Four years ago, as the deadline to commit to playing tennis at Case Western Reserve University loomed, Nithya Kanagasegar was unsure if she wanted to play.

But now, after a successful four-year stint on the team, she’s graduated from Case Western Reserve having formed strong bonds with teammates, experienced personal growth inspired by her coaches, and been named an All-American and the first winner of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s Ann Lebedeff Leadership Award.

The new award, endowed by renowned tennis star Billie Jean King, was created to recognize a recent graduate who, in addition to playing collegiate tennis, also emerged as a leader on and off the court, “demonstrated grit,” showed dedication to social justice and equality, and encouraged others to be leaders.

Impact on the athletics department

In addition to volunteer service through tennis and her sorority, Delta Gamma, Kanagasegar also was highly involved with Sustained Dialogue, a national program that engages members of the community through dialogue to foster relationships and respect.

Kanagasegar got involved with the program after a conversation with Athletic Director Amy Backus, who encouraged her to attend a Sustained Dialogue conference in Washington, D.C., last summer. After the conference, Kanagasegar knew the program would become a meaningful part of her life, but she had no idea how much it would affect her fellow student-athletes.

In addition to organizing meetings and communicating with administration as coordinator of the program in the athletics department, Kanagasegar moderated the first group in the country specifically for student-athletes.

Through those discussions, student-athletes gained new perspectives on topics such as gender.

“The beautiful thing about Sustained Dialogue is that you can see the change happen right then,” she said. “Even just one of those experiences across the whole semester is so meaningful, but we had that several times during our dialogue and that was really great.”

But the Sustained Dialogue group had even broader implications: Kanagasegar and other students involved made a plan for the university to better address mental health care for student-athletes.

As a result of the students’ work, CWRU coaches received suicide-prevention and -awareness training. They also made a push for counselors to be present at physicals

“Our coaches know everything about our physical health and they know about our grades. We felt they didn’t really know about our mental health. But mental health affects performance almost equally as much as physical health does,” Kanagasegar said. “Looking forward, the group’s probably going to do some more things to benefit the community as a whole. I’m excited to see where that goes.”

Achievements on the court

Kanagasegar had a big senior season. Just a few weeks ago, she and her doubles partner, first-year Madeleine Paolucci, became Case Western Reserve’s first women’s tennis players to be named All-Americans after winning in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Division III Doubles Tournament. They ultimately finished their season 23-9 in doubles, a mark that ties the program record for most wins in a single season.

“Anyone who’s known me for more than 10 minutes knows that I’ve always wanted to become an All-American, so finally being able to achieve that goal was like icing on the cake,” Kanagasegar said.

Throughout her career at Case Western Reserve, Kanagasegar earned a 76-32 doubles record, with the most wins of any Spartan women’s tennis player in program history. Her 56-48 singles record puts her in third place in program history.

During the 2016 season, Kanagasegar also was named the University Athletic Association’s Most Valuable Player, a program first.

Last month, Kanagasegar graduated from Case Western Reserve with her degree in biomedical engineering.

“It’s obviously very sad for me because I’m done now, but I’ll definitely look forward to supporting the team however I can in the future,” she said.

She’s already started doing that by winning the ITA Ann Lebedeff Leadership Award, as the recipient’s tennis program receives a $1,000 donation. As the winner, Kanagasegar also receives a postgraduate scholarship, which she plans to use to attend medical school following a gap year working at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.

It’s not lost on Kanagasegar that many of the accolades she’s earned reflect back to that choice she made years ago to join the team.

“I am so thankful for that decision because playing tennis has been the single most meaningful and impactful part of my career,” Kanagasegar said. “I’ve learned so much from my teammates and from my coach.”