Shay and Dardis: Connecticut’s Best-kept Secret
By Peter Keiser
As the 2016 Nationals approach, there is broad based and penetrating analysis regarding the strategy and tactics of winning paddle tennis’ premiere tournament. It makes sense that this would be the case. But to anybody who plays the game avidly (is there a player who doesn’t?) the attraction of paddle is so strong because of its social aspects, the camaraderie it generates. The two dimensions of the game – on the one hand, the exertion of physical talent driven by court acuity and mental resilience; on the other, the fun and exuberance of the sport spilling over into post-match conviviality – are tied inextricably and powerfully together. You rarely if ever hear paddle mentioned or described without reference to both.
It is easy and fun to launch into animated discussions about strategic issues: positioning, which player should we attack, who will take what shot, when? It’s about execution and competition, paddle’s hard stuff. But the specifics of camaraderie – the soft stuff – are more difficult to put your finger on. It is an imposing force, this paddle tennis joie de vivre, and delving into the details of it can seem time consuming and sometimes a little pointless.
Enter Dardis and Shay. It is simple, really. Amy Shay and Cynthia Dardis are friends in the deepest and truest sense of the word. The bond they share permeates all that they do, all who they are. And that includes a love of platform tennis. They wouldn’t have it any other way. If you ever want to see what paddle tennis is all about take a look at this duo!
They have achieved a pinnacle of on court excellence all the while imbuing it with an abiding and vibrant friendship. They have played as a team for more than fourteen years. Over the past decade, they have won with jaw dropping consistency, more than any other women’s team out there.
This year, by winning the Philadelphia Open, they captured the first Childress Cup, the trophy awarded to the winners of the Women’s Platform Tennis Grand Prix. It is the initial year for the five -tournament event that includes the Patterson Open (CT), Chicago Charities, Long Island Invitational, Mid-Western Open (Cincinnati) and Philadelphia Open. The pair had won at least one of each except the Mid-Westerns before those tournaments became part of the Grand Prix. It was a fitting way for the team to welcome in the New Year.
So who are these two women who have been so good and stayed together so long? After all, they have won six Senior Nationals, having just captured the 50+ Women’s Nationals held at Fox Meadow in January. And that was on the back burner. Currently, they are vying for first place overall in the National Women’s Rankings. Given the swirl of young, highly trained, athletic and accomplished female tennis players turning to paddle, including a massive influx from other countries, Dardis and Shay aren’t just holding their heads above water. They’re hydroplaning!
Both exhibited athletic talent early. Shay who grew up in Darien, CT followed the tennis route. “I played other sports too, until the sixth grade, but from that time on, it was tennis. My father liked to play and he gave me a little – just enough of- a push. I played four years at Darien High School where I had only one loss. I played Junior Tournaments and won in the New England Region. I was nationally ranked as an 18-under Junior.”
“I went to Boston College on a four year athletic scholarship. I played all four years and got to play with team members from all over the country. I graduated in 1988 and one of the things that I did notice was a change in the composition of the team. During my four years, more players from other countries made it. By the time I finished, the team was mostly foreigners.”
“When I left college,” she continues, “I put my racquets away; never lifted them. I ran marathons and didn’t play tennis at all.” She did make some exceptions unfurling her racquets to play socially against boy friends. Though she doesn’t say so, it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that she found the competition, most of the time if not always, lacking.
“After I had kids, I didn’t want to turn into a stale mother so I picked up my racquets. That’s when Cynthia and I got together. We met playing indoor tennis at the Shippan Tennis Center in Stamford, CT. We found we had a lot in common especially that we each had two daughters who were the same age.”
Dardis’ path to paddle also included high-level tennis but with a different twist.
“I played four years of basketball and was the captain at Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, NJ where I grew up. I didn’t play tennis in school.”
While Dardis may not have played tennis much formally during her high school years, she was no stranger to the game. “When I was twelve, my mother had a tennis court built. We played on it all the time. There were plenty of people around to choose from but I played a lot with my identical twin sister, Abigail.”
“Growing up for us was different,” she says. “I am first generation French. We spoke French in our house. I grew up with different food, a different language, and a different culture from the kids around me. I got support from my family and my father watched me play my sports. But still, growing up was just different.”
Dardis both played and taught tennis extensively throughout her teenage
years. She does not appear, however, to have travelled the track of Junior Tennis and college athletic recruitment with all the attendant hurly-burly. Instead, she and her twin sister went to Villanova where the two wound up playing on the varsity team.
“My sister and I walked on at Villanova. I had fun. We were good. We still have a good time playing tennis tournaments together and are even ranked nationally as amateurs.”
After college, Dardis would go on to get an MBA from William Patterson University. She would put that degree to good effect as she journeyed to France to work for her father. She also managed to acquire a Nursing degree in the comings and goings of a career and life that landed her in Stamford, CT. with her spouse Ken. They have four children – two boys and two girls.
