(Third in a series of articles about unsung college athletes in the Washington area.)
The backhand came across the net hard and deep, but Shorty ran it down. Would her return go cross-court? Down the line? Her opponent guessed the latter -- so Shorty produced the former. Zip went her forehand, past her opponent and over the net, and that was game, set and match -- another victory for a most unlikely looking tennis player named Kathleen Collins.
Most college tennis stars seem to have willowy bodies, golden hair and flowing strokes. Kathleen Collins is about five feet tall (thus her nickname). Her hair couldn't be a darker brown, and her strokes couldn't be choppier or punchier. To meet her for the first time, you might guess her for a swimmer or a gymnast, but not a sprinting, stretching Chris Evert Lloyd in-the-making.
But nothing succeeds in tennis like success, and Kathleen has proven that you can make the most of what you have.
She is the second-ranked player on the George Washington University women's varsity, and she has won nearly 75 percent of her matches in her two-and-a-half seasons. In terms of getting maximum mileage out of limited physical attributes, she is a phenomenon.
"Because of my size," says Collins, "I don't have that much power. I can't whack the ball very hard, and I don't serve that well. So my game is to try to wear them out."
Says her coach, Sheila Hoben: "Kathleen's mental game is why she's so tough. You never know when she's winning or losing. She concentrates so well."
Kathleen learned her concentration -- and her limitations -- while growing up in Norwalk, Conn. Her parents played tennis all the time, and her older brothers played, so it was just a matter of time before she took lessons.
"It was just a question of practice," said Kathleen. "When you're as little as I was, practice is how you make up for what you can't do very well. So that's why I've gotten this far in tennis. That and the fact that I just really enjoy it."
Kathleen was ranked among the top five players in New England during her last two years of high school. In each of those years, she won the state high school championship. She came to George Washington because Hoben offered her a full scholarship -- and because two of her brothers were close by, at Georgetown University.
Yet Collins is anything but a household word on the Foggy Bottom campus. Not only does the team practice at Hains Point, five miles away, but it plays its "home" matches there, too. As a result, if a dozen fans show up to watch Collins chip and claw her way to another victory, that's considered a throng.
"We would get more spectators if we had our own courts," Collins said. "But playing before a lot of fans? I've never really thought about it. I haven't had to."
She certainly didn't have to on a late March afternoon at George Mason University in Fairfax. A total of six fans were on hand as Kathleen took the court against Ellen Zintz.
But it didn't bother Collins. In the 75 minutes it took her to rack up a 6-1, 6-1 victory, she didn't grin once, groan once or grimace once. Nor did she complain about whether shots were in or out.
It was just a routine day at the office -- carefully placed forehands, angled volleys, looping drop shots just out of reach. Collins never lost three points in a row. She barely broke a sweat. For dessert, she and her partner, Laurie La Fair, came out 15 minutes later and won a doubles match, 6-1, 6-0.
"I just wanted to force mistakes today," said Collins, as she pulled on her sweatsuit. "The idea for me is to make your opponent make the mistakes. I guess it worked today."
After graduation, Collins and La Fair plan to open a tennis club, perhaps in the Washington area. "That way, I can use my major (business) as well as my tennis," Collins said.
Who's her idol? "Chris Evert, for sure," said Collins. "I love her attitude. She doesn't show any emotion. But she wins."
Which might just as easily describe someone named Collins.