By Sean Conboy (DC'08)

The moment has arrived—the one when the tennis match hangs in the balance. Katie Cecil knows that precise moment is here because she feels her chest getting tight. Another not-so-subtle clue is that, unlike earlier in the match, her opponent has suddenly become very deliberate before her serves, methodically bouncing the tennis ball onto the court, where it echoes like a distant war drum. Cecil knows what is happening. Her opponent is making it easy for Cecil to allow self-doubt to creep in: You are outmatched.

There is a myth that tennis is a genteel game—a ballet performed on clay or grass or hard courts. In reality, it’s closer to a mental tug-of-war, filled with subterfuge and trench warfare. Take Cecil’s match for example. Competing as the anchor of Carnegie Mellon’s women’s tennis team, she is down a set, but she knows if she lets her mind acknowledge this reality for one moment, she’ll lose the edge needed to make a comeback.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

The bouncing ball is mocking her now: Think about the slices you drifted over the end line. … Think about the backhands you hit meekly into the net. … And, most of all, think about the 90-mile-per-hour serve that’s about to come screaming your way.

Cecil won’t let the bouncing ball have the final say. Looking her opponent right in the eyes, she clears her throat and starts to quietly hum the opening bars of the Backstreet Boys’ cheesy 1999 megahit, “I Want It That Way.”

It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd. It’s perfect.

Cecil’s onlooking teammates smile. When she hits the chorus, her opponent hears the serenade, making her swagger vanish. The match’s tension has been replaced by awkward calamity. But underneath Cecil’s seemingly goofy chicanery is a clear message to her opponent: I’m having fun, and we can play out here all day long for all I care.

When her opponent finally serves the ball, Cecil goes into bully mode. She concentrates only on hitting every shot in play, yanking her opponent around the court like a marionette, waiting for her to succumb to frustration and make a mistake.

Now it’s not Cecil getting pulled by the undertow of anxiety. To make sure the change of momentum continues, after every point Cecil cues up another song on her mental playlist: Michael Jackson. Metallica. The theme from The Lion King. By the time she sings her way to the match-winner, she has moved on to international stylings. “Sometimes I’ll even sing Korean pop,” she says with a laugh. “And I don’t even know how to speak Korean! Anything to keep calm, because tennis at a competitive level is mostly mental.”

She must know what she’s talking—and singing—about. Last season, she led the Tartans to a regional title and was named a National Player to Watch by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. The junior biology major admits it’s always more fun to win. “Even if that means embarrassing myself and singing boy-band ballads.”