Oku leaves mark on Kenyon tennis

Former Red Devil and state runner-up helped lift college squad to new heights

In the third set of a tennis match at University of Chicago two years ago, Kenyon College's Erika Oku started to cramp up, a familiar nemesis during grueling contests.

"I told my coach I needed to retire," Hinsdale's Oku recounted.

But her coach exhorted her to keep fighting. And her resilient spirit responded.

"Something kicked in and I got back up and was able to finish the match and beat her in three sets," she said. "The fact that I was able to fight through the pain, I was really proud of myself."

There's been plenty to be proud of throughout Oku's dazzling collegiate campaign, which came to a close last month at the NCAA D-III Championships in Chattanooga, Tenn., as she helped power the Ladies to its first semifinal berth since 1998.

A five-time All-American, she ended her career as one of only two Kenyon Ladies to earn at least two of those accolades in singles and doubles. As a farewell gift this season, Oku received her second North Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Year trophy and finished as a three-time, first-team All-NCAC pick.

Oh, and she owns the school records for most singles (28), doubles (27) and combined (55) wins in a season.

But what the two-time team captain finds most gratifying is the upward trajectory of the tennis program since her arrival.

"It's kind of crazy because when I first came to Kenyon as a freshman, our team was ranked 30in in the nation and no one really paid attention to us," she said last week. "Now we just made it to the final four."

Thanks to Oku's play at both the top singles and doubles spots, Kenyon went 11-0 during the regular and postseason before falling to defending national champion Wesleyan. She also qualified for the NCAA singles and doubles championship brackets.

Oku said the success was sweetened in light of the fears last fall that another year would be lost to COVID.

"We really weren't expecting to have a season at all," said Oku, who didn't even return to campus until February. "We're just really happy that we had the opportunity to play."

Oku's impact on the program was felt from the beginning. as she went 22-0 playing mostly the second singles position and had nearly the same level of production at No. 1 doubles. She was named the NCAC's Newcomer of the Year.

"Starting out with such a great season just gave me a lot of confidence," she remarked. "I just felt I had nothing to lose, and that kind of mentality helped me throughout the rest of the four years."

Oku admitted that adjusting to college life initially was not so seamless. She credits her elders on the team at the time for taking her under their collective wing.

"I looked up to some of them, and the coaches on the team were very supportive of me," she said.

A willingness to do whatever was asked also served her well, Oku related.

"You have to be an open-minded person," she said. "Because I was patient and open to being paired with anyone, that's why it worked out with my doubles teams."

Sophomore year Oku qualified for the NCAA singles championship, a chance to take measure of her game.

"It was tough," she acknowledged. "I knew that I was going to play some really tough players going into that."

She qualified again this season, as well as for the doubles bracket. Oku and her partner won their first match before bowing out, and Oku lost her opening singles match in a tough three-setter.

"It definitely more intense. These girls at that level, they can play at the court for more than three hours," said Oku, noting the 90-plus-degree temps in Chattanooga. "I went three sets with her, but I do think I played some good tennis."

She recalled March of 2020 when the team got some crushing news after having begun a tournament in Florida the day before.

"The next morning we got a call from our conference that the season was going to be canceled," she said.

This winter the squad was able to resume its weight training sessions in advance of the spring season.

"We were having a lot harder practices, trying to prepare for nationals," she said. "It took a while for us to get fit again, but once we started doing that every day again, we were ready."

Just as when she was starring at Hinsdale Central, Oku's small stature belied her large-scale competitiveness and leadership skills.

"Since high school, I just loved leading a team and just becoming a team together," she said. "When I'm off the tennis court, everyone thinks I'm super-friendly and nice. When I'm on the court, I'm not a nice person anymore. I shout a lot. I'm very little, but I do make a lot of noise."

Oku's departure coincides with that of 28-year Ladies coach Scott Thielke, who's retiring. She shared that after her last singles match at nationals when the finality was setting in, Thielke offered poignant words.

"I realized that's probably the last match I'll ever play," said the aspiring finance professional. "My coach told me, 'You're a great player and you've had an amazing career. But I thank you for being a great person.'

"I just started bawling."

She has no regrets.

"Making it to the final four as a team is just a perfect ending."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean