A Game of Possibilities: How Ann Lebedeff Fostered a Generation of Leaders

Ann Lebedeff, Womens Tennis, Coach, Sagehens

Former Sagehen Women's Tennis Head Coach Ann Lebedeff always felt that her career as a collegiate tennis coach was reached accidentally.

Competing at the top levels as a U.S. junior and NCAA collegiate player pre-Title IX protections, Lebedeff never thought about a career as a coach. But the need for a job and having had strong female mentors in tennis, led Lebedeff to find her calling.

 “I love what I do, and being a leader to my teams and students has been a life-long passion,” says Lebedeff. “We, as coaches, are so fortunate to be of service to so many. It is our obligation to pass the torch on to our future leaders and coaches in tennis."

After a 38-year coaching career – 19 of those at Pomona-Pitzer, Lebedeff, retired from coaching tennis at the end of the 2017 season. Coaching the Sagehens, Lebedeff’s teams reached the NCAA Division III quarterfinals seven times, including a semifinal appearance in 2008.

Originally from San Marcos, Calif., Lebedeff is the oldest of four sisters from a middle-class family of Ukrainian and Russian descent. Her love for tennis was instilled by her father, who built them a tennis court in their back yard.

A top tennis junior in singles and doubles, she ranked in the top ten in the late 1960s.

One of her best friends and fiercest competitors was Sally Ride, who would become the first American woman astronaut in space. Tam O’Shaughnessy, who was a top junior tennis player and Lebedeff’s doubles partner, writes in her book Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America's Pioneering Woman in Space, “when Ann wrote us a letter or card she always signed it 40-love! Ann-the-Pro.”

As the U.S. faced the Vietnam War era, Lebedeff’s parents decided to relocate the family and move to Perth, Australia and had the opportunity to play competitive tennis in Australia and New Zealand with world-class players.

After a few years abroad, Lebedeff decided to move back to the U.S. After playing tournaments such as the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills, NY and Australian Championships – now known as the U.S. and Australian Opens respectively, Lebedeff was at a crossroads. Should she pursue professional tennis or college?

The women’s professional tennis tour was in its infancy in the 1970s and she decided that ‘the gamble’ wasn’t for her. Even though she was accepted at Pomona College, she decided to stay closer to home and play collegiate tennis for San Diego State. Other close tennis friends, such as Billie Jean King and Valerie Ziegenfuss, decided to take the professional path and started the professional circuit along with seven other top female players.

The collegiate decision paid off in more than one way for Lebedeff. Even though there has been progress in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), it wasn’t always the case. It took tennis icon Billie Jean King her entire professional career to earn almost $4 million in prize money while in 2017, by winning the U.S. Open, American player Sloane Stephens earned a similar amount in just one tournament.

Lebedeff’s decision to choose college also earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as a national title with San Diego State. Doors of opportunity continued to open for Lebedeff which led her to coaching jobs at University of Arizona (Div. I), Cal Poly Pomona (Div. II) and later on Div. III at Pomona-Pitzer. She would also go on to earn a doctorate in athletic administration from University of Southern California.

"To define or summarize Ann's career is almost impossible," says Lesley Irvine, director of Sagehen Athletics.

To name a few of her awards, Lebedeff has earned the NCAA Coach of the Year – five times, NCAA Coach of the Decade, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Meritorious Service Award and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Doc Counsilman Award for utilizing scientific techniques as an integral part of her coaching methods. She has also been inducted to the Hall of Fames at San Diego State and Cal Poly Pomona, and this fall, she will be inducted into the ITA Women’s Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame.

One title Lebedeff is also proud of is being a five-time cancer survivor.

“When people are ill or down, most people ask, ‘why me’?” says Lebedeff. “I asked, ‘why not me’? You always have to fight. You should always come back.”

One of Lebedeff’s former players, Mae Coyiuto ’17 is grateful to have a strong woman to look up to. “After Ann battled cancer during my junior year, she visited the courts and watched some of my teammates play Nationals,” Coyiuto remembers. “She sat down next to me and told me how people reached out to her while she was sick. She told me how much that meant to her and reminded me how the most important thing one can be is a nice person. Ann was my tennis coach, but she didn't only care about whether I improved as a tennis player.”

According to her colleague, Pomona College Professor of Physical Education Lisa Beckett, Lebedeff is a no-nonsense coach, teacher and person. “What you see is what you get, and I have always admired and appreciated Ann’s honesty and directness,” she says. “Ann has high expectations for all of the students she teaches and coaches…high expectations for effort, focus, commitment, and determination. She teaches her students to be self-reliant and resilient, skills that serve the students well throughout their lives.”

To recognize Lebedeff’s legacy in tennis and higher education, her friend Billie Jean King endowed the Ann Lebedeff Leadership Award. This award will honor a recent college graduate who played college tennis and demonstrated excellence on and off the court, leadership on his or her team, college campus and community.

“Ann Lebedeff is a champion on and off the court and I am so proud to be part of the ITA’s leadership award program that honors Ann’s commitment to our sport,” said King announcing the Lebedeff award in 2017. “By showcasing and celebrating the work of leaders in college sports like Ann, we can create a foundation for growth and success for student athletes.”

Lebedeff will continue to work for Pomona-Pitzer, where she will support the Champions of Sagehen Athletics program in order to build and sustain the athletic program at the highest levels.

“I have many memories of Ann, from her telling me "play tennis" while coaching me when I played on the team, to hiking many miles with her in Tahoe, to early morning walks with her and her dogs in the orchards of Temecula,” says Brittany Biebl ’07, who was coached by Lebedeff at Pomona for four years and later served as an assistant coach for the Sagehens for five years.

"I leave with everlasting friendships of players I have coached and all the experiences we shared during their years on the team,” says Lebedeff. “I grew up as a person because of my players. I will surely miss the everyday connection I had with every player on every team I coached.”