Charismatic Burke dominates tennis court

first_imgBRYAN FAUST/Herald photoIt’s 10:40 on a Friday morning. In fewer than four hours, Caitlin Burke will face a tough Iowa State opponent on the tennis court. But for now, her mind is focused on the pet ferret her roommates recently purchased.”I get home and they’re in [my roommate’s] room. They’re setting up this huge cage. … They bought a tent, a small little tent for the ferret to go in, a hammock for it to lay on. They had all these toys for it,” Burke says. “I am just saying, ‘Oh my gosh. I cannot believe you guys just bought this. Do you know how bad ferrets smell? And they’re not that cool.'”A day later, her roommates came to agree. The pet, named for singer Kanye West, now resides with Jeremy Sonkin, the top player on the men’s tennis team.”He brings it everywhere with him,” Burke laughingly explains. “It just sleeps in his coat pocket all day long.”The laugh is infectious, and it pleasantly accompanies the seemingly constant grin of the Badger women’s tennis team’s ace. Even when game time comes around and Burke has shed her Wisconsin sweat outfit in favor of a team uniform, she is still all smiles until she takes the court.Then things turn serious. In the day’s doubles meet, Burke will help deliver a victory on the first court with a duo of punishing aces against the regional opponent. And when matters turn to the singles game, she is all business, shutting down the Cyclones’ Jill Palen 6-1, 6-1 in one of the day’s fastest matches.Winning is nothing new for the standout athlete, though.”[S]he got to the point where she was about 14, and she got so good that I took her to the national championships in the summer and she got to the semi-finals,” her father Patrick fondly recalls. “It was a part time job just finding people for her to hit with everyday. And by the time she was 16, there weren’t too many people that could hit with her.”In high school competition, it would seem that no one that could hit with her. Burke finished out her secondary days with a perfect 108-0 record, having never even lost a single set of play.Badger teammate Kaylan Caiati can attest to that perfect record, having only lost three high school tennis matches herself. Each of them came at the hands of Burke.But there is no animosity between the two.”I’m the closest with Kaylan, just because she’s my roommate and we’ve grown up knowing each other for a really long time,” Burke comments of her teammate.The feeling is mutual, as Caiati radiates when the topic of Burke is raised.”We’re competitive when we’re on the court, but that’s it. … When we’re off in our apartment … it’s totally different. We act just like anybody else, not like two opponents on the tennis court,” Caiati said. “She’s very fun, always making me laugh. She has a very outgoing personality, and that’s what I like about her.”It’s now 11 a.m. on game day and Burke slips into the back row of a campus lecture hall, ready to take in a 50-minute session on weather and climate. The professor opens by giving a local news-style forecast and the tennis star scribbles down notes.When not copiously recording the day’s lesson, Burke twirls her pen on her left index finger. Though she proudly wears a yellow “Live Strong” bracelet on her right hand, she is a southpaw. And that has its benefits on the tennis court.”It’s definitely an advantage in tennis — being a lefty,” Burke said. “A big advantage with the serve, especially.”Who will be the victim of that serve in just a matter of hours?”Couldn’t even tell you her name, to tell you the truth,” Burke comments, unfazed by the prospect of taking on someone with whom she is thoroughly unfamiliar.Over the years, she has taken on a lot of people and, given the nature of women’s tennis, the scouting has never been stellar. Before rising to the No. 32 national collegiate ranking she currently enjoys, Burke began playing consistently around the time she was in the fourth grade, and her father recollects his daughter’s quick rise with a grin typical of the family.”I took her out when she was 5, 6, 7 … she was terrible. So when she was about 9, I said, ‘Caitlin, you want to go play some tennis.’ Started feeding her balls. Every ball on the strings — every ball perfect,” he said. “And within about a year, she was the top tennis player in the state in the girls’ 10s.”By the time college rolled around, Burke had accumulated the aforementioned flawless high school record and could more or less have her pick of schools. But the Cedarburg, Wis., native ultimately opted for the University of Wisconsin, electing to stay in state and close to home.”I visited North Carolina … Notre Dame, Northwestern, Tennessee and [Wisconsin]. And I just loved it here,” Burke said. “Went to a hockey game, a football game. … My family lives close by. All my cousins went here.”Having that family nearby makes a difference too. When the Badgers are playing at home, various branches of the Burke family tree will inevitably form a cheering section in the stands robust enough to intimidate any opposing player. For the final day of competition in the USTA/ITA National Women’s Team National Indoor Championships, the top singles court would be standing room only for those showing up late.”My other cousins who live in Minneapolis came up last weekend to watch. My brother, my sister, [my brother’s] girlfriend, [my sister’s] boyfriend, they all came — we probably had 15 people from my family here last weekend,” Burke recollects.And then there are her parents, a perennial constant in the Wisconsin stands not just for home matches down I-94, but for seemingly anything commutable in the region as well.With each of those matches, Burke has grown better and better, more adept at the college game. It has never been much of a secret that she was in line to claim the squad’s top spot for this, her junior season, but that didn’t stop the route to the top from hitting one minor, premature bump.It was April 1, 2005, when the Badgers ventured into State College, Penn. to take on the Nittany Lions. Then-team ace Katie McGaffigan had been in a slump and Burke was proving dominant on the second court. Head coach Patti Henderson made the switch, placing the Cedarburg native at the top of the lineup card prior to the match beginning.Then the perfect storm hit. A prolonged doubles point seemed to suck the life out of both Big Ten teams, as the late-afternoon match slowly moved into the evening. With dawn creeping, the outdoor facility shifted from sunlight to stadium lighting, something practically unheard of in the college tennis world. And during that lengthy doubles contest, the temperature plummeted. Suddenly it was dark, Burke — like everyone else — was showing the signs of exhaustion, the air was far chillier than it seemingly ever is for a tennis match and the newly anointed Badger ace was to take to the top court, which also happened to be the rare collegiate grand stand court, meaning the match would be fought in a pit with lengthy back-courts and creeping shadows.”The conditions were tough playing outside, being dark and windy,” Burke commented as she stretched after the match. “I tried my hardest.”Nearly a year later, sitting in a restaurant on State Street and working her way through a bagel sandwich, Burke chooses almost identical words to describe that fateful evening at Penn State.”It was freezing. … It was a huge stadium court, whereas normally I have a fence behind me. So I was playing way far back. … It wasn’t the nicest conditions. It was windy, it was pretty cold and dark out,” Burke comments. “I was playing under lights. I had never done that.”After a second, equally bizarre interlude at the top spot 48 hours later in Bloomington, Ind., Burke would return to the second spot for the duration of the season, proving dominant behind McGaffigan who emerged from her slump and ended her college career with some impressive victories.Today Burke is back on top and, this time, in command. Her only losses on the season have come to top-25 opponents. And, as her father notes, even those matches have been close enough that the Badger star has every right to eye All-American status.”You beat somebody that’s really good and it really affects your ranking,” he says. “So she’s a big win away from moving up.”This past weekend, Burke met Northwestern’s Cristelle Grier, formerly the top ranked player in American women’s college tennis, in what proved to be an epic battle of spin-heavy shots, games stalled at deuce and hard-won break points. The Badger ace ultimately lost the match 6-4, 7-5, but it was an impressive display against an opponent who may well be laying claim to one of the greatest college tennis careers in recent history.Henderson may summarize Burke’s rise the best, “She’s certainly grown. She’s grown as a person. She’s grown as a tennis player. And she’s grown into taking aspects of the leadership role among the team, too.”Moreover, Burke keeps growing. And since she is still only a junior that leaves seemingly endless possibilities for the relatively young tennis star.”I can’t imagine stopping after college. In two years, it would be weird to think about being done. I definitely want to try to play after,” Burke says. “It would be fun to try a few pro tournaments, see how they go … it doesn’t hurt to try. I think it would be fun.”last_img

Previous Article
Next Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *