,” said Lipman, the president of VU’s student-athlete advisory committee. “That’s something I take great pride in. Ian always tells me that he thinks my biggest strength is my mind, my attitude…I can usually find a way to get out of a bad situation.”
“Kids like him don’t come around often,” Duvenhage said. “This is my 30th year of doing this, and honestly, he’s a dream.”
Similar to the injuries he has faced over the previous two years, Lipman’s struggles from the first set seem to disappear as he trots out to center court for the second set of his match. His emotions begin to run higher than ever, but as opposed to the frustration we saw before, now Lipman seems to be winning his internal struggle. He begins with a graceful feign of a put-away, a ball that, at the last minute, he decides to delicately guide over the net for a drop-shot winner. A fan in the crowd whistles involuntarily. She can’t help but admire the beautiful execution of such a complex tennis maneuver.
“Artistic!” Spear shouts, bringing a smile, once again, to every fan sitting in the area.
But the shot is nothing in comparison to the bending backhand Lipman later pulls out of his repertoire: a banana-like bow that swoops around the net and tucks itself neatly into the opposite corner of the court.
“Yeah!!!” Lipman screams, his chest puffed out, arms to his sides. As he looks up toward the 50 or so people now on their feet applauding, he finally feels what it’s like to hit that professional-worthy shot again.
“He can’t hit your curveball, either,” Spear blurts out once the crowd quiets down.
No, he can’t hit much of anything Lipman throws his way. It is a different player out there—a confidence about him despite a past that would surely leave other athletes exposed.
With the momentum shifting, and a comeback on the rise, Lipman begins to display a talent that is rare throughout the realm of college athletics. Lipman would go on to win his match in typical fashion that day—5-5 (6-8), 5-5 (7-2), 10-7—a tiebreaker in every set.
But, after all, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. It was never easy for Lipman before, and it will never be easy again. But see if that will stop him. It is a lifelong battle, and he begins it by fighting his struggle from within.