Michael Zimmerman '92

Tennis - Hall of Fame Class of 2013

Harvard Athletic Achievements

If you look up at the banners that hang in the Murr Center tennis courts, you’re going to see one name repeated quite often—Michael Zimmerman. A four-year letterwinner, Michael has etched his name in Harvard tennis history. He is a three-time First Team All-Ivy selection in singles play (1989, 1991, 1992) and a four-time First Team All-Ivy selection in doubles (1989-1992). Michael was named an ITA All-American in 1991 (doubles) and 1992 (doubles and singles). Michael was also the EITA/Ivy League Player of the Year twice in his career (1991, 1992). In 1989, he was tabbed EITA/Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Michael advanced to the NCAA Singles Championships three years in a row (1990-1992) and was a finalist in the ITA National Indoor Doubles Championships.

A senior co-captain, Michael led his team to four consecutive Ivy League Championships (1989-1992). As a team, Harvard was consistently ranked inside the top-15 nationally for three years.  In 1992, Michael was named the ITCA Region I Player of the Year and also finished as the ITA Northeast Regional Indoor champion. Teammate and fellow Hall of Fame inductee Andrew Rueb ’95 describes Michael as “a true all-around player. [He] was always the guy you wanted out on the court when the match was tied.”

Remembering Harvard Athletics

Thank you to the Harvard Varsity Club and the Selection Committee for this tremendous honor, and congratulations to my fellow inductees. This is a very special day for me and I’m thrilled to be here with my wife, kids, parents, and close friends. Unfortunately, our team mascots aren’t here – my late Grandma Shirley and her sister, my Great Aunt Lorraine. They attended every match, giving our coach their thoughts on the lineup, weighing in on the doubles combinations, and offering match critiques. He thought he had his hands full with me, little did he realize that I had an entourage led by a pair of tough and outspoken 70-year-old women.

It’s only now that I appreciate the time and dedication that my parents devoted to my tennis. My 11-year-old daughter has been competing and I am now a slave to tournament sign ups, endless lessons, and pre-match preparations. And recently, my wife told me that I not only needed to do a better job teaching my daughter how to play, but also teaching her how to call the ball in or out.    

Twenty five years after I joined the Harvard tennis team, I can now reflect on the impact it has had on my life. For most of a tennis player’s life he is on his own. He has only himself to rely on. Tennis is an individualistic game that doesn’t offer the camaraderie of other team sports. But college tennis offers you the chance to play on a team. You have a built in support group that felt like a family, and a coach who, in my case, served as a mentor and a friend. It required hard work and dedication. Practices included 3-to-4 hours of playing, weight training and those infamous Indian runs, where you run in single file around a track and the guy in the back sprints to the front over and over again until one-by-one someone dropped. These runs were made even more enjoyable because they usually took place in the dead of winter at 5:30 in the morning, and had to trudge across the river in the pre-dawn darkness. And, occasionally, a teammate would take a detour to the men’s room because he didn’t have enough time to recover from a bender the night before.  

The most memorable and cherished memories were the road trips. This is where our real bonding took place. All of those hours spent in a van, without iPads, iPods, and iPhones. We couldn’t make a Carly Rae Jepsen music video “call me maybe” and upload it to YouTube and get 10 million hits. Instead, we talked and laughed and laughed some more and really got to know one another, strengthening us as a team.  

As we all know, Harvard demands a lot academically and expects athletes to juggle your schoolwork and your sport. While we all learned to manage these throughout the year, it became especially difficult during the year-end NCAAs.  Let me try and set the stage. Most schools take finals and are done by early May and can focus on the tournament. As a Harvard student, the tournament is smack in the middle of finals. Then there’s the weather. In Boston, temperatures can remain frigid well into April and May, while in Athens, Georgia, where the tournament was held each year, it was always a hot and humid 90 degrees. We’d get down there, pasty white, and after our first day of practice we were all sunburned and dehydrated. Then we’d have to pivot out of tennis mode and hit the books, because we not only had a match the next day but also have a take a final in our hotel room.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Georgia had a tradition of assigning a sorority to host each team. As captain, I would receive a call from the head of the sorority saying she and her friends wanted to welcome us and show us around. I had to embarrassingly tell her that as much as we wanted to meet her and her friends we had to study.  Harvard doesn’t appreciate how well we represented the school and kept the studious image front and center. You can imagine our dilemma, a welcoming committee of a bunch of beautiful, blonde Georgia women; the most important match of our year; and our final exams. Juggling had its challenges.

On a serious note, Coach Fish taught me many things, but in most importantly how to think on my own.  As most, I always desperately wanted to win.  In many cases the coach can give the quick easy answer, hit it low to his backhand, serve wide to his forehand, and so on. There was one memorable match against UCLA where the opposing coach was notorious for screaming at the players, “hit to his backhand,” “move him to his forehand.” I looked at my coach and said well, and he said you can do this, you know what to do we have practiced for this.  As a young freshman I didn’t quite understand what that meant and I lost the match.  But over time, I realized that he was preparing me for life, because in life there isn’t someone sitting on your shoulder telling you what to do.  Now, more than 20 years later, I am regularly faced with tough decisions, that in many cases need to be made spontaneously, and I work my way through them, strengthened by Coach Fish’s subtle but powerful influence.

A big part of tonight is looking back on all the amazing things Harvard and Harvard athletics provided me. Sports taught me how to deal with adversity, how to fight when the chips are down and how to step on the accelerator when you’re cruising. As accomplished athletes, we all know that great feeling when everything is working – there is nothing better. But we also all know that feeling when you can’t hit the broad side of a barn and you want to quit. But none of us did, we all persevered and that made us stronger. It is these life lessons that I have carried with me and hope to instill in my kids.

Harvard is an amazing institution that has helped me in every way. My coach Dave Fish is a legend. I was blessed with fantastic teammates, several of whom remain close friends today. I want to thank my parents for urging me to push myself; my dad for the long weekends and late nights spent making me hit that extra serve and run that last sprint; my mom for her toughness and her emphasizing the importance of my studies; and my family for all their love and support. What an exciting day and a tremendous honor. Thank you.