Drake aims to build winning culture
By Casey Dennis, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, April 20, 2012
During the first season and half as Dartmouth men’s varsity tennis head coach, Chris Drake has produced results on the court that speak for themselves. In his first season, Drake led the team to a 4-3 record in the Ivy League, its best conference mark in 13 years. This season, the Big Green has complied a 16-3 overall record, including 2-2 in league play.
Drake, however, is not solely concerned with short-term success. He is committed to connecting with his players off the court and establish a strong team atmosphere and winning tradition for the Big Green.
“I think one of his biggest strengths as a coach is how well he knows each of us, both on and off the court,” co-captain Chris Ho ’12 said. “Beyond the tactics and what to work on in practice, he truly understands how to motivate each player. I feel that in this way, he is building a culture of success at Dartmouth.”
Drake has experience unlike many others in his field at the College — he played the sport professionally. The 2003 Brown University graduate was a successful Association of Tennis Professionals doubles tour player, where he achieved a world doubles ranking of 92, making him the 10th-ranked American at the time. In his three years as a professional, Drake defeated 12 players who have been ranked in the top 50 of the ATP world doubles rankings. Even after winning six ATP Challenger doubles titles, Drake realized something was missing.
“I realized I missed college tennis,” Drake said. “Playing professionally was fun, but it doesn’t have the same sense of team environment. I like the aspect of working together for a common goal and sought the opportunity to be a coach.”
Drake had every excuse to have missed college. The two-time captain and unanimous selection to the 2002 and 2003 All-Ivy teams led Brown to its first Ivy League title in the program’s history. He also led the Bears to the NCAA tournament his junior and senior seasons. A two-time Academic All-Ivy performer, Drake found success not only on the court but also in the classroom.
Co-captain Xander Centenari ’13 said Drake’s experience at Brown has helped him be a better coach at Dartmouth.
“It really helps a lot,” Centenari said. “Coach understands how rigorous Ivy League academics are, so he is very flexible and considerate.”
Drake’s first experience as a coach came in May and June of 2008 at the French Open and Wimbledon Championships, when he coached the ATP doubles team consisting of American Eric Butorac and Australian Ashley Fisher. He then served as an assistant coach for Northwestern University’s men’s tennis team.
In 2009, Drake was named the 2009 Intercollegiate Tennis Association Midwest Regional Assistant Coach of the Year for his efforts in building up the Northwestern tennis program. In 2008, Tennisrecruiting.com ranked the Wildcats’ recruiting class 12th in the country, and a year later, Northwestern’s class received eighth. After his two-year stint as an assistant coach at Northwestern, Drake realized he wanted to be a head coach.
“My goal was to be a head coach, but I didn’t know how long it would take,” Drake said. “I learned a great deal at Northwestern and became interested in running my own team and being in a position where I make big decisions.”
Having played in the Ivy League in college, Drake was attracted to the idea of coaching in the conference. When the job opened up at Dartmouth, Drake was highly interested.
“When I visited here, I got the sense that Dartmouth was a place where people really liked to be,” he said. “The College is also very committed to supporting its athletic environment.”
Drake was not in an easy position coming in, as he was replacing Chuck Kinyon, who left a 30-year legacy and is known as one of the most cherished and influential tennis coaches in the nation. He was the first person to coach Ivy Championship tennis teams at Dartmouth, and under his leadership, the Big Green gained prominence in the Ivy League and throughout the country.
Nevertheless, after Dartmouth’s Acting Director of Athletics and Recreation Bob Ceplikas offered Drake the position, Drake instituted his agenda right away.
“My biggest goal at the start was to establish my strategies,” he said. “I wanted the team to work hard, improve, compete well in matches and commit themselves to the team.”
Ho said he did not know what to expect before Drake’s arrival.
“I didn’t really know what to think,” Ho said. “I felt like we had a great group of players going into my junior year, and I didn’t know much about coach Drake other than the fact that he looked young. One of the seniors actually mistook him for a freshman the first day.”
In its first season under Drake, the Big Green finished with a 13-7 record and a 4-3 mark in the Ivy League, Dartmouth’s best conference record in 13 years. The team was ranked nationally — at one point as high as 71st in the nation — for four weeks during the season.
“We were able to be successful by fighting hard in matches and working hard in preparation,” Drake said. “Our players gave a 100 percent competitive effort, and with great depth, we were a tough team to beat.”
Drake thanked Kinyon for the team he left with him.
“I’ve been very lucky,” he said. “Chuck had a great group when I came in, making it a smooth transition. They are an easy-going, good group of guys and were willing to hear how I wanted things to be done.”
In his first two years at Dartmouth, Drake has learned a lot about the qualities of a Dartmouth tennis player. He said he thinks the most unique aspect of Dartmouth’s tennis program is how close the team is.
“Our team really takes care of each other,” he said. “They are all good friends and spend time together off the court. Most importantly, they are supportive of each other. You don’t see that on most tennis teams in college.”
Ho and Centenari agreed that the team’s unity works well in tandem with Drake’s coaching abilities. Trust is a huge aspect of the team, according to Centenari.
“Tennis players here have more than an on-the-court experience,” Centenari said. “A bunch of us live together, we practice together six days a week, study and eat meals together. We have trust in each other and believe that everyone is going to give their best effort.”
Drake said he has made a concerted effort to get to know his players, and players said he is well-liked across the team.
“I believe one of my jobs as a coach is to build relationships with each member on the team and not only care about them as players, but as people off the court as well,” Drake said.
The team thinks of Drake as a role model, according to Ho.
“He is absolutely a life coach and is there for every one of us,” Ho said. “I know that I could call him at 2 a.m. if need be. I am quite thankful that he’s been my coach for two years, and I definitely look up to him as a person.”
In addition to his personal relationships with the players, Centenari and Ho said the team likes Drake’s coaching style.
“Coach is demanding [and] he pushes us to work very hard,” Centenari said. “But he’s not much of a yeller. We know when he is serious.”
Dartmouth has three Ivy League matches left. The Big Green faces Brown tomorrow at home at 2 p.m., and Yale and Harvard Universities on the road in the next two weeks. Drake said his strategy for the rest of the season is to take the matches one at a time.
“I don’t want the team to get caught up looking ahead and thinking about what we are in for down the road,” he said. “We haven’t had this kind of record here in a while, which brings about new challenges and expectations, so it’s a different kind of pressure. We just have to stay prepared, focused and keep winning matches.”