Enjoy Every Moment out on Court
Women’s History Month is an opportunity to commemorate and celebrate women who are blazing trails, impacting their communities, and inspiring future generations to pursue their dreams. This month, USTA Mid-Atlantic honors women in the section who are making their mark in their own unique way both on and off the court.
Dynamic, inclusive, and rewarding. Those are the three words that Maria Malerba uses to describe tennis in the Mid-Atlantic. These three words also encapsulate Maria’s tennis journey.
As the Head Coach of Women’s Tennis at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., Maria Malerba has the longest tenure of any coach at JMU. To this day, she is one out of 40 Division I women’s tennis head coaches that have successfully won over 400 matches.
“I started playing tennis when I came to America [from England] at age 14, which is a pretty late start. While I was overseas I participated in other sports,” said Malerba. Even though tennis was not the first sport Maria picked up, the attraction and appeal of tennis stemmed from the sport's individual nature. It was you against your opponent, and you were responsible for your performance, she shared.
“Tennis is a lifetime sport that requires devotion, critical thinking, and putting yourself on the line. Add a team setting to tennis and the rewards become even greater,” said Malerba.
This is what drove her commitment to tennis for many years to come, including playing in high school, college, and then becoming one of the most winningest coaches at JMU as Head Coach of Women’s Tennis for 38 years.
We had the opportunity to catch up with Maria to get her perspective on the importance of tennis and Women’s History Month.
USTA Mid-Atlantic: Tell us about yourself, where did you grow up and where do you live now?
Maria Malerba: I was born in England and came to the US (Hampton, Va.) at age 14 after spending time in England, France, and the Azores. I graduated from William and Mary (1976) and came to JMU to work on my Master's Degree. I accepted a teaching assistantship in the Department of Kinesiology and was named Head Women's Tennis coach at the same time. After completing my Master’s (1978) I was named full-time Head Coach, a position I held until my retirement in 2014. I currently reside in Harrisonburg Va. and enjoy seeing tennis alumni when they come back to campus.
What drew you to tennis?
It was the first sport I played that was an individual sport. I found that very appealing!
What teams, leagues, and/or tournaments do you play in?
I played on the boys' team at Bethel High School. It was 1976 and there weren't any girls' teams at the time. I played a lot of local tournaments but did not travel a lot to compete. For college, I went to Christopher Newport College of the College of William and Mary (yes, it was called this back in the day) and played on the men’s team (Division III at the time) then I transferred to the College of William and Mary and played on the women's team.
How has tennis become an important aspect of your life?
Although it was not the first sport I played, it is the sport that I played the most. I did not plan to go into coaching but when the opportunity presented itself at JMU I took advantage of it. It was a learn-as-you-go adventure and I enjoyed every moment of it up until the day I retired.
Was there a player/role model you specifically looked up to who helped guide you to where you are today?
I believe my coach at William and Mary, Millie West, had the most influence on me. I was in regular touch with her during my entire career and she was able to help me immensely as a young coach. Millie was a formidable woman at W&M, the Mid-Atlantic area, and the world of Tennis.
Why is it important for women to play tennis?
I believe it is important for everyone, especially women, to play tennis because it is a lifetime sport that requires devotion, critical thinking, and putting yourself on the line. Add a team setting to tennis and the rewards become even greater.
Why is Women’s History Month important to you?
Because it showcases the growth and progress of women in all aspects of society. From sports to medicine to technology etc., women can achieve as much as their male counterparts.
How would you like to see Women in sports grow?
Although progress has been made, there is no reason for females nationwide not to make as much money, have equal facilities, or have as many opportunities to compete as males regardless of the sport.
What does it mean to be a leader in the community?
For me, it was actually something that I didn't realize until someone said something to me. At that time you think, oh, ok someone is paying attention to what I say and do. It is very much a surprise to me that they noticed my work both on and off the court and had positive comments about it.
What was the best piece of advice you received when you were growing up and/or advancing in your career in tennis?
My parents told me that even though there might not have been a girls’ team for me to play on in high school and part of college (Title IX came in 1972) that I should try out for the men's team. It led to my career in tennis and for that, I am most grateful.
What advice would you like to give to the next generation of women leaders?
I would advise them to have trust in themselves but to not be afraid of learning and exposing themselves to new things. Life is a journey and growth happens when you are open to multiple and diverse experiences.
USTA Mid-Atlantic is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to promoting tennis and its physical, social, and emotional health benefits. Learn about our impact in the Section and how USTA Mid-Atlantic creates community, character, and well-being.