Women’s tennis: Family matters for the Dieffenbachs

By Kelly Flanigan

A father-daughter bond is special, but it becomes more meaningful when built on a foundation… A father-daughter bond is special, but it becomes more meaningful when built on a foundation that strengthens through college.

For George and Sarah Dieffenbach, the Pitt women’s tennis team forms this foundation. Sarah plays under her father, head coach George Dieffenbach, who’s been with the University since he was a student-athlete in 1972.

But this isn’t the first time Sarah has been coached by her father.

“I have been coaching her since she has been a little girl and first started to play tennis in USTA junior tournaments,” George said. “[Sarah] has always been a very coachable athlete. I’ve never had any reason to even think about father-daughter separation when she is on the court. She is just one of the players. I treat her like I do all of the other athletes.”

Sarah said she wouldn’t change anything.

“I always wanted to play for my dad at some point, and I wouldn’t want anyone else coaching me but him,” she said. “He is a really great coach.”

After her sophomore season at George Mason University, she transferred to Pitt.

“[Sarah] enjoyed her time at George Mason. She saw Pitt and [George Mason] as very different schools,” George said. “She thought the tennis program was better at the University of Pittsburgh. That, in addition to the fact that she wanted to complete her education closer to home, was her motivation in transferring to Pitt.”

Sarah said she loves the opportunity to be around her dad while at college.

“I absolutely enjoy having my dad on campus so much,” she said. “We’ll get lunch, then go to practice and sometimes I’ll see him at home. We have a really good relationship and it’s nice to be around him as much as I can.”

George said he also admires Sarah as a tennis player.

“She will get a lot of balls in play, be a consistent tennis player and will win because her opponent will make more errors — I like that in a player,” he said. “She is steady and uses her head, and is very consistent. That’s her style of play. She plays the whole court on the offensive, as well as defensive, sides and varies her game in terms of power, placement, spin and strategy. She has great potential, and so does the rest of the team.”

But that doesn’t necessarily make it easy for Sarah to separate “dad” from “coach” on the tennis court.

“Sometimes I want to ask him personal questions on the court or during practice, but I have to keep my focus when we are all practicing as a team,” Sarah said.

As for the team, her teammates said they don’t think the family ties get in the way.

“They do really well working together, and I know Sarah really likes the support of her dad on the court,” junior Elizabeth Adams said.

“Coach Dieffenbach does a good job of separating when he is Sarah’s coach and when he is her dad. I consider her another teammate and she brings a great dynamic to the team,” sophomore Minh Evans said.

After graduating in 1975, George, then 22, became the youngest head coach in the NCAA for the Pitt men’s tennis team. In 1981, Dieffenbach, who holds the record for most women’s tennis wins in school history, became the head coach of both the men’s and women’s tennis teams, and now he is excited at the opportunity to coach his own daughter.

“I was a rookie, I was young, and the players I was coaching were very close to my age,” he said. “As I matured, I became an older brother to those players in terms of the age differential. Now, all of a sudden, I am old enough to be the father of the players in that age bracket.”

But in the Dieffenbach family, tennis is not the only sport of choice. George’s son, Miles, is a senior at Fox Chapel Area High School who plays center for the football team.

In June, despite visiting the Panthers camp and receiving a scholarship offer from Pitt, Miles gave Penn State a verbal commitment. George said Miles wanted to get away from Pittsburgh for college and get an education from another school.

“It was a very difficult decision for Miles, and we raised him to think for himself,” George said. “He loves Pitt and always will. It was nothing negative about Pitt. He was treated tremendously during the recruiting process, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for coach Wannstedt.”

George, who grew up in the Williamsport, Pa., area, has three Nittany Lion ties through his father, sister and aunt.

“I have some blood with Penn State connections, so when I came to Pitt, it was an interesting rivalry,” he said.

Now, he said, he will be able to watch his son play college football.

“Both schools are great, but we will always be Pitt fans,” he said.