Sarah Yang carrying on Wilbur Wood’s tradition
It was easy to tell Sarah Yang was more than just a baby-faced freshman swinging a tennis racket.
She's a 14-year-old with perfect form — something Bob “Doc” Furey, the 25-year-coach at Concord-Carlisle, considers as rare as the personality that comes along with it. Yang, the type of high school student who would rather be watching the Food Network to improve her skills with a skillet than updating her status on social media sites, is an impressive young lady, specifically on the tennis court.
That was known.
What wasn't known was that Yang comes from a family of athletes.
Some really well-known athletes.
Often in attendance to watch Yang at Concord-Carlisle tennis matches this season were Yang's grandfather, Wilbur Wood, a knuckleballer from Belmont who enjoyed a 17-year career in the majors that included three All-Star selections, and Yang's mother, Wendy Wood Yang, a Lexington High graduate who became one of the most successful athletes in Rice University history before enjoying a prominent career on the pro tennis circuit.
The two former professional athletes were among the quietest of spectators at Yang’s matches this season, watching as the Patriots won the Division 2 state championship.
“I never knew who Sarah's grandfather was,’’ said Furey. “Wilbur Wood? Holy grief.”
Furey actually met Wood years ago, when his friend, Jim Hayes, was coaching one of Wood's children in Little League.
“The surprise was who Sarah's mother was,’’ Furey said. “Her mother was very hands off, very quiet. I had to go to her after I found out how good she is. I said, ‘If you see something [in Sarah's tennis game], see me please. Help me.’
“Wendy is so quiet about it. I never realized.”
The silence has been intentional.
But it has helped shield Sarah from the expectations of being a former pro's daughter; a former baseball legend's granddaughter.
The bubble has allowed Sarah to be Sarah.
“You have your day in the sunshine and then it's over with,” Wilbur Wood said.
When Wendy was young, and her dad was in Chicago as a member of the White Sox, she spent most of each year in Lexington before moving to Chicago during the summers. One summer — she can't recall which — Wilbur was hit in the knee with a line drive and was held out of action. So Wendy stayed home in Lexington.
Bored, she needed a new hobby.
“My mother said, ‘What do you want to do?’ ’’ Wendy recalled. “I had been hitting a tennis ball off the side of the house with a badminton racket. I said, 'I think I would like to go [tennis] camp.’ ’’
She loved the game, felt “lucky’’ to have athletic genes, and improved quickly. She took a scholarship at Rice and became a two-time All-American from 1983-86. A plaque with her picture on it is hanging in the Rice Athletic Hall of Fame.
As a pro, she has the unique distinction of playing in the first-ever match of the modern-day Australian Open in 1988, the debut year of Flinders Park, now called Melbourne Park.
When it came to teaching tennis to her youngest daughter, Wendy was no professional. But she knew enough to keep the game light.
"She's my youngest, so I probably learned with the other two," Wendy said, referring to older daughters, Hannah and Haley. "Sarah and I do best when we just go out and hit. I try to bite my lip and share only on a limited basis. I love hitting with her and she seems to enjoy it, too. The key to that is saying very little.
“This is Sarah's thing. Whatever the sport is, whatever the kid is, they have to love it and have the talent for it and really want to go after it. I think it's important to have the kids lead, and you support them.’’
Sarah loves doing a lot of things. Cooking might be her favorite.
To spend time with a grandfather who spent almost two decades in the majors could surely yield some interesting stories. But Sarah is more proud to watch him in his current profession.
“He's a good cook and a good gardener,’’ Sarah said.
He used to be quite the pitcher.
Wood threw 300-plus innings four years in a row, leading the majors with 376⅔ innings in 1972 and 359⅓ in ’73.
Before becoming famous, Wood was a Globe All-Scholastic at Belmont High. His dad, Wilbur Wood Sr., was a baseball All-Scholastic in 1930.
James Wood, Sarah's granduncle, was an All-Scholastic in 1963. Wendy followed in 1980-82.
And then came Sarah, named an All-Scholastic this spring.
She had never played tennis competitively until then, when she and her doubles partner, junior Martina Daelli, were Division 2 North runners-up. Furey calls the pair Fire-and-Ice. Daelli, who recently moved to the US from Italy, has the external emotion and energy. Yang is always calm.
“She understands that tennis is supposed to be fun,’’ Furey said. “That competition at some level is supposed to be fun, at least at this level. When it can be fun, when you can release yourself from the anxiety of performance, then you can perform. And certainly for her that's pretty much the case.”
Nobody will speculate at how good Yang can be. “She's only 14,” Wendy keeps reminding. But the mental approach, which is so natural, is as good as one could be for a young player, Furey said.
Quiet on the court, with her quiet band of celebrity spectators, Yang is just doing her thing.
Expectations can't supersede performance if the two are kept separate.
It might be naivete, but it seems to be working.
“I don’t think I'm that good,” Yang said.