As the lone senior on Monmouth University’s women’s tennis team, Caroline Mattise misses the bonds she shared with her teammates and the sports community as a whole. The softball team was picked No. 1 in the conference, her team’s trip to Niagara Falls was supposed to happen this weekend. She was blossoming in her senior year, being named team captain and finding her voice after years of staying closeted.
But as far as the actual tennis is concerned, Mattise is ambivalent. While she was playing the best tennis of her college career, she carried a mixed relationship with the sport. Throughout most of her time at Monmouth, tennis was a source of great anxiety.
When Monmouth decided to cancel the season March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic — the NBA became the first pro sports league to suspend play later that night — Mattise says she wasn’t all that upset.
“Over the last four years, it was definitely a tug of war with my emotions,” Mattise told Outsports on the phone. “It was a love-hate relationship.”
Unlike other college tennis players, Mattise didn’t pick up the sport until her freshman year of high school. A relative novice, she was thrilled to excel athletically at Monmouth, a small university with just under 4,700 undergraduates located in eastern New Jersey. But then she started to obsess over her on-court performance, fearing she was failing her coach and teammates whenever she didn’t perform up to her high standards. Sometimes, Mattise would call her coach and just cry. The breaking point came during her sophomore year, when she was in the midst of a challenge match against a teammate with whom she never enjoyed competing against. Mattise wound up throwing her racket in a fit of frustration, snapping the instrument. After practice, Patrice Murray, who’s coached at Monmouth for 35 years, pulled Mattise aside and told her to get in touch with a trusted sports counselor who worked with other athletes at the school.
After some conversations with the counselor, Mattise decided to pull back from tennis. There were no more extra practices and unnecessarily intense training regimens. For the first time since she entered Monmouth, Mattise allowed herself to take some time off. While she experienced ups and downs during her junior year — everyone with anxiety knows there is no ultimate panacea — she started to enjoy playing the game again. Mattise also started thriving off the court: she joined the student newspaper, where she now serves as editor-in-chief. And, after seeing her counselor for more than a year, came out of the closet. Mattise recounts the story in a first-person essay for Outsports, reminiscing about the life-changing conversation she held with one of her teammates while they were on a drive together.
“In April I was driving with one of my teammates and we somehow got on the topic of crushes,” Mattise writes. “She asked me if I currently had a crush on anyone, since I normally never talked about that stuff. Oh no. What do I say?
“I said no and we changed the subject. But avoiding the topic hurt. So I circled back and brought up my friend, Sophia. My teammate knew who I was talking about. Then I said, ‘Yeah, I actually have a crush on her.’ My teammate let out a quiet scream and then smiled really big.”
It is those moments of personal growth, and triumph, that Mattise misses most about campus. Earlier this year, Mattise organized Monmouth’s first ever Pride Night.
“I was super excited to talk to you, and four years ago, or even last year, I never thought I would be excited to come out so publicly in an interview for Outsports,” she said. “I think being more comfortable with myself has allowed me to experience new things. Of course, it’s difficult now, being home and not being in the same environment where I felt so free, so it is a little different, but overall, I know it’s still me, and we have a lot a more time with ourselves. I’m just trying to discover new things about me.”
Like most other soon-to-be college graduates, Mattise’s job search is stalled. She was hoping to receive a coveted internship with the U.S. Olympic Committee or Paralympic Committee, but both are unsurprisingly holding off on new interns. Though the experience has been frustrating, Mattise is trying to maintain perspective. As a four-year college athlete, she knows the virtue of patience.
“You just have to put it in perspective,” she said. “There are 3.5 million people who applied for unemployment. I can’t expect that I will get something immediately. So that’s kind of relaxed my thoughts and philosophy on getting a job right out of college. It’s hurting everybody in the sports world.”
Right now, all Mattise can do is wait, and plot out her next steps as she finishes up her semester with online courses at home. She is now convinced tennis will remain part of her life after graduation, which was not always the case. Mattise says she experienced four years of extraordinary personal growth at Monmouth, which wouldn’t have happened without tennis.
“When I first went on my unofficial visit, my coach plainly set up the next four years of my life,” Mattise said. “She said she saw me as a communication journalism major. I could get involved with the student newspaper. I could get involved in the student-athlete advisory meeting. She said all of this at the Women in Sports Day Celebration. My coach said she never realized how impactful her words were.
If I didn’t have tennis, and didn’t want to play college tennis, I certainly would not be where I am today. I am thankful for all of those connections.”
Caroline Mattise is a senior Journalism and Sports Communication student at Monmouth University. She is a captain of the women’s tennis team, the social media director for the Student Athlete Advisory Committee and the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, The Outlook. She can be reached via email [email protected] or Twitter (@CMattise) or Instagram (@cmattise).