The pandemic has been taxing, trying, and at times outright terrifying. But imagine if it were your job to curb the coronavirus’s spread across an entire state.

That’s the reality for Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. (Talk about high stakes.) She has played a giant role in shepherding Illinoisans through the tumultuous early days of COVID-19, the rollout of vaccines, and the emergence of ever more contagious variants.

When she isn’t in meetings, talking to the media, or traveling across the state, the La Grange resident carves out time for tennis. “I absolutely play tennis matches every single weekend,” says the 49-year-old doctor. “I have had days where I have played three matches in a row.”

Matches can run a couple of hours, so that’s six hours of tennis, folks. “That has had aftereffects, in the form of not being able to walk the next morning,” she says, “but it’s very fun in the moment.”

Photography: (tennis ball, salad, water) Getty Images

What brought you to tennis?

“I picked it up after the birth of my fourth child, to get off some of the baby weight. I started taking drills at the tennis club. It totally became an obsession.”

What sort of player are you?

“I’m a doubles player and an aggressive net player. I’m the one closest to the net, just waiting for you to put it anywhere near me so I can slam it down. I’m releasing quite a bit of aggression, tension, and stress with every slam.”

What do you eat on a typical day?

“I’ve been doing intermittent fasting for a long time, before it was a thing. I’m not a breakfast person. I eat around 2 p.m., and I always have a chicken salad delivered for lunch. My assistant and I try to mix it up — avocado chicken salad, Mediterranean chicken salad. And I push myself to drink a lot of water.”

How do you unwind?

“At the beginning of the pandemic, my kids wanted pets. I said no, but I was getting a little weak, so I quickly said yes when they came up with the idea of a COVID hot tub. I am grateful that I conceded — it’s paying some dividends now.”