Palen climbs rugged path to collegiate success

The junior has emerged as a singles standout in the Gophers’ 9-1 start.

Alexa Palen plays against Wisconsin on March 4, 2011 at the Baseline Tennis Center.

Joseph Michaud-Scorza, File Photo

Alexa Palen plays against Wisconsin on March 4, 2011 at the Baseline Tennis Center.

Charlie Armitz

Alexa Palen was an All-American even before she joined the Gophers women’s tennis team.

Or at least that’s how Gophers women’s coach Tyler Thomson saw her.

Thomson, Minnesota’s 11th-year head coach, wrote “2013 All-American” on Palen’s recruiting itinerary when she came to Minnesota on her official visit — months before she struck her first ball in a Gophers uniform.

It’s only 2012, but the junior from Rochester, Minn., is making an early case as one of the nation’s top players. She has won all nine of her singles matches this spring — six against ranked teams — playing primarily at the No. 1 and 2 singles positions.

She has led Minnesota to a 9-1 record and a No. 31 national ranking through the first six weeks of the spring season. Last spring, the team finished 8-16 overall and 3-7 in the Big Ten.

“I really felt that, as she progressed and developed her game, she had the capability to be a great player,” Thomson said. “Her first two years, she was very patient in that developmental process, and now it’s coming together.”

After winning back-to-back Class A state titles and going undefeated in her last two seasons at Rochester Lourdes High School, Palen compiled a 30-34 singles record in her first two seasons with the Gophers.

She said that she didn’t know what to expect at Minnesota — or how she would play — until she developed a plan with the coaching staff her freshman year.

But her progress stagnated as she fought mental barriers during her first two seasons. Even after she started meditation and breathing exercises in early 2010, she failed to show improvements, posting a 13-20 singles record her sophomore year following a 17-14 freshman campaign.

So she went back to work the summer of 2011, training to rebuild her forehand swing and improve “a lot of other things” before the next season.

She used the team’s eight-week fall season to tweak her new forehand and become comfortable with it with the spring season in mind.

Her results showed only slight improvement, as she posted a 4-5 record. But her commitment to retooling her game paid off three months later.

“The forehand used to be a big weakness in my game,” Palen said, “and now I think I’m able to hit it and become offensive with it. That has really helped balance my game out and not allow people to pick on that one shot.”

Palen has also learned to harness her meditation and breathing exercises to remain calm during close matches — like her match against Wisconsin last weekend.

Playing at second singles, the 105th-ranked Palen defeated the Badgers’ Hannah Berner in straight sets to clinch the Gophers’ sixth straight win.

Palen won the first set 7-5 and held serve twice at the end of the second set to force a tiebreaker, which she won 7-3.

“Her forehand was rock-solid under pressure,” Thomson said. “She executed it beautifully, and in many ways, her forehand won the match for her.”

Palen said that a year or two ago, she would have been unable to win in that situation.

While Palen’s mechanics have held her back at times, her intelligence on the court has carried her throughout an up-and-down career.

She employs a unique strategy in the women’s game of frequently rushing the net to shorten points and apply pressure to her opponent. With a serve that Thomson calls “one of the biggest in college tennis,” she is often able to serve and volley to end points within the first few shots.

“It can be very frustrating to feel like you’ve got somebody shoving it down your throat all the time,” Thomson said. “And that’s what she does.”

Palen is also patient and agile at the baseline, capable of constructing points with ground strokes while defending against more powerful players.

“She’s very smart on the court,” said senior Magdalena Wiecha, who played doubles with Palen last fall. “Her shot selection is unbelievable. She’s not going for too much. She exactly knows her game, and she just executes it.”

Wiecha missed the first month of the spring season with an injury, forcing Palen to find a new doubles partner.

The Gophers have struggled at doubles this spring, winning the doubles point in six of their 10 matches, relative to their team’s success. Palen has lost five of her last six doubles matches and posted a 4-6 record while partnering with three different teammates.

“Alexa is a great doubles player,” Thomson said. “One of the challenges is finding the right combinations, the right pairs of partners, and we’re still searching.”

But as a singles star, Palen’s search for success has come full-circle.

“I’m where I want to be right now,” she said.

Palen has reached a stage where her development “in large part is done,” Thomson said.

“I think her game is very solid right now,” Thomson said. “I think the most important thing for her to continue the success that she’s had is continuing trusting herself, embodying the reality that she is a top player.”