It was a Friday afternoon, March 31, and the IU women’s tennis team was on its way to West Lafayette, Indiana, for a Big Ten match the next day against rival Purdue. Sophomore Madison Appel was on the bus with the rest of the team when she got an unexpected phone call from her mother.
Her great-grandmother had passed away.
Appel immediately starting crying, but hid the tears. She said she didn’t want anyone to know. Eventually, when the team was practicing later that day, IU Coach Ramiro Azcui could tell what the news was.
“My mom had told me that Tuesday that it wasn’t looking good for her,” Appel said. “But, she had been like this before and been fine so I thought it would be the same this time around, too.”
However, for Appel, there was no time to think. She had to turn around the next morning and play a match for her team that had significant implications in regard to the Big Ten standings.
Appel and senior Kim Schmider won their doubles match and the Hoosiers went up 1-0. Then, at No. 1 singles, the match came down to Appel. The team score was 3-3 and Appel was tied 5-5 in the third set for the deciding match point. She then went up 6-5 and was tied 40-40, serving for match point.
“I was so tired and stressed out,” Appel said.
Appel sent in the serve, freshman Alex Sabe from Purdue shanked the return and Appel responded with a drop shot, which she said she never does. Appel caught Sabe off guard with the drop shot and Sabe’s return gave Appel the chance to volley it to the other side where Sabe couldn’t get to it. Appel hit her spot and clinched the match for her team.
“I think back and still picture me missing that shot because the court was so wide open,” Appel said. “After the match, all these emotions just hit me like a bus. It was all a blur to me.”
Madison’s father, Stephen, said that they considered not telling Madison the day before her match but decided to anyway.
“I think Madison is one of those kids that can put things in certain compartments in her brain when she wants,” Stephen said. “She is very committed to Indiana and to her team.”
All this pressure and emotion was handled by a kid from Locust Valley, New York, who got into the sport because of tennis legend John McEnroe. Stephen recalls watching the U.S. Open when international players dominated the sport and there was a dearth of American talent.
“John McEnroe said, on live TV, that if you have a child that is anywhere from the age of 4 to 7 you have an American obligation to put a tennis racket in their hand and give them a lesson,” Stephen said.
Stephen took that to heart and the next day put a racket in his daughter’s hands when she was 4 years old.
It was the right move for Madison, and tennis became her calling card as she got older. Appel played within the International Tennis Federation throughout middle and high school, but she said most colleges pay attention to the United States Tennis Association.
So, she eventually made the switch and played in the USTA Super National Winter Championships during her senior year of high school where Azcui and former IU Coach Lin Loring saw her play.
“When I first saw Madison, I was very impressed with her technique and how she hit the ball,” Azcui said.
Appel said she originally wanted to go to the west coast for college. That was until she came to Bloomington for a visit.
“I remember we sent her out on a visit for a day and when she came back she told us immediately that she wanted to go to Indiana University,” Stephen said.
Her freshman year, Appel was named the No. 1 singles player for the Hoosiers, which she said was unexpected.
That year she went 2-9 in Big Ten play. With this being her second year at No. 1, she has improved to go 5-5 in the Big Ten, with some matches going unfinished against unranked opponents that she was leading in.
Now, playing in the No. 1 doubles and No. 1 singles position she is leading her team into the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday when the Hoosiers play the Iowa Hawkeyes in the first round.
Assistant coach Ryan Miller coaches Appel on the court for the majority of her matches and called her a “legitimate number one Big Ten player.”
“She has matured so much in the last two years,” Azcui said. “Her game has grown and she has been able to step in and help lead our team.”
Appel said she feels more comfortable this year at the No. 1 spot whereas she was more nervous her first year. She said Schmider has helped make it easy for her in doubles as well.
The journey leading up to her decision for college required a lot of traveling for Appel. She was very young when she hit the road for all her youth tournaments, and with four brothers and parents who work a lot, she did a lot of the traveling on her own. Whenever she had tournaments in Florida she stayed with her great grandparents who had a condominium there.
“They would come to my academy and sit and watch me play,” Appel said. “My great-grandma would always call me and we would always talk about my matches.”
Appel’s great-grandfather passed away when she was a sophomore in high school. This led Appel to grow even closer with her great-grandmother.
Her death was unexpected to Appel, who said that she just couldn’t picture her great-grandmother dying.
Appel said she is thankful for all her family members who had traveled and helped her throughout her tennis career this far. She has been playing for 16 years and has a lot of memories, but she said the 4-3 clinch she had against Purdue was her favorite and proudest tennis moment.
“After the match I was only thinking about her,” Appel said. “She is so special to me and I won that match for her.”