Debbie Michelson's career marked a lot of firsts. The Washington University Hall of Famer was the first women's tennis All-American in program history, dominated the UAA at No. 1 singles, and was the first woman in UAA tennis history to earn first team All-Association honors in singles and doubles in the same season.
At the time of her induction into the Washington University Hall of Fame, she held program records for most singles wins (106), singles winning percentage by four-year players (.914, 106-10), and overall winning percentage by four-year players (.855, 183-31). "I truly loved playing tennis at WashU," she recalled. "Although academics was always the priority, the school was very supportive of athletic teams. I loved playing on our home courts, but the time spent traveling to matches provided great relief for stressed out college students. We spent so much time together and shared so much. It was like having another family."
She excelled at the UAA Women's Tennis Championship, earning first team All-Association honors all four years in singles, while adding one first team honor and second team recognition three times in doubles. At the time, the UAA championship was a flighted tournament with no Most Valuable Player honor. Michelson took the first singles flight in each of her final three seasons.
"The UAA tournament was the ultimate team event," she recollected. "I remember the cheering and the nail biting. We had this great rivalry with Emory and it always came down to the wire. I loved that both men’s and women’s teams played together. It added another dynamic and allowed us to take even more pride in our school.”
Photos: L, Michelson with Lynn Imergoot; R, Michelson at 1990 UAA championship
She started out her UAA career by making the first team in singles and then in doubles with Alison Brownstein. “I really didn’t know what to expect that year and it was fun to step up to the challenge,” she remarked. “Winning both singles and doubles (flights) was very special.”
Michelson capped off her career at the UAA championship with her third consecutive title at No. 1 singles. “Senior year was very emotional. Knowing it was the last one made it even more special and I put a lot of pressure of myself,” she said. “I think the final was the best match I played in my entire career. I remember the relief and excitement after winning and hugging my mom when I got off the court. I think she was as emotional as I was!”
Qualifying for the individual tournament of the NCAA Division III Women’s Tennis Championship three times (and another in doubles) was a highlight of Michelson’s career. “It was such a thrill to compete at NCAA’s,” she recalled. “The first two years were tough because I played the defending champion early both times. It was disappointing going out early, but it made me work harder to get back the following year. Having doubles matches at NCAA’s was great because you had someone to share the special experience with and lean on for support.”
In 1990, she reached the round of 16 in singles and two years later, became the first UAA woman to advance to the singles semifinals. In spite of her great success in her senior season, she is still haunted by that semifinal match. “We had to move indoors because of the rain. I psyched myself out in the first set because I was playing the defending champion and went in to the match expecting to lose,” she relayed. “By the time that I realized I had a real chance to win, it was too late. I was so close to making the finals. I think it’s the only match of all the ones I played that I wish I could play again.”
Michelson played for legendary coach Lynn Imgeroot, who will be posthumously inducted into the Washington University Hall of Fame next month. Imergoot posted a 438-177 overall record in 30 seasons, leading the Bears to seven NCAA championship appearances. “Lynn was a very special woman,” commented Michelson. “She cared about all of us and wanted us to be happy. She made sure to have all of our favorite snacks and hosted events for the Jewish holidays. She was as much a mother figure as a coach. She was very proud of us and all that we accomplished, and respected all of her players. We were proud to play for her. I still miss her.”
An unforgettable moment in Michelson’s career was one time when Imergoot was not able to attend a match. “One of my favorite memories is when our athletic director, John Schael, had to “coach” after Lynn had minor surgery,” she laughed. “We had to teach him how to keep score, but he did a great job!”
“Many of my best memories of college are about tennis and the team,” she recalled. “We were competitive, but we always had fun. I miss the competition, the camaraderie, and the friendships.”
She also remembers the strong and consistent support from her parents, which she appreciated then and does so even more so now as a parent herself. “I can’t talk about my tennis career and not mention my parents,” she stated. “They were so supportive and wonderful. They came to a lot of our matches, including UAA’s and NCAA’s. It meant so much to me to have them there. My mom would even mail her famous chocolate chip cookies to the team.” Michelson’s mother passed away on Oct. 28, 2014. “She was my best friend,” she added. “She was by my side through all of the wins and losses, and made them both better.”
After graduation, she went to work for an ad agency in New York City and then at a newspaper in Virginia before returning home to Michigan to work at her family’s advertising agency, SMZ (www.smz.com). “My grandfather and his partner founded the agency in 1929, and then my father and his partner took it over in 1977.” Michelson has joined her brother and sister in running the day-to-day operations. “It’s amazing to be able to work with your family. My father has been a wonderful mentor and teacher.”
Tennis hasn’t been a big part of her post-college life, though it is changing with her seven-year-old twins now playing. “I took about 10 years off after graduation before playing again. I played on some USTA league teams and we even had one team go to nationals,” she said. “I stopped playing when I got pregnant, but now with my children taking lessons, I might be ready to bring my racquet back out.”
She got married in 2009 (becoming Debbie Fuger) and is thrilled to be a mother. “They keep me very busy, but they are truly sweet, fun, happy, adorable, smart little kids,” she said. “I’m so proud o them and love being a mom.”
Being a student-athlete gave her a lot of skills that come in handy as a working mother. “Being a student-athlete teaches you the importance of time management, respect, teamwork, and leadership,” she remarked. One other trait came shining through during her time as Washington University. “It also taught me that I am very competitive. That can be both good and bad!”
This story is the first in a series of features about top student-athletes in the first 30 years of UAA tennis.