Her jewelry line is titled Love Tennis by Hazel, but Hazel Nussbaum comes by her love the hard way, like me, with lots of Hate mixed in.
"My coach said, 'I love hitting with you because we've hit 100 balls and you've probably only missed five, but you got pissed every time you missed those five balls.'"
We shared a knowing look.
"I forget the 95 that were good. I'm focused on the five that were bad." Oh, yeah, she's a Hater, all right.
I met Hazel at her vendor's booth at the WTA's New Haven Open in New Haven, Connecticut last August. But I knew of her before that.
Around June, I was searching online for ideas to field to my husband for my birthday (further proof that behind every great man is a smarter, better-organized woman) and I found her sophisticated line of tennis-inspired jewelry. Mark had dutifully ordered one of her bracelets for me, but it had not arrived by my Red Letter Day (August 19, Haters. Note it in your calendars. Address provided for flowers and gifts upon request.)
"Guess who's one of the vendors this year?" Mark had asked me while we watched Marion Bartoli and Sloane Stephens slug out a 3-setter. "The lady who's making your bracelet! Maybe we can pick it up at her booth."
We could not. Nussbaum has been swamped by orders since launching her line in May. By the end of June, she had received 100 of them, based solely on word of mouth and people like me trolling the Internet for something beside a T-shirt that would express our love of tennis.
Nussbaum came up with the idea for her business two years ago while conducting a similar search. Her mixed doubles team had reached the USTA League nationals in their division (more on that in a moment) and she was looking on site and online for a piece of jewelry to mark the occasion.
"When I travel, I buy jewelry as souvenirs," she said. "I could not find anything decent. It was either $2 and wasn't enough for me about tennis, or it was expensive but ... over the top, very literal."
"They were not stylish, in my opinion."
Exhibit A: the necklace at right. It takes Tennis Hate to a new, visceral level.
Nussbaum noodled around with some designs, relying on her background at Unilever as a senior brand manager for St. Ives, which makes deodorants, body washes and lotions.
Encouraged by tennis buddies, who were ordering Hazel Nussbaum found a manufacturer in Rochester, quit her Unilver job and poured her savings, and passion, into Love Tennis by Hazel.
"I'm a tennis nut. I love it, love it, love it. It's a borderline obsession, in a bad way. And I love jewelry to the same degree."
Hazel Nussbaum came by her tennis obsession the way most of us develop our fixations and disorders: her mother. Her mom was crazy about the sport and taught herself and her daughter to play. "We lived on a dead end in New Rochelle and I had my baby racquet and we just hit."
"Just hitting" with mom was apparently pretty good training. Nussbaum competed in high school and earned a walk-on spot on the Manhattan College tennis team in Riverdale. "I showed up with my Spalding racquet with the zipperhead bag," she recalled.
I swear like a trucker! People are like, 'Did she really just say that?'"
She had not had any pro instruction up to that point. Her teammates, meanwhile, had played the junior circuit. They called her their "sleeper cell." They showed her how to use different grips and taught her strategy. And they policed her gear. When Manhattan College advanced to the finals of its Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Nussbaum says they demanded that she get a "real" racquet and bag.
Today, Hazel Nussbaum is a 4.5-level player. She's playing on two women's doubles teams in the USTA Southern Connecticut District this fall, and, combined, has a 6-1 record so far.
Nussbaum's 2012-2013 mixed doubles season also is off to a great start. She's got a 5-1 record with Winners All Too. That's the team that made it to USTA Nationals in 2010, the trip that launched her business.
Nationals? 4.5? Just TWO losses in 11 doubles matches? Haters, I'm Har-Tru green with Tennis Hate.
What I love about Hazel is that she gets this, gets the obsessive, perfectionist, critical voice that can get in the way of enjoying and flourishing in the game. Even now, with all her achievements, Nussbaum says she still must manage the Tennis Hate that drove her to berate herself for missing 5 out of 100 balls.
"I swear like a trucker!" she confided. "My partner laughs. People are like, 'Did she really just say that?'"
Oh, no, she didn't!
"My husband witnessed me play tennis once, and he was so horrified, he refuses to watch me anymore," admitted Nussbaum. "It's our 'no fly zone.' He said, 'All your matches, it's either you yelling and becoming a monster or you crying!' He won't come.'"
Yeah, Haters, but at least she's got the good sense not to play with her husband. One time, that led me down such a rocky road of Tennis Hate, I called my poor husband a mother fucker for executing a drop shot. (It was on my return of serve! I think I deserve just a little slack here.)
Nussbaum said her key to shaking off an attack of Hate on the court is appreciation. She learned this at that 2010 mixed doubles National championship, where her team "got trounced."
"I'm going to honor the situation," she said she told herself. "I"m healthy enough to be out here. I have the time. I've got to put things in perspective."
And when she does, Hazel Nussbaum realizes she's blessed. She gets to express her love for the game as a player, a fan (Nussbaum, whose mom is Swiss, roots for Roger Federer) and, now, as the founder of a growing business. Sales are robust enough for her racquet and ball lariat necklace, pictured above, that Haters who want their husbands to get one for them this Christmas must wait until January.
Damn! Yet another thing to Hate my Worthy Comrade, Hazel Nussbaum, for!