Feb. 10, 2015
Billy Pecor was struggling with his tennis game in August and September – the battle that takes place within – when he went into the University of Notre Dame men's tennis office at the Eck Tennis Pavilion for a heart-to-heart talk with Fighting Irish men’s tennis assistant coaches Adam Schaechterle and Cris James.
“I was going through a rough patch in August and September,” said Pecor, a senior from Houston, Texas. “I was at one of my all-time lows, a little physically, but mentally, struggling with competing and finding that spark. I was completely struggling with that.”
That's when Schaechterle fired a question that had the impact of a 120-mile-an-hour serve:
“What do you want your legacy to be here when you leave?”
“That was something that really struck hard,” Pecor said. “It's something that you don't consciously think about a lot, but that really hit a trigger. From then on, we've been constantly working to better myself on and off the court, being more positive during practices, coming out with more energy, affecting the team in a completely different way.”
Pecor has thrived since becoming committed to leaving the Eck courts on a positive note. He is 4-1 in dual-match competition at No. 5 singles and 5-1 with Alex Lawson in dual-match play at No. 1 doubles, with a No. 8 national doubles ranking to boot. His efforts have helped the Irish carve out a 5-1 record in dual matches this season.
“It's incredible for me,” Pecor said about the start of his season. “I put so much time and effort into trying to persevere through the ups and the downs. It all started for me in September.
“The start of the season is the result of tons and tons of days where I've struggled, but days where I've also had some huge breakthroughs in the fall season. I know the team is very supportive — we're all supportive of each other. This is a very close team. That makes it easier to push hard because everyone pushes each other. I've done pretty well at the start of the season, but even then I'm still not satisfied with some areas of my game. This is just the beginning of all the work I've put in since August and September.”
Irish head coach Ryan Sachire said Pecor has emerged as a key leader for the Irish, who hope to contend for Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA glory this season.
“Billy's experience for our team has been invaluable,” Sachire said. “Billy's seen a lot, done a lot and won a lot for us. When you have a team that doesn't at the moment have any other seniors in the starting line-up, and while the juniors and sophomores who are in the line-up have some experience, they just haven't seen as many wars as Billy has. So I think any time you have that kind of veteran leadership and experience, it's invaluable to any team.
“There have been ups and downs Billy has had to deal with. I think he's matured at Notre Dame. He's grown at Notre Dame. I think a lesser person with lesser character — and I have to credit his family on this, too — maybe leaves and goes somewhere else or packs it in and doesn't invest emotionally in his rehab and recovery time after time. To Billy's credit he's always stuck with it, and he's always come back from the injuries with a passion and an enthusiasm. It's really meaningful. Everybody knows how much Billy really wanted to have a great last year here. It's fun to see him off to a great start.”
Pecor's doubles partner, Lawson, said Pecor has given the Irish a huge boost with his positive energy.
“Billy is huge emotionally for our team,” Lawson said. “Even on a bad day he brings so much energy and he's so enthusiastic. That helps a lot of guys out. In doubles we're at our best when he's bringing enthusiasm. We're bombing serves, putting away volleys, yelling after every point, getting super pumped up, screaming — it's incredible. Billy has definitely battled through his fair share of injuries. He's been in and out with that stuff. The guys look at how he's been able to stick with it and now look at his results. He's really a good example for the younger guys.”
Pecor endured knee injuries his freshman season. Painful tendinitis was compounded by small tears in both of his patella tendons. He ended up sitting out the entire season. Toward the end of his sophomore season he needed shoulder surgery. As a junior he battled ankle injuries and muscle pulls. Frustration mounted as time in rehab rivaled time on the court.
“I'd be lying if I said it hasn't crossed my mind a couple of times,” Pecor said of walking away from the sport. “I especially thought out leaving tennis after the first set of operations on my knee was pretty successful, and then it relapsed a year and a half ago to a point where it was somewhat worse than the first time. There was a time when I really just didn't know if I'd ever be able to get back to my physical capabilities on a tennis court.”
Pecor said the drive of an athlete kept him focused on his return each time he dealt with an injury.
“When an athlete plays a sport his whole life, no matter what happens, there is this nagging inside that he wants to get back, he knows he can get back, he wants to prove people wrong,” Pecor said. “You want to get back to that point of all that hype and excitement, that feeling of joy and the thrill of being able to compete at the highest level. It's something that every athlete who has multiple injuries has. It speaks to that drive that all athletes have.
“What has made it a little bit more special is being at Notre Dame because the coaches are awesome. The people around you are so supportive. The whole Notre Dame community backs you on it. It makes you want to push that much harder to get back to that level.”
Notre Dame, its resources and its compassion for its athletes helped empower Pecor to get back on the court and be a difference-maker for the Irish his senior season. Patience and hard work have played essential roles in Pecor's comeback.
“Notre Dame has the best athletic training staff, strength coaches and tennis coaches in the country,” Pecor said. “They're very willing to help you when you're not able to perform at your best, doing things to get you back to where you want to be. You just have to be patient and understanding that there's going to be a process. There is no instant fix.”
Now that he's healthy Pecor is helping the Irish stand tall on the national tennis landscape.
“Billy is one of the cleanest, natural ball-strikers I've ever seen,” Lawson said. “There are days when he's out there, and it looks like he’s top 10 in the world, ATP … from the baseline, it's absurd sometimes. His double skills have really improved a lot. He has amazing hands. And he has some of the best returns I've seen.”
Pecor's presence has lifted the Irish as they carve out their team legacy.
“I'm definitely one of the more vocal guys on the team,” Pecor said. “I'm up there with some of the craziest, loudest, enthusiastic, fired-up people on the tennis team. That's just the way I play. The coaches tell you to ask yourself, 'What do you do that makes you play your best?' For me, it's just bringing energy, getting fired up. I get pumped up and excited to play each point. It's a good feeling when you're playing well. Bringing that enthusiasm and energy allows me to up the level of my game. It's something I've been able to call upon in tight situations.”
Pecor's energy inspires and elevates the Irish. It sends a positive message that echoes throughout the Eck courts. It's a symbol of a positive frame of mind — and the voice of a leader who has persevered and gives his team the play and passion it needs to raise a championship banner at the Eck.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent