‘A labor of love’ – women’s tennis head coach reflects on 25-year coaching career

Villucci began coaching at URI in 1993. Photo Courtesy of: gorhody.com

In 1975, before the introduction of Title IX, Cranston High School East did not have a girls tennis team.

Determined to continue playing the sport she had grown to love from an early age, a young Val Villucci decided this would not stop her. After making her case in front of the school board, she finally got her chance to step onto the court – as a member of the boys tennis team.

This marked the beginning of a long and illustrious tennis career that eventually took Villucci back to her roots in the Ocean State.

Fast forward to 2023.

After 25 years across three stints at the helm of the University of Rhode Island women’s tennis team dating back to 1993, Villucci recently announced her retirement as head coach after more than a half-century of involvement on and off the court.

Villucci recalls picking up her first racket when she was around the age of 13 as a simple family activity. For her though, it quickly became much more. The minute Villucci held the racket in her hands, it was love at first sight. 

“Once I got introduced to it, I kind of got bit by the bug,” Villucci said. “Once I started, I didn’t stop. I just kind of went all-in on it and started practicing hours upon hours, sitting and biking my way to the tennis courts and just playing all day during the summer months.”

For Villucci, she quickly discovered her passion for mentorship soon after discovering her love for playing. She began teaching at a local recreation facility as soon as she was old enough to work, and it was at this point that she knew she had a future as a coach.

When she was finally able to secure her spot on the boys’ tennis team in high school, her career truly began to blossom. As one of the first girls in her school district to compete on a boys’ team, Villucci eventually worked her way into the lineup and into regular competition. 

“That was a really good experience to be honest, the guys were very, very good for welcoming me to the team,” Villucci said. “I did take a spot away from one of the players in the lineup, but they were still really good about it…The coach was more resistant to having a female on the team than the guys were, but maybe that’s just a high school guy thing, you know?”

Eventually, Cranston formed a girls’ team during Villucci’s senior year. It was here where a successful season earned Villucci an All-State honor, along with aspirations to continue her playing career in college. After spending a summer training in Europe before her freshman year, she eventually embarked on her next journey – playing Division I collegiate tennis for a star-studded Rollins College team in Florida as a walk-on. 

“We were among the top 25 teams in the country,” Villucci said. “It was before women’s sports really started taking off, so our college coach really knew nothing about tennis, which was pretty ironic…I was kind of the one that was running the practices because there wasn’t anything there that was really structured, so that’s kind of when my coaching kicked in.”

Despite not having an experienced coach, the Rollins squad during Villucci’s time was full of talent. One of Villucci’s teammates, Wendy White, would go on to spend 13 years on the professional tour, reaching the top 30 in the world rankings.

Villucci also tested the waters when it came to playing professionally, spending less than a year on tour before she realized that it was not for her. The brutal nature of the professional game often means that most players outside of the top 100 actually lose money competing, spending weeks upon weeks on the road living out of a suitcase. Villucci knew such a sacrifice was not in the best interest of her and her family, so she decided to fully commit to the coaching route. 

“It [the professional tour] is an expensive road, it’s a rough road, it’s not as glamorous as people may think, especially when you’re having to pay your way through the tournament,” Villucci said.

She began her coaching career with the Smithfield High School boys tennis team in Rhode Island from 1983-89. She would go on to spend time teaching at the Tennis Club in Cranston, including two years as the club’s top professional. She landed at URI in 1993 where she led the women’s program for 11 years, eventually becoming the first full-time head coach in program history, according to gorhody.com.

In 2004, Villucci took over as the head coach for the men’s team, where she remained for the final four years of her first stint with Rhode Island. With the head coach at the time set to retire, Villucci felt that she made the move in the best interest of the program.

“I know there was a little bit of chatter of the men’s team being cut,” Villucci said. “I was hoping having myself there taking over the program would discourage the program from being cut, but it didn’t.”

Villucci’s first chapter in Rhode Island eventually came to a close in 2008, but it was only a matter of time before she would represent Keaney Blue once again.

Off the back of yet another coaching departure, this time on the women’s side, Villucci would return to URI just one year later to fill the vacancy. Her second stretch in Rhode Island would see her take charge until 2015, where she continued the work she started in 1993, building the program from the ground up.

“We started the program from basically [where] it might have been a little bit better than club level,” Villucci said. “Through the years, we just kept building the program and got it to a really good place…At that point in time, it just felt like I had done what I needed to do for the program, and it was someone else’s time.”

During her second stint, Villucci played an instrumental role in the rebuilding of URI’s tennis complex, including the construction of a $350,000 dollar spectator pavilion on top of a $500,000 complex renovation, according to gorhody.com. 

Following her second chapter in the Ocean State, Villucci returned to Florida for a brief period for the first time since her collegiate days, becoming the head coach of Bethune-Cookman for both the men’s and women’s programs. 

However, Villucci still could not separate herself from URI. After watching the team suffer what she described as a “nosedive,” she once again took over the head coaching role up north in October of 2019, where she stayed up until the announcement of her retirement.

“It comes with so much emotion, because of the fact that I’ve just been doing it for so long,” Villucci said. “It’s been my life.”

Villucci’s 25-year tenure at Rhode Island saw her bring the program from a bottom-tier Atlantic-10 squad to a program-best number 95 in the International Tennis Association (ITA) Top 100 rankings in 2021.

“[It was] definitely a labor of love,” Villucci said. “When I was hired, I was part time with full time duties for 22 years…A lot of years with sacrifice, because I was working another job to be able to do it.” 

According to assistant coach Tracy-Lee Miller, who has worked with Villucci since joining the team in 2019, Villucci’s impact in the Rhode Island tennis community is almost impossible to ignore.

“The University of Rhode Island tennis program would not be where it is today without Val Villucci,” Miller said. “She’s dedicated her life to this program, she’s sacrificed a lot for this program to be as dedicated as she is. You don’t choose this as a career without having a strong desire to lead and to mentor and to want to have a positive impact on these athletes and their lives.”

After 25 years giving her life to the sport of tennis at URI, Val Villucci has made a lasting impact on the sport in her home state. Now, with the program looking up under her leadership, she has one last Atlantic 10 tournament with her team before officially bringing a decorated career to a close.