KALAMAZOO - One is the quiet warrior. One is the fiery competitor. One is the skilled tactician.
Three Western Michigan women’s tennis players have reset the Broncos’ all-time career wins record one after the other over the last three seasons.
Noriko Saruta, the quiet warrior, holds the current record with 212 wins during her four-year career. She passed teammate, and fiery competitor, Carrie Jeanmaire’s mark of 204 wins. Jeanmaire’s accomplishment eclipsed that of WMU’s skilled tactician, Rattiya Hiranrat, the first 200-win player in school history.
They are three players with different styles who all thrived individually and collectively in the Western Michigan women’s tennis program. None was the typical top-rated high school recruit or junior star who record-breaking success would be expected from, but instead they were hard-working, driven women who demanded success and achieved it in the Brown & Gold.
Hiranrat, a native of Samutprakarn, Thailand, started this stretch of record breakers by becoming the first Bronco women’s tennis player to reach 200 wins. The 200th win came at No. 4 singles in the 2006 Mid-American Conference Tournament finals to clinch the Broncos’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000. She was named MAC Tournament MVP for her efforts.
“I was very excited to break the record because it was my senior year and it was a great year for me and for the team because we won the MAC regular season and the MAC Tournament,” Hiranrat said.
While the end was a highlight, it wasn’t easy in the beginning for Hiranrat, despite being one of the more skilled players to enter the program.
“I’d say she had the most talent of these three players (Saruta and Jeanmaire),” head coach Betsy Kuhle said. “She was quick and had weapons with a huge forehand and good volleys.”
“She was a great competitor and would never give up,” Saruta said of her former doubles partner. “She was very smart and could figure out how best to attack and win the match.”
It’s not every day that a skilled Thai player finds her way to Kalamazoo, Mich., and Hiranrat’s story is far from typical. A woman that Kuhle knew from Detroit visited Thailand every year and met Hiranrat. As it turned out, Kuhle’s brother played college tennis with Hiranrat’s tennis pro and Kuhle coached the tennis pro’s sister in California. After patching together all of the connections, Kuhle offered Hiranrat a scholarship to play tennis in the United States.
“It was a very large step for a Thai woman to come to this country,” Kuhle said. “For males, it wasn’t such a big deal, but it was a different story for a female. On top of that, she had a tremendous language barrier. I think that is one of the most difficult parts for Asian players, more so than Europeans or South Americans.”
Despite that barrier, Hiranrat finished her career as a two-time Academic All-MAC honoree and three-time Intercollegiate Tennis Association Scholar-Athlete, in addition to being a First Team All-MAC player in 2005. She has since returned to Thailand where she works as a public relations and marketing officer for CoffeeWORKS Limited and occasionally plays recreational tennis.
Hiranrat’s reign at the top of the wins chart lasted just one year as Jeanmaire tallied four more wins to set a new mark after moving up to No. 1 singles as a senior. Jeanmaire was named MAC Tournament MVP and First Team All-MAC in leading the Broncos to the 2007 MAC regular season and MAC Tournament title.
Jeanmaire, a native of Belvidere, Ill., was another unique player who willed herself to greatness. Many American players come up through the ranks playing at tennis clubs and receiving lessons from tennis pros starting at an early age, but Jeanmaire was a throwback to another era when players would learn by feel.
“She was unique because she never had a lesson,” Kuhle said. “She played in the public parks, which is near and dear to my heart because it shows a blue-collar, hard-working mentality.
“The first time I saw Carrie play was against (future teammate and doubles partner) Malena (Remynse) at the Junior Wightman Cup. They just had a war. I watched her and thought this is the kind of player I want. I wanted someone who competes hard and that’s Carrie. She doesn’t look like she’s very good and opponents would get mad because she would beat them. They didn’t understand how competitive she was and how she made it work for herself. She was just the best competitor we’ve ever seen. She wanted to win at everything from table tennis to Scrabble.
“Was she going to get to that next level in tennis? Probably not, but she made the most out of what she had.”
“She likes to compete,” Saruta said. “Everybody works hard, but she is just a very great fighter and competitor.”
“Carrie always took the court with an aggressive game plan,” Hiranrat said. “When she stepped on the court, she never gave up and that made her such a tough person to play against.”
Jeanmaire was named Second Team All-MAC as a freshman and then earned First Team All-MAC honors as a junior and senior, while also being a three-time ITA Scholar-Athlete and two-time Academic All-MAC.
“She made a jump in her game every year because she took it on herself to be better at something,” Kuhle said. “After her freshman year (where she lost the deciding match in the MAC Tournament), I told everyone to take a week off and she didn’t take a day off. She was continually trying to find ways to get better and she just loved tennis.”
“I think the coaching and being around such a great team helped make me a better player,” Jeanmaire said. “Everyone was always pushing each other to be better.”
