By Dale Long
Competitive athletes usually filter out crowd noise and other sounds as they concentrate on winning their matches. But for Natasha Basma, a partially deaf tennis player at Florida Atlantic University, noise is not a concern but rather a challenge.
Basma has overcome her hearing issue to be one of the top Florida Atlantic singles players in her second college season. She posted 10 victories last season, including winning five of six matches at No. 3 singles.
Basma is the only deaf women’s tennis player in Division I and one of only three among all NCAA divisions for the 2010-11 season, according to deafdigest.com .
Doctors say that Basma was most likely born with severe to profound hearing loss, but it wasn’t discovered until she was 2-years-old through hearing tests. Regardless of the condition, Basma has excelled in athletics and academics throughout her life. She performed in ballets, and she played basketball, volleyball and swimming before turning to tennis.
“I have never regarded my hearing loss as a handicap since the moment I began wearing hearing aids when I was 2 years old,” said Basma. “Unfortunately, many people today think of hearing loss as a disability. I think of it as like not being able to see well. They have glasses for that kind of disability. In my case, I wear hearing aids for my hearing loss.”
Basma said tennis attracted her as an individual sport. “I found a lot of pleasure doing something that I really love,” she said. “I wanted a sport to make me feel good about myself and to prove my abilities.”
She emerged as a major contributor during her freshman year, winning six of her final 10 matches. She posted a four-match winning streak during the middle of the season and played an instrumental role in Florida Atlantic picking up Sun Belt Conference victories over the Louisiana-Lafayette and Middle Tennessee. She spent most of the season at No. 3 singles, but also played matches at No. 2, No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6, and doubles.
The practical challenges
Being deaf has presented several challenges for Basma on the tennis court. She can’t hear an opponent make a call that determines whether a serve or volley hits beyond the boundaries. She also can’t hear the sound of the ball hitting her racket, a string snapping on her racket or the ball tipping the top of the net.
“Hearing loss will not prevent anyone from being a top player if you have the will and perseverance to succeed,” she said. “My advice: Don’t let any obstacles or people take you down. If you pass that stage of your life, you feel like you can do anything.”
Florida Atlantic coach Marcy Hora-Cava said Basma isn’t afraid to make her presence felt on the court, shouting words of encouragement to her teammates during matches.
“It is not a challenge coaching a deaf student-athlete like Natasha. but it is an adjustment with more non-verbal communication,” Hora-Cava said. “Natasha yells a lot at her teammates for support. Her teammates treat her no differently. Her doubles partner will make more contact with her in setting up a game plan prior to the point.”
Hora-Cava has had to develop new techniques when communicating with Basma in practices or matches.
“I may communicate with some of the other girls on the team with a fist pump after a good game or shot, and they feed off of that energy,” Hora-Cava said. “Unless Natasha looks right at me after the point, I cannot give those same pointers to her during a match because she just won’t hear it.”
Basma said that she likes that her teammates don’t give her any special treatment. If she misses a practice instruction from Hora-Cava, her teammates will pass along what’s required for a special-training technique.
“My teammates help me when I need it, and I enjoy being with them,” Basma said.
After being a standout in Boca Raton, playing in several international tournaments and earning a career-high 39th ranking among Florida amateur players, Basma decided to play collegiately at her hometown university. It allowed her parents, originally from Beirut, Lebanon, to continue to follow her performance.
“I love the fact that they support the team and watch me play,” Basma said. “I don’t take it for granted. A lot of international players wish that they could have some family members watching them. I appreciate every time that my parents come to see me and the team play.”
Hora-Cava acknowledged the important role family has played for Basma’s personal and athletics success at Florida Atlantic.
“Her family is her backbone,” the coach said. “I have sat next to them during a match and tried to give Natasha encouragement. Later in the match, she can just look at her mom and it is almost like they are talking through the emotions of their eyes. It is amazing to see how they communicate without saying a word.”
Off the court, Basma also excels in the classroom with a 3.4 grade-point average. She is a biology major who wants to be a dermatologist.
“I am interested in beauty and cosmetics, so I find the field of medicine of interest and enjoyable,” she said. “Although looks are not important, it makes a difference with a person’s inner confidence.”
Dale Long is an assistant director of media relations at Florida Atlantic University.