May 12, 2017
By Luke Chval
Freshman women’s tennis player Zoe Spence had little acclimating to do when she arrived at Notre Dame almost a year ago.
The daughter of Marvin Spence (‘87), a former Irish cornerback, and Benét DeBerry-Spence (‘88), a field hockey captain playing at both the club and varsity level, Zoe had Notre Dame in her blood from the very beginning.
“When I was younger, I always came here for football games and occasionally I would go to the tennis matches here,” Spence said. “It’s pretty neat sharing the experiences I’m having here with my parents who understand what it’s like to be an athlete.”
The youngest Spence has wasted no time in making her own impact at Notre Dame, putting together a 15-10 dual singles record and 7-6 dual doubles record in her first season with the Irish. For much of the season, she led the Irish in wins — playing primarily at No. 4 singles — and will look to help the Irish advance in the NCAA Championship when they open up against Kansas on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.
Although her parents have gone through similar obstacles in being student-athletes at Notre Dame, DeBerry-Spence credits her daughter with having a more challenging schedule.
“Nowadays, there are a lot more demands on student-athletes. They have very little free-time,” DeBerry-Spence said.
Aside from the uniqueness that comes with having not just one, but two varsity Notre Dame athletes as parents, Zoe, a Chicago native and former five-star recruit, is the first African-American women’s tennis player on scholarship at Notre Dame.
“I feel like that’s pretty remarkable,” Zoe said. “I enjoy putting myself in situations that might be different or new. Coming here and being the first African-American, I hope that I can encourage other African-American tennis players who might be interested in Notre Dame to come along.”
Marvin, who along with Benét and other family members regularly travels to Notre Dame to watch Zoe compete, has enjoyed seeing Zoe walk her own path athletically and academically at Notre Dame.
“The first year is really about students creating their own connections and experiences,” Marvin said. “We have been fortunate to be able to watch her play this year and to share in some of those experiences with her. Always being open to learning something new or learning from the experiences of another is one thing we share as a family.”
Among those new experiences is Zoe’s favorite tennis memory, which stands out among her world travels as a competitor because of the impact it had to enhance people’s passion for the game of tennis.
“My favorite memory would be when my mom and I organized a tournament in Ghana in West Africa,” Zoe said. “My mom worked there, so we decided to create a tournament because there aren’t as many for the kids there. I didn’t play in that tournament but I helped to organize it and it was really rewarding to hit with the kids there and play with a different group of people.”
Zoe will enter the Mendoza College of Business after completing her First Year of Studies curriculum and is applying what DeBerry-Spence believes is a personal entrepreneurial strength to her studies, citing the aforementioned Ghana tournament.
“Zoe is very entrepreneurial and also a very compassionate person,” DeBerry-Spence said. “Having spent many summers in West Africa, she saw an opportunity to leverage the relationship she had with Babolat (the tennis racquet company), with the players and community she has come to know.”
Although Zoe grew up in a household with people who all at one point or another played NCAA varsity athletics, (her brother, Shelby Spence, is a quarterback at the University of Chicago), she drew from outside inspiration as the only tennis player in the house.
“I (grew up) enjoying watching the Williams sisters,” Zoe said. “They had a lot of documentaries about them, too, so I think it was amazing to watch their experiences and what it was like for them traveling, comparing it to my own traveling and seeing that there are so many opportunities out there. Tennis is an amazing sport and you can play it forever.”
Zoe has sung the praises of her teammates as well as her parents, all of which she credits with supporting her and allowing her to reach how far she has come.
“I would say that I have my own unique relationship with each of (my teammates),” Spence said. “Whether it be talking on the changeovers on the court or going to get food or studying together with all of them. I would like to thank my parents and my coaches and trainer for everything and giving me this opportunity.”
Luke Chval is a freshman student assistant for athletics communications in Fighting Irish Media.