A Storied Chapter in Tiger Sports Ends As Gengler Coaches Last Tennis Match
By Bill Alden
When Louise Gengler took the helm of the Princeton University women's tennis program in 1980, she viewed the job as a pleasant hiatus before going on to business school.
But Gengler, a 1975 Princeton graduate who was a three-sport star in her undergraduate days, soon realized that she had found her calling as her supposed break from the real world turned into a special era in Tiger sports.
Last Sunday that era came to an end as Gengler, who had announced her retirement before the 2004 season, coached her last match for Princeton, guiding the Tigers to a 4-3 win over Columbia that left her with a final career mark of 331-185.
In her quarter century on the job, Gengler led the Tigers to seven Ivy League titles and four Eastern Intercollegiate Tennis Association (EITA) crowns. Her tenure is the longest of any woman coach in Princeton history
As she recently reflected on her storied career, Gengler said she couldn't be happier that she put her business school plans permanently on hold.
"It's been great," said Gengler, talking in the first floor of the Lenz Tennis Center surrounded by plaques, tennis rackets, and wire carriers full of tennis balls.
"I guess I didn't look at coaching as a career when I started. Women in general didn't think of coaching sports as a career. I quickly realized that I loved it. Each year is different, you have a different make-up to your team. The personnel is constantly changing. I will miss the players, the teams, the relationships and the on-court tennis part of the job."
Gengler has thrived on keeping up with the changing face of the sports world. "The program has changed so much over the years," explained Gengler, who said she has been getting around 200 inquiries a year from prospective players as opposed to the 20 she was receiving in the early years of the program.
"We're always tinkering. I go to these coaching conventions, the tennis world constantly has new ideas on how to teach the sport. There is now sports psychology, nutrition, more fitness training, aspects that weren't really part of things when I started."
Gengler was an agent for change in athletics even before coaching as her exploits on the courts, fields, and rinks as an undergraduate helped to establish the fledgling women's sports program at Princeton.
The versatile Gengler starred in tennis, field hockey, and ice hockey in college, arriving at Princeton just two years after women had been admitted to the school.
Following in the footsteps of her older sister Marjory, a member of the Class of 1973 and one of Princeton's first major star women athletes, Gengler won the 1975 C. Otto von Kienbusch Award which is given to the school's top senior sportswoman.
Gengler said her transition athletically was fairly seamless given the circumstances. "When I was on campus, the school was already one-third women," remembered Gengler, a Long Island native whose father and grandfather were both Princeton alums.
"The women on the tennis team had a good experience, the transition was very easy. The coaches of the men's and women's team got along and we didn't have to fight for court time. I think the other sports, like women's basketball and hockey, did have to fight for time on the court and the rink."
She did concede that her male colleagues didn't quite know what to make of the commitment exhibited by the trailblazing women athletes among them.
"The male students were surprised by the level of intensity that we brought to our sport," said a chuckling Gengler, who still looks fit enough to put in a tough three-setter. "They were surprised that we enjoyed working out and staying fit. Their sisters probably weren't involved in sports and their mothers almost certainly weren't."
For Gengler, achieving in athletics and in the classroom was a juggling act. "It was a balance, you did both hard, the school work and the sports," said Gengler, who played professional platform tennis after graduation and became the top-ranked player in the nation. "You go to classes, you do your sport and then you study."
Gengler said achieving that balance has been her chief goal in her coaching career. "It's tricky," said Gengler, who said she plans to remain in the Princeton area and remain involved in tennis in some capacity, likely in an administrative role.
"On the one hand, my job is to run a Division I program. To be able to do that, I have to be pushing hard at my end. But if I push too hard, I lose them. I think my legacy here is helping the program achieve the right balance, to be competitive and allow proper player growth beyond their tennis."
Things will certainly seem out of balance around Princeton women's tennis for a while in the absence of Gengler's steadying hand.