When his University of Rochester opponent hit a backhand long on match point, senior Josh Rifkin shook hands with his defeated opponent as he had 146 times before. Unbeknownst to him, he had just become the Ithaca College men’s tennis all-time wins leader.
It wasn’t an exciting point, just a long rally that finished with an unforced error. Rifkin said it was a surreal feeling after he found out he broke the record.
“I wasn’t celebrating, jumping up and down,” he said. “It was just crazy to think about, like, ‘Wow, no one’s ever done this before, and I just did.’”
Though Rifkin has experienced success at singles in college, he didn’t always excel at one-on-one.
In accordance with Indiana state rules, Rifkin could only play on one spot in the lineup during high school, so he played doubles exclusively for Homestead High School in Fort Wayne. He played singles in United States Tennis Association tournaments, but at 5 feet 9 inches and 201 pounds he didn’t have the stamina to excel in singles like he did doubles.
After joining the team on South Hill, Rifkin played third singles and first doubles as a freshman but said he ran into the same problem he had in high school.
“I would lose matches to consistent players that I might have better strokes than, may be smarter than, but they could stay in the point,” Rifkin said.
The summer after his freshman season, Rifkin played tennis nearly every day and hired a personal trainer to work on his endurance and explosiveness, and to overall just help him get in shape. Midway through the summer he had lost 10 pounds — but it was not enough. During the final month, Rifkin said, his trainer gave him a deal. Every Monday he would step on the scale, and if he didn’t lose weight, his trainer, who was trained in kickboxing, would spar with him for the entire hour-long session.
“That was extra incentive,” Rifkin said. “I didn’t want to get my ass kicked.”
Entering the summer, he weighed 196 pounds. By the end, he was down to 171 — a loss of 25 pounds. Rifkin said it was satisfying to accomplish his goal for the summer.
“I’ve always struggled with weight and kind of been upset about it,” Rifkin said. “Knowing I can really decide that I want to do it and then get it, do it to my satisfaction, is a huge accomplishment for me.”
Head Coach Bill Austin said Rifkin’s summer training exemplifies his dedication to the sport.
“He went after it,” Austin said. “He knew what he had to do to be successful, and he went out and did it. Tremendous discipline and perseverance on his part.”
Even before the end of the summer Rifkin said he began to notice he was quicker on the court.
I would be at the ball before I thought I could be,” he said. “I could hit the shots that I would usually give up on or not get to or barely touch.”
But during his sophomore season, even with his newfound agility, Rifkin ran into a situation that was out of his hands.
The day after a tournament during winter break, Rifkin felt a throbbing pain in his left wrist. At the first practice after break, he said, he couldn’t hit a two-handed backhand without excruciating pain. During the season he would tape his wrist and take Advil, and he received an ultra-sound on his wrist from the trainers. Rifkin said he began to compensate on his strokes because of the pain.
“I played through the pain,” Rifkin said. “But it was definitely affecting my game. I wasn’t hitting my backhand the right way.”
At home that summer he got an MRI on his wrist and was diagnosed with damage to his triangular fibrocartilage complex — the meniscus of the wrist. The injury required arthroscopic surgery to cut the excess cartilage out. A week after the surgery, Rifkin said he could play tennis again, but it would be nine more frustrating weeks before he could hit a backhand without pain.
“In the last month of the summer, I really focused on my backhand,” he said. “And it came back stronger than ever.”
Rifkin said he didn’t miss any time because of the injury and only recently began experiencing a bit of pain during warmups, but it quickly subsides.
This past fall, Rifkin and his doubles partner junior Jimmy Newton won two tournaments and advanced to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Northeast regional semifinals. Newton said it took time for the duo to develop chemistry.
“We’re both traditional doubles players,” Newton said. “It just took us one time to figure out what ball the other person’s going to hit and where they were going to be at certain times.”
Rifkin and Newton often play sets during practice and they are usually competitive, but Rifkin typically wins nine of 10. Newton said the practice inspires him to play better.
“It makes me want to work harder, because I want to still compete with him,” he said. “I don’t want him to continually beat me badly.”
Whether it’s playing singles or doubles, Rifkin still maintains a youthful energy for the sport. On the sideline, he jokes with teammates, his smile creeping up a little higher on his left cheek, as he watches the action.
Former doubles teammate Taylor Borda ’10, who held the all-time wins record before Rifkin broke it, said Rifkin is prone to do spontaneous things to keep the team loose.
“On a bus ride to Rochester he decided to pull his sweatpants up above his stomach, and he was walking around with tennis balls in his shirt,” Borda said.
As his appearance on the court mirrors, Rifkin is still hard set on improving. He said he wanted to workout every day leading up to spring break, even if it meant training at odd hours.
“Jimmy came over to my house at midnight the other night,” Rifkin said. “We ended up alternating jump-roping and sprinting up and down in the middle of Hudson to get a workout in.”
Just as Rifkin has worked hard to improve his game, he has put in extra time in the classroom. Rifkin said during his freshman year he was in danger of losing his athletic eligibility because of his grades. Since then, Rifkin, a business administration major, has improved and earned his highest GPA, a 3.94, this past semester.
After losing 25 pounds and going through wrist surgery, Rifkin said the small obstacles no longer worry him as much.
“I know when I have a shoulder issue or pain, it’s going to get better,” Rifkin said. “I have to stay mentally strong and believe in myself. I can dig deeper in tough times. I know I can push further.”