Jeanmaire earned a degree in nursing and moved to San Francisco, Calif., after graduation to ply her craft, but she is currently looking to get back involved in tennis, possibly coaching.
Records are made to be broken and Jeanmaire was on hand April 5, 2007, at Sorensen Courts as Saruta won her 205th match to eclipse Jeanmaire’s year-old record on her way to 212 wins. Saruta’s ascension to the top spot in the record books may be the most unlikely of all. A late find by the Broncos’ coaching staff, the five-foot native of Yamaguchi-ken, Japan, doesn’t instill fear in her opponents with her stature or game. It’s her shear determination that lies beneath the surface though, that should have the opposition worried.
“There’s no question that hard work was the key for her,” Kuhle said. “Nobody has made the most out of what they have more than she has. She doesn’t physically have the attributes that a lot of players have and it’s tough for her out there. She just had determination that was greater than most people. She never wasted a moment, I know that.”
“I think a lot of people think I don’t hit the ball hard or have a big serve, and I hate to lose to those people because that’s not what tennis is about,” Saruta said. “Every time before I play, my mind-set is to play a long match because that’s how I play well. It was hard for me to realize that was my kind of tennis because it is very hard and tiring, but (assistant coach) Ryan (Tomlinson) told me that was my tennis and that is what I’m good at.”
“Riko is a very steady player,” Hiranrat said. “She doesn’t make many mistakes and she is also very fast. She may look calm and not aggressive, but she is very competitive underneath.”
“She’s a great competitor,” Jeanmaire said. “She is always rough on herself, but she is a fighter and fights through it even though she’s calm and cool on the court.”
Saruta has played some of the longest matches in recent memory at WMU and has often been able to come back from early deficits with her outstanding stamina and physical and mental conditioning. She picked up wins against No. 57 Minnesota and Michigan State in just that fashion during her senior campaign. It was also in those team situations, when winning or losing meant more than just a mark on her individual record, but was necessary for the Broncos to win, that she stepped up.
“She was a great team player,” Kuhle said. “She did a lot of her losing in the fall, but in the spring she was just stellar. She was unbelievable.”
In fact, Saruta didn’t lose a singles match in conference play until her senior year and finished her career with only one singles loss against a MAC opponent in team competition. Saruta climbed to her highest spot in the lineup, No. 3 singles, as a senior and earned Second Team All-MAC honors, as well as her first Academic All-MAC nod. Saruta also received one of the highest honors an athlete at WMU can receive when she was chosen as the 2007-08 Female Senior Scholar-Athlete for her outstanding accomplishments on the court and in the classroom. Only one male and female senior student-athlete a year wins that award. Her classroom accomplishments are every bit as impressive as her tennis credentials.
“When I first came here I didn’t understand what teachers were saying. Sometimes I didn’t know I had homework,” Saruta said. “I think I worked hard. I studied a lot at home and spent a lot more time on schoolwork than other people because I would take twice the time to read.”
While she is proud of her academic and athletic accomplishments individually, it’s her all-around success that makes her most proud.
“I’m more proud that I did well in both. I think doing well in one and not doing well in the other is still good, but for me it’s more important to do well in both because that’s really hard to do.”
Saruta will be able to extend that belief to the next group of Broncos as she will remain with the program during the 2008-09 season as a volunteer assistant to help fulfill graduation requirements in the WMU Health, Physical Education and Recreation department.
While Saruta, Jeanmaire and Hiranrat all had their own distinctive styles and abilities that helped them succeed, none felt it would be possible outside of the team framework. Among the top 25 wins leaders at WMU are contemporaries of these three that include Frederika Girsang (4th-195), Priyanka Parekh (6th-187), Malena Remynse (11th-175), Kerstin Pahl (19th-166) and Reedhina Parekh (22nd-159).
“We had great coaches and a great program at WMU,” Hiranrat said. “All of us had different strengths and weaknesses that we used to help each other get better every day. That made us successful players and a successful team.”
“Practices were great when all of those players were around. All of them competed so hard,” Kuhle said. “We just had a group of people who competed like crazy, but were still friends off the court. That was the key to getting better, no question about it.”
Overall, Kuhle feels that it is players like Saruta, Jeanmaire and Hiranrat that epitomize what it has taken to establish Western Michigan as the standard-bearer of women’s tennis in the Mid-American Conference.
“All three weren’t what I would call stars. They didn’t start out as all-conference players or player of the year candidates. They were just players who wanted to get better and loved the team atmosphere. They embraced the team atmosphere and that’s a big thing. I’ve always felt our best teams don’t have that superstar because everyone has more ownership when it’s a collective effort and no one who has come through this program has ever felt more ownership and embraced what it means to be a Bronco more than these three players.”