From The Daily: Going For Gold
Dec. 6, 2011
By Taylor Soper
Pressure-packed environments are only natural during Pac-12 tennis matches, and Washington star senior Denise Dy knows that better than anyone.
But clear across the globe in humid Palembang, Indonesia, at last month's Southeast Asia (SEA) Games, the intensity was on a whole different level. Dy's mixed doubles gold-medal match against an Indonesian pair was something she hadn't exactly been through before.
"Oh, wow. Oh, wow," Dy said of the environment. "In that final, there were like 12 Filipinos cheering for us, versus 8,000 Indonesians. For the games in those countries, it is basically the Olympics. It will get rough. It will get rowdy. The game before me, they had to have military police because fans were throwing cups everywhere.
"It was definitely a different experience. It was really intense."
Representing the Philippines, Dy -- a U.S. and Philippines dual-citizen -- joined forces with former University of Virginia star Treat Huey and faced a crowd-favorite Indonesian duo at the boisterous Jakabaring Sport City complex.
"The venue was packed and afterward there was the awards ceremony -- everyone was there," Filipino team manager Randy Villanueva said from Manila. "It was the most packed stadium for the whole two weeks we were there."
A win in the final tennis match of the SEA Games would be the Philippines' first tennis gold medal. A loss would leave them empty-handed and mean two more years of waiting. It was their last chance to come away as tennis champions.
"For Philippines sports, I would say the SEA Games are the most important event that we play in," Villanueva said. "If you win there, at least you can say that in this part of the world, you are seen as the best."
NO DAYS OFF
Just two weeks before that gold-medal match, Dy had competed on one of the biggest stages of collegiate tennis in Flushing, N.Y., at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Indoor Championships. The senior, ranked No. 4 in the nation, won her first two matches and then took down Cal's Jana Juricova, the nation's No.1-ranked player, in straight sets.
Dy would later drop a tough three-set semifinal match to eventual champion Marta Lesniak but was awarded the tournament's sportsmanship award and became the first UW player ever to make three Final Fours in the three major national championships.
After three tough matches that took nearly a combined nine hours, Dy was drained hen she returned to Seattle on Nov. 6. But back in May, she committed to compete for the Philippines in the SEA Games and her flight to Asia was leaving the very next day.
There was certainly an injury-risk factor involved with competing so many days in a row, especially with Dy's knee problems. After all, it was two years ago in Laos at the last SEA Games when Dy strained her right MCL. That injury has given her problems ever since.
So there was a bit of hesitation from UW head women's tennis coach Jill Hultquist when her best player wanted to compete again in the SEA Games. But the seventh-year head coach knew that an opportunity to represent your country is one that doesn't come by very often, especially for a 22-year-old like Dy.
"Denise is pretty professional, and I knew if there was anything wrong with her knee, she'd get it taken care of," Hultquist said. "I hate to hold athletes back from games like that, because I think she's a senior and she's got her future. I think that was important for her to represent the Philippines and compete for them."
Just 48 hours after competing in Flushing, Dy was all of a sudden in her parents' homeland of the Philippines. In Manila, she ran into best friend and former UW star Venise Chan, who was competing in a professional tournament.
Their reunion was short-lived, however, as Dy hopped on another plane -- this one filled with top-tier Filipino athletes -- to Palembang. Surrounding her were the best athletes the Philippines could offer, from well-known boxers to world-class veteran billiards players.
"Just to be with the best athletes in my country and be there at the same time, it's definitely an honor and humbling," Dy said.
From Thursday to Sunday, the Filipino squad spent time practicing and having team events. This was Dy's fourth time competing in the SEA Games for the Philippines, so she had already built relationships with some of her teammates and several of the competing tennis players. But Dy is unique: Very few of the other athletes are enrolled in an American university and playing NCAA tennis.
"I'm basically the college kid," she said.
With that comes somewhat of a celebrity status. Anyone who wants to know what college life is like in the States knows to go to Dy.
"It definitely puts me in a position of a leadership role, which I'm definitely happy to do," Dy said. "At least I can bring something to the table when it comes to that, and not just for the UW, but for all the kids in Asia that have more opportunities to come over here."
