Most would not expect a 54-year-old woman to lead a college tennis team as anything other than a coach.
However, Fresno State instructor Candace Egan is the No. 1 player for the Fresno City College women’s tennis team.
Egan knew that her schedule at Fresno State meant she couldn’t afford the time to go play, let alone take classes. After all, to be in the sports program, she needed to be a full-time student.
Her schedule remained unchanged, until she discovered last semester that she would be given a free day on Fridays.
When Fresno City College (FCC) opened for students coming in for spring semester, Egan had joined them.
“Once I realized, ‘Wow, I can do this,’” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh, I always wanted to do this. I want to do it! It might kill me, scheduling-wise, but I want to try!’”
Her tennis career began at Hamilton Junior High when she would play with a friend at Roeding Park. The balls would whiz and zoom over the fence, but they liked it.
In high school, she made the junior varsity team along with her friends and hoped, after graduating, to play for Fresno State.
She said during her years at the university, she was offered an opportunity to practice and work out with the team as a redshirt to possibly earn a spot on the team.
“It was either I played for the team or I don’t at all. I totally blew it back then,” she said.
Education was the most important thing for Egan, and with a relationship blossoming with her future husband, tennis fell out of the daily routine.
“So I started down that path, or at least had hopes for that path, and, as things happen in life, while in the midst of doing that, … I met my (future) husband,” Egan said. They were married, and she concentrated on getting her degree. “Tennis just fell off to the wayside,” she said.
After she graduated, Egan joined Channel 26 as a videographer. With her busy schedule, she kept putting tennis aside for her job. Two years into her career, tennis simply vanished from her life, and it stayed that way for 17 years.
“Well, of course, I blew that opportunity, right? I didn’t even really appreciate what I was doing until later when I got back to tennis,” she said. “I get to make up for it now playing for FCC, ironically, as the No. 1 for the team – waiting 30 years and coming in at a higher level than I would have right out of high school.”
She began playing again in 2003, after she met another Fresno State instructor who also used to play tennis. They played a few rounds on the courts at Roeding Park, where she had spent years playing with her friend before.
Egan was bitten by the tennis bug once again and decided to return to the sport in full force.
“In about six months, I was able to get my game to about where it was right after high school. Since then, it has just been progressing,” she said.
“Then I met some gals who were my age who had played for [Fresno] City College,” Egan said. “[They] actually went back and realized that if you never played, you still had eligibility. It doesn’t matter how old you are. I thought, ‘Wow! How cool is that? Wouldn’t that be neat to do someday?’”
She is taking a photography class and one for recreational work experience at FCC to remain eligible for the tennis team.
Egan joined the team, but told the coach she could only participate in home games, which fall on Fridays.
She says that it is living up to her expectations. She enjoys the traveling, the uniforms and being part of a competitive tennis team.
“I think it’s kind of cool to get to do that, because it’s different than playing as an individual adult,” Egan said. “And I’ve played on adult teams, but it’s not quite the same thing. You got your coach there in the middle of your match. You have trainers. You have all those things that come with being on a college team. It really feels fun, and I’m improving.”
Playing with the Rams gives the sport a more competitive edge; Egan said she is playing better than she ever had as a youth.
She plays nearly every day. When she can, she will play for two hours every day of the week.
Being No. 1 means she has to face off against the best on opposing teams.
“So I’m getting challenging-level tennis, and that actually means even more conditioning, and what I have to do physically is more to it, more challenging,” she said. “Everyone I’ve played has been a challenging match.”
Egan admits that during the preseason, she was humbled in matches with some players. One, a woman of Brazilian descent from Santa Barbara, defeated Egan handily.
“It was quite an experience,” she said.
Egan was put into the back draw and beat the rest of her competition.
With every match, Egan feels her technique getting better tuned and much sharper. Will she be able to beat that Brazilian girl some day? Who really knows?
One thing that is known, however, is that Egan has become unstoppable in the regular season. For two games, she has defeated No. 1 players in singles from two colleges. Both of her opponents were younger by around 30 years.
“I feel like it’s pushing me, and I have to really execute well, and I’m learning from it,” she said. “It’s pushing me to a higher level. That’s the benefit of challenge.”
During the regular season, Egan is undefeated in singles and is playing with a variety of doubles partners to find the right groove.
“I’m trying to put pressure on my opponent and not think about the pressure on me, but that everything I’m doing pressures them,” she said.
In fast games, Egan keeps things in play that make her opponents move to all corners of the court.
She puts them in positions where one mistake would cost them the play, which, in turn, frustrates them, leading to more mistakes and an inevitable victory for Egan.
“I’m staying really aggressive and not letting up on them. And if I make a mistake, then I just have to come back and keep pressuring them, and it’s paying off because then they’re double faulting, and they’re not getting their first serves in,” Egan said. “They can’t let up.”
Egan said that many of the players she goes against are much younger than her, usually around the ages of 18-21.
Many of them, she believes, underestimate her, which Egan uses to her advantage by showing off the skills learned over many years of playing tennis to win.
“But now it’s all going around, because coaches scout, and I’m undefeated,” she said.
In a match last Friday, Egan used her experience to constantly change attacks against a girl who was leading 4-1, causing her opponent to get frustrated and lose.
“Probably a lot of the other girls she plays [that are] her own age, you do that change-up stuff and they don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “They don’t have an alternative approach. Well, I have a whole bunch of approaches because I’ve been playing men, old ladies, hackers, power players. I mean, I’ve been playing a bunch of styles for a lot of years.”
Egan is crossing a lifetime goal off of her bucket list by playing with the Rams.
“Never say never,” she said. “You may always get an opportunity.”