"If he were a doctor, he'd be a brain surgeon. If he were in the military, he'd be a general," a former colleague says of men's tennis coach Chris Garner.
By Justin Long
Head coach Chris Garner turned the Amherst’s men’s tennis team from a middle-of-the-pack program to a national runner-up in only two years. But that’s not the only reason he’s the perfect fit for Amherst.
Garner arrived at Amherst in the summer of 2007 with little time to prepare for the fall. His team hovered slightly above .500 for most of that season and finished at 10-9. For the first time since 2004, the Jeffs failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Despite the mediocre record, the program took a drastic turn that year, when 18th-ranked Amherst upset fourth-ranked Williams in the NESCAC Championship opening round. The win marked the first time since 1994 that the Jeffs had defeated their archrivals.
“I had been stressing to my players how to support and believe in each other,” Garner says. “I believed in them from the beginning and was trying to teach them how to be a more cohesive team. But I was new, and they weren’t recruited by me, so it took them a while to understand where I was coming from. The Williams match made it clear.”
With a revitalized group of returning players and Garner’s first recruiting class joining the program, the 2008-09 Amherst team had a new swagger. The Jeffs got off to a 6-3 start before going 17-1 in their next 18 matches, a dominating stretch that included a pair of wins over Williams.
In May 2009, Amherst upset Middlebury for the first time since 2001 to advance to the national semifinals. The next day came one of the biggest upsets in school history, when the Jeffs defeated top-ranked defending national champion Washington University in St. Louis.
Amherst’s miraculous run ended with a loss to seven-time national champion UC Santa Cruz in the title match. The Jeffs finished at 28-7 and second in the final rankings. It was by far the best season in program history.
Amherst’s turnaround is fitting, considering Garner’s background. Ranked No. 1 in the United States in two age groups as a teenager, Garner competed with the U.S. Junior Davis Cup Team from 1985 to 1987. After earning All-America honors in his only year at the University of Georgia, he joined the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour in 1988 and played professionally until 1994, competing against the likes of Pete Sampras.
Garner was ranked 120th in the world at the peak of his career, a feat that was accomplished with victories over players such as Patrick Rafter and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, each of whom went on to be ranked No. 1 in the world. In 1993, Garner became only the second American to advance to the Australian Open Round of 16.
After an illustrious playing career that included a win over Andre Agassi as a junior, Garner gave private lessons to professionals and top-ranked juniors for nearly a decade. It wasn’t until 2004, when he was running a club in the Cayman Islands, that he decided he needed a change. “The club setting wasn’t for me. I wanted to be able to speak my mind more freely, and I knew coaching would allow me to do that.”
In 2005, Garner joined the Ohio State University coaching staff as an assistant, helping to lead the Buckeyes to a No. 3 national ranking—the highest in program history. While coaching there, Garner also earned a sociology degree.
So what is Chris Garner doing at Amherst? For Garner, the answer is obvious. “I wanted to go where my family would be happy.”
The Long Island, N.Y., native knew of Amherst’s reputation as a respected, prestigious college, but even more attractive were the community and outlying area, where he and his wife, Monika, could raise their sons, Finn and Luke. (Now, the Garners also have a baby daughter, Gigi.)
In addition to leading the team to a national title match, Garner has reshaped the identity of men’s tennis at Amherst. The 2006-07 roster featured 13 players, a number that increased to 18 in Garner’s first year and to 22 last year, the largest roster in the NESCAC. Garner also revamped Amherst’s schedule, playing 28 regular season matches last year;
no other NESCAC team played more than 20.
Although the large roster and intense schedule require a significant amount of work, Garner would have it no other way. “When I coached in Division I, there were a lot of great guys who never got a chance to play, and I always felt it would be nice to let those guys have a chance. I hoped that, if I ever became a head coach, I could offer that to my players. Everyone on the team should experience what it’s like to represent their school.” By March 21, 2009, all 22 Amherst players had competed in at least one dual match.
Garner knows the lessons competition can teach. “I’m a big believer in competition, because it allows you to gain confidence and improve as a person,” he says. “Those players are out there alone, and if I can help them compete and enjoy that arena, it will bode well for them after college. Throughout their lives, they will need to channel their emotions and learn not to shy away—it’s a big asset to have as a human being.”
But Garner also knows what is most important. “I always tell the guys that Wimbledon is the most prestigious tournament that every kid dreams of playing in,” he says. “For these kids, their academic opportunity is their Wimbledon. They need to absorb everything here. I schedule everything around their academics. As far as tennis goes, I simply want them to look back on their experience and say, ‘That was a blast.’”
Zack Lerner ’09, last year’s captain, says that Garner has the same expectations for his team in the classroom as on the tennis court. “Chris is a life coach for all of his players,” Lerner says. “He doesn’t believe in shortcuts. His attitude has made me a better tennis player, student and leader, and he helped me take advantage of my time at Amherst.”
Ohio State tennis head coach Ty Tucker has known Garner for more than 25 years. “Whatever Chris does, he’s going to do it at the highest level,” Tucker says. “If he were a doctor, he’d be a brain surgeon. If he were in the military, he’d be a general. We miss him, we still follow him, and Amherst should do whatever it takes to keep him.”
With upwards of 30 players trying out this fall, Garner laughs when thinking about the logistics of managing such a team. But Amherst need not worry—the right man is on the job.
Photo by Samuel Masinter '04