Two years ago, Dy came back to Seattle with a few interested Indonesian players for Hultquist. This year, there were more youngsters wondering what playing for the Huskies is like. In a sense, Dy acts as a huge resource.
"She just creates excitement about the University and they see her level of tennis and how well she's doing," Hultquist said. "It's good that she can play those games and maybe also educate some of the athletes that have questions about what is university life like in the States."
Dy also began fielding questions from her teammates and competitors who were wondering how the UW senior got so physically big. Most players there were professional and play up to five times per week. Back home, Dy usually has just two matches per week -- that leaves time and energy for strength training.
"They were like, `You look pretty big. What are you doing over there?'" recalled Dy, who says she's added 15 pounds of muscle in the past year. "I joked, `I'm not fat, am I?' It was kind of funny."
She's also made stark improvements on the mental side of the game. Villanueva, the team manager, knows Dy from when she competed in the junior circuit. To him, the UW senior has come a long way from her first SEA Games seven years ago as a 15-year-old and has shown great strides in maturity.
As for her skills on the court, he's always been impressed.
"I really think she has perfect form," said Villanueva, also the vice president of the Filipino Tennis Association. "I was joking with her that every time I watch her play, it looks like I am watching a Sega computer tennis game. You know how those games make every move almost perfect? Denise looks like that computer image. Even her aura on the court, it's what the computer is trying to imitate."
But even video-game players get tired. Dy had been playing and traveling for nearly 20 consecutive days before the gold-medal match. That doesn't mean she didn't give it her all.
Thanks to a crazy crowd and heated competition, things were getting a bit out of hand on the final day of tennis matches at the Jakabaring Sport City complex.
A Thai player whose duo had just lost in the semifinal of the mixed doubles had thrown her racket in frustration. The passionate Indonesian crowd didn't like it and began throwing water bottles at her. If you weren't Indonesian, it wasn't exactly a safe place to play.
"The joke was that it was 8,000 versus eight," Villanueva said of the ratio between the fans and the Filipino team. "It's scary there. There are no fans for you, nothing really protecting you from the crowd. Even for the players, the fans can just grab you from the back."
The Filipino team was thus far empty-handed in the gold medal department. Dy sat out her singles matches as a precaution for her knee, but competed in a team event -- the Philippines won bronze -- and in women's doubles, where Dy and her partner were ousted in the quarterfinals.
But Dy and Huey made it to the mixed doubles final. It was Monday, Nov. 21, and the final tennis match of the 2011 SEA Games. It was also the final time the Philippines had a chance to win a tennis gold medal.
Battling slow courts, heavy balls, and humid heat, it didn't look good from the start for Dy and Huey, the No. 57 Association of Tennis Professionals ranked doubles player. The Indonesian professional duo of Sonchat Ratiwatana -- who had won three golds already -- and Varatchaya Wongteanchai took a commanding 6-2 first-set lead.
Even with the thousands of Indonesian fans cheering for every Indonesian point and every Filipino mistake, Dy wasn't about to back down.
"Denise probably thrived on that," Hultquist said of the crowd. "I bet she loved that."
It showed in the second set, when Dy and Huey roared back with a 6-4 win. That set up a tiebreaker for all the marbles, and in dramatic fashion, the Filipino pair silenced the crowd with a 10-7 tiebreak to win gold for the Philippines.
"It's basically just winning on the road," Dy said. "Especially when 8,000 are cheering against you and you just shut them quiet, it's probably the best feeling ever for any athlete."
For Villanueva, who has been through four SEA Games and hundreds of matches, this one was special.
"Among all the other SEA Games, I would say that this was the sweetest tennis gold that I have personally witnessed for tennis because it was a packed stadium, we were against hostile crowd, and it was the last gold for the last tennis match," he said.
When it was all said and done, Dy became one of just 36 Filipino athletes to bring home gold. That's pretty impressive for a 22-year-old senior who is balancing school, UW tennis, and, oh yeah -- winning gold medals.