“Amy and I met when our kids were babies,” says Dardis. Now, as 15 and 17 – year olds, those “babies” have grown up watching their mothers partnering on the paddle court. And it is clear that the values of friendship, of loyalty and dedication she and Shay have brought to that court happily will extend to a new generation.
Emily Dardis and Ally Shay form the elder team; Claire Dardis and Mimi Shay the younger. Between them, both teams have won or been finalists in the 10, 12, 14 and 15-under Junior Women’s Nationals.
”Our kids both teach and they both ask us to play all the time,” agree the mothers. “They have the same mentality, same goals, learned the game at the same time. They have found something they love and can excel at.”
What the Shay and Dardis kids seem to get and what we can learn from their mothers’ achievement and experience is that friendship is at the center of things. First and foremost, it is an on court relationship forged from genuine liking. Their bond did not spring from two people matching their ability and skills so they could “be all they can be” in order to win paddle matches. Theirs is not a strategic friendship. They couldn’t have lasted as partners for this long if it were.
The dynamic existing between the two has certainly been tested. From the first tournament they won as young upstarts only to have their victory pooh-poohed by the established local duo they upset, to Dardis’semi-final, match point, double fault in a third set tie breaker at Philadelphia. She remembers it vividly because it was the first time she had been subjected to vocal, partisan fan reaction.
She learned from it and so did Shay. “We’ve won some good matches, collapsed in others, but we knew the importance of not giving up on each other. We have played through every kind of condition. We have played the back draws. A lot of the young players have no idea of what it takes to get through it all, the idea of paying your dues.”
Both see their partnership’s longevity as a major asset. In an article for paddleplayer.com written four years ago, Dardis wrote: “Although some could view our longevity together as stale or stagnant, we view our longstanding partnership as a huge advantage over other teams; we have good communication, very disciplined playing strategies, know what to expect from each other, know our roles within the partnership and are able to anticipate the other’s shot.”
“A lot of teams are not willing to invest the time,” says Shay. “They switch partners too quickly trying to get an advantage. You’ve got to put in the time.”
“Too many teams split up before they’ve run their course,” echoes Dardis.
The length and the time expended that Dardis and Shay believe benefit their partnership finds support from many who have played against and observed them over the years. Patty Hogan, herself a Hall of Fame Women’s Nationals Champion (with Cindy Prendergast, 1999) and Mixed Doubles Nationals Champ (with Dave Ohlmuller, 1991, ’92, ’95), also serves as an analyst and commentator for APTA webcasts.
“They are resilient as a partnership,” she says. “They bring unique skills to the table and they have benefitted from the strengths of each other. They trust and rely on each other.”
“As they are aging, their solid fundamentals override the amazing shots of the newer, younger players. They problem solve. They’ll adjust strategies. They have the ability to figure things out and then they’ll grind it out; keep putting themselves into position to get Amy her sliced overhead. Cynthia is a tiger at the net with her knowledge and anticipation. They have the trust factor, always knowing that their partner is doing the best she can.”
“I think Bob Callaway had a big impact on them in their partnership,” she adds. “As a mentor, he was always thinking they could be better, and it helps to have someone have that belief in you. And they were all in. Now they do what they did before. They practice. They do their homework and strive to get better.”
“They have this really strong bond that makes them a tough out. Some times you can see a player yielding, mentally going away from the game. Amy and Cynthia just don’t go away, ever. I have seen, played against, and know about a majority of the great women’s teams, and I believe they are one of the top ten women’s teams of all time.”
Hall of Famer and nine-time Women’s Nationals winner Gerri Viant put it very succinctly when she analyzed the draw for the Mid-Westerns this past January. “The number one seeds Dardis and Shay will give you nothing.” It was Viant also who interviewed Dardis and Shay after their victory at the Philly Open. “You both absolutely play as one,” she observed. “How does that happen?”
Dardis: “We have a lot in common in our lives and we live locally and we see each other. It’s the whole mesh of friendship and partnership.”
Shay: “She’s my second spouse. We’re married.”
Viant: “It’s Valentine’s Day. Do you want to give a shout out?”
Shay: “Yes, to my husband Chris.”
Dardis: “And to my husband Ken. Our husbands really support us.”
The banter between the two seems to materialize anywhere – on the paddle court, in interviews, with friends. It is an engaging thing to see and hear because it’s not strained or stiffly filtered. “We’re friends first. We do talk the same way to each other as we do to our spouses,” Shay says.
“We appreciate each other,” says Dardis. “I’m very good at calming Amy down and she helps me to get focused. We’re both equally strategists and we’re both fairly stubborn. We have to be focused and on the same page. When we have disagreed on strategy, we have usually lost.”
Over the years, the partners have gotten a reputation for playing better when they are behind. The Philly Open was a classic example.
