Neha Uberoi was just 17 years old — and one year into her Princeton career — when she decided to leave college and become a professional tennis player. Two years later, she stood at the service line facing Martina Navratilova, one of her childhood idols, in the U.S. Open.
“I think about it and my hands start sweating,” Uberoi said in October, recalling the doubles match that was one of the highlights of her five-year career. “Granted, I didn’t play too well because I was focusing on her, but it was still amazing.”
This fall, Uberoi returned to Princeton, leaving the pro circuit and picking up where she left off as the newest member of the Class of 2012. A Forbes College dorm took the place of hotels at pro tour stops, and nerves about midterms replaced pre-match jitters. It is, she said, “a pretty typical student existence.”
Uberoi’s case is not without precedent. Several Princeton athletes who entered the pro ranks before completing their degrees returned to campus, sometimes after long layoffs. Men’s basketball star Brian Taylor ’84, for example, left after his junior year and finished his studies after a successful decade as an ABA and NBA player. (Shikha Uberoi, Neha’s older sister and frequent doubles partner, entered Princeton with the Class of 2004 but left early to start her tennis career; she still plays professionally and plans to come back to college someday.)
Neha, 23, said that while it took time to adjust to taking classes again, maturity has brought a new sense of confidence: Today, she’s more vocal in class discussions than she was as a freshman.
The other pro athlete in Princeton classrooms this fall is David Hale ’10, an operations research and financial engineering major who also is a rookie pitcher in the Atlanta Braves organization. Hale plans to complete his senior year in the fall of 2010, since spring training overlaps with the second semester. (Classmate Jack Murphy, a minor-league catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, is taking the year off from school but also expects to return to Princeton.)
Since going pro, Hale said he has made a few minor changes in his campus routine. While his roommate wakes up early for team workouts, Hale sleeps in and goes to the gym after class. Friends rush off to job interviews, but Hale has been able to leave his suit in the closet.
Hale, who was Atlanta’s third-round draft choice, said that his first few months pitching for a paycheck did not feel any different from playing in college. “I thought it might, but it didn’t,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing that I don’t see it that way. It’s still fun.”
Uberoi, on the other hand, rediscovered some of her sport’s appeal after retiring. “I get to see tennis from a different perspective,” she said. “I can enjoy the act of hitting a tennis ball, which you kind of lose as a pro.”
Uberoi plays occasionally with members of the Princeton women’s tennis team. She spends her free time getting reacquainted with the campus and making new friends. At first, every introduction included an explanation — she was self-conscious about being the only 23-year-old in her classes — but that awkwardness has passed.“A lot of times I don’t tell people my age or what I did,” she said, “just so that I get to know them as they are — as a sophomore at Princeton.”