The top doc: Illinois' director of public health features for USTA League national champs
For the past 19 months, Dr. Ngozi Ezike has been guiding Illinois residents through the COVID-19 pandemic as the state’s director of public health, a near-constant presence by Gov. J. B. Pritzker’s side during his daily media briefings. Now, the Harvard University graduate, board-certified internist and pediatrician can add another title to her resume: USTA League national champion.
The first Black woman to hold the position of Illinois Director of Public Health, a position that Pritzker appointed her to in January of 2019, Ezike has spent her days over the last 19 months trying to keep the people of her state healthy as the COVID-19 pandemic surged in the U.S. In what little free time she’s had, she’s been playing tennis—making her one of the thousands who've been logging on-court hours in the past year-plus due to the sport’s inherently socially-distant nature.
“In the beginning, we were just trying to figure out what we were dealing with. I kept using the phrase that we were building a plane as we were trying to fly it and trying to come up with recommendations to keep people safe: telling people to stay home, making testing available, wearing masks and being socially-distant, and now, we have these vaccines that can really make a difference,” she says.
“I have just tried to do what I've always done as a professional, as a physician,as a mom, as a human: just tell the truth and share what I know, and be open about what I don't know. I think, just by being that transparent, hopefully, people can see that. I'm in this with everyone. We're working together, trying to get this right, trying to save as many lives as possible.
“What's grounded me has been just being anchored in a faith which gives me direction in terms of how to proceed forward and how to try to weather through adversities. Obviously, we’ve gone through multiple evolutions of this journey… in the midst of this global pandemic that has thrown us curveball after curveball for the last 19 months. Tennis has served so many purposes. It's given people an outlet to be able to stay healthy to try to battle all the COVID poundage. It’s been a mental release for me, something to look forward to after grueling days, working seven days a week: carving out two hours for that USTA match where you can just put the phone down, put the computer aside and just hit that ball, smash the heck out of it.”
With a laugh, she adds: “People at matches would be like, ‘Hey, you look familiar.’ After being on everybody's TV for months, ‘Don't you look familiar?’ And I'm like, ‘No, no, it’s tennis time. I don't think we've ever played each other before this match!’ It’s just been the perfect antidote to this really tough period, both for our physical health and our mental health.”
A volleyball player during her undergraduate years at Harvard who also played basketball and softball growing up outside of Los Angeles, Ezike says she first found tennis as a player in 2009 after the birth of her fourth child, returning to a sport that was nonetheless present in her youth.
“I was trying to find a new activity, something to help get off some of the baby weight, and what was really big in my area was tennis,” she said. “I'm in the Chicagoland area [the Chicago metropolitan area]. It's hard to get a bunch of people together to play basketball. I did have some volleyball leagues that I had was pretty active with, but everyone was playing tennis, so I joined the local—literally, down the street—tennis club on Monday nights. That’s how it started.
“There were all these amazing tennis players, and I was just trying to figure out how to hold the racquet. They were talking about all these different grips I didn't even understand, but I just looked and said, ‘Wow, these people, they look like who I grew up watching.’ My dad was a huge tennis fan and did play tennis, so I grew up watching every single Grand Slam tournament since I was a small child… and at the club, I saw these great women who looked like the players on TV and I was like, ‘I’ve got to learn this.’”
Ezike did more than learn: she thrived in USTA-sanctioned competition in the Midwest section at 3.0 and 3.5 levels before she and her team were victorious at the USTA League 40 and over 4.0 National Championship tournament in Oklahoma City last weekend. In doubles at the sectional and national championships, she posted a 9-1 combined record and went unbeaten in her matches in the last two rounds.
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“It was a dream of mine—ask my husband, everybody knows—just to get to sectionals. I just wanted to get to Indy [Indianapolis, where USTA Midwest holds its sectional qualifier for nationals], and I’d never gotten the chance. There were so many teams competing in 18-and-over, and then I turned 40 and moved into the 40-and-over but never got that far,” she said. “Last year, everything was canceled and there was no Indy. This year, we barely eked it out to get our first berth, and I was so excited. I was like, ‘This is the pinnacle. This is what we’ve been talking about!’ And then we won. We beat out [teams from] Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, and, unbelievably, we were going to nationals.
“There were no expectations. I didn’t even know how you win it,” she added. “I knew there were 17 sections, and I was thinking that the teams who play outdoors would have an advantage over us. We play all of our tennis indoors, and I thought that we're going to have such a disadvantage because we're not used to the wind and the sunlight. There are no conditions to battle in the indoor tennis club, where we're just like, ‘Is the air conditioning up high or not?’ We won the first matches on day one and we were actually at the top of the pack, but we lost miserably in our first match of day two. I just thought, ‘Oh, well, at least we got here.’ We snuck into fourth-place position at the end of day two to reach the semifinals… and to achieve an upset like that, to win, it was just unbelievable.”
Outside of USTA League competition, Ezike says she's grateful that her professional and personal paths have converged through tennis: some of her earliest USTA League teammates were colleagues from her then-hospital, and her husband and children have all played the game at various levels. She says that those who’ve picked up tennis in the last year should stick with it, and that it can and should have a place in American society long after the pandemic’s effects subside.
“I think sports are just like this big metaphor for life. It’s funny that there are just so many parallels between what you have to endure in your tennis matches versus whatever it is that you're doing in your work life. The exact same lessons completely apply,” she said.
“Tennis allows us to do so many things. If you just want exercise, you can just play. If you want to do the competition that's available, there are so many options for you… it absolutely is for everyone of any ability. You don't have to have grown up with the tennis racquet. All of my kids have taken tennis lessons. Some of them have competed, but it's something that we’re going to be doing into our late senior years for fun or for competition. It's available for everyone at every level, differently-abled, whatever it is, at every stage of life. I'm just excited that I have become acquainted with the sport and it's going to be a lifelong relationship. I recommend it for everyone. I have not had anyone that I have recruited to the sport who hasn't who hasn't fallen in love with it.
“I think people who play tennis learn the important lesson that it's not over until it's over. I have definitely had those matches. I definitely remember a match where I was up 9-2 in the third-set match tiebreak, and we lost that match. I've also been spanked 6-0 in the first set and gone on to win the match. Just remembering that you have to go all the way, you have to fight all the way to that last point, that it's never over and that you can always come back, it's just such a great lesson for life.”
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