Shay: “I don’t know why (we play better when we’re behind). For some reason we seem to like it because we get our groove going. We win a lot of matches that way. We’re not proud of it, are we, Cynthia?”
Dardis: “No, we’re not proud of it. But it forces intense focus.”
That intense focus appears to be the key ingredient in getting the two into the groove and bringing on what they both refer to as their mojo.
“Mojo for us is the positive energy and confidence each player brings to the team, making the game fun as opposed to stressful or work. It’s difficult to beat a team when they have the mojo.”
There is some quick silver in mojo, however. It can turn on a dime. Up 5-1 during the first set of the quarter- finals at the 2010 Chicago Nationals, Dardis and Shay disagreed between themselves on a line call. They lost the next 5 games to Lauren Cash and Maria Manley. They rallied somehow and won the match. But in the semi-final round, against Sally Cottingham and Liz Haywood, they could not shake themselves of their malaise.
“We did not have our mojo and couldn’t get it back as we are usually able to do so we eventually lost the match in three sets…. It was a very disappointing match to lose because we became so disconnected. We were miserable throughout the match and our opponents were enjoying themselves.
They had the momentum this day.”
Clearly it’s Dardis and Shay who have their mojo working most days. And its frequent presence in their partnership has given the team a steely durability; a durability that flies under the radar sometimes, given the incursion of young guns and their eye popping, at times game changing, athleticism. All Shay and Dardis do is keep winning and staying together, always it seems finishing ranked in the top four or five; winners of every major and minor tournament multiple times. It’s not splashy. It’s just really, really good. To some, their consistency is just a little too ho-hum for headlines.
But that is changing. Winning the inaugural Women’s Grand Prix, adding another Senior Nationals and running neck and neck for the top spot in the Women’s National rankings has put the pair in an unaccustomed limelight as they approach the Nationals. There they will do battle with the new wave at and around host venue Country Club of Darien almost literally in their own backyard.
Both partners do know what they are up against. They have assessed and adjusted to the new way the game is played. At first blush, they would agree that the huge forehand now prevalent in the women’s game is one of the biggest changes. That figures in the case of Dardis. She sees it up close and personal because her net play is such a major staple in her shot-making quiver. Shay, however, upon further consideration demurs. She notes that they have opposed heavy forehand hitters in the past. “That may not be the change and you have Ana Brzova (Nationals winner the last three years) who lobs like a champ.”
So now we come to this year’s Nationals and the elephant in the room. Through their storied career, Dardis and Shay have won everything in sight except the Nationals. Their runs in that tournament have taken them to the semi-finals four or five times but no further. What do they think it will take for them to win it?
Dardis: “ We have had more than just one chance to win it. Now it’s getting further away.”
Shay: “It definitely hasn’t gone. We are still a top team. Maybe shedding a couple pounds would help.”
Dardis: “Fitness and stamina and mental toughness for me. Even though Amy has the big guns (forehand, two-handed backhand) I am the workhorse and Amy is the flower on our team. I need to be ready, physically.”
Shay: “We’ll need to practice more than we normally do because we have busy schedules with work and everything else. We’ll do one- on-one drilling and play as many games as we can. We need to do something different, too.”
Dardis: “We’ll come back with some weapons.”
The two would also do well to follow Dardis’ own advice cum mantra as a teaching professional who believes in developing a disciplined paddle player. “You need to perform when you have to by having the patience to see the shot and execute it. And you need to practice the Three C’s of Paddle – Calm, Confident, Controlled.” They have every reason to render moot another Dardis motto: “you only lose once in a tournament and if you do, you better win the back draw.”
It has been a wonderful paddle season for the two friends. They are having so much fun -sometimes too much, according to them both. They are fast becoming the sentimental favorites to follow a Cinderella script which caps off their efforts with a Nationals crown. But as tenaciously competitive as each is, winning the Nationals isn’t the be all and end all of their existence. Would they like to win it? Of course they would! Will never winning the big one haunt them the rest of their lives? Sting maybe but… Haunt? Never!
“Winning the Nationals doesn’t define us. Our friendship and our families define us,” says Dardis. And her words ring true.
That’s because at the heart of it, it’s all about heart. And that is what their friendship is and has. It allows them to look forward to seeing or being in contact with each other every day. It is a case where repetition generates rejuvenation not stagnation and boredom. It can account for the beauty, adventure and zaniness of spontaneity like the time the two of them almost missed a tournament finals match because they got carried away having so much fun shopping together.
If you ask them about changing partners you get a response as consistent as their play.
Shay: “I never really thought of changing. I don’t think I’ve ever played any of the women’s tournaments with somebody other than Cynthia.”
Dardis: “You just can’t dump me, Amy.”
Shay: “I know. She would die without me! But really, I just can’t imagine what it would be like to play without her. To win the Nationals without her? I can’t even think of it!”