By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Like a family that keeps going to a familiar vacation spot, Georgia Tech’s women will play in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Tennis Championships for the third straight year, and Rodney Harmon hopes the Yellow Jackets slow down and go further.
By the scoreboard, No. 4 Tech (23-5) coasted last weekend with a pair of 4-0 wins over Eastern Kentucky and Winthrop in an NCAA regional at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex. Next, they’ll play No. 12 Pepperdine (24-2) Thursday night at Wake Forest.
That scoreboard, though, drives the head coach nuts. It doesn’t always track attention to detail, which can burrow into his skin like sand fleas.
“We had a bit of a lull in the second [sets against Winthrop]. I think that some people are kind of anxious because they want to get over the finish line, ” Harmon said Saturday. “Trust me, I had a few messages to the team after that performance.”
Harmon wasn’t entirely pleased after the Winthrop match because he looks beyond final scores and cares deeply about process. Oh, and because Pepperdine is stacked. The Waves beat Tech, 4-2, in fact, in Feb. at the ITA Indoor Nationals.
Shutout victory notwithstanding, the Jackets ebbed against Winthrop after staking themselves to a 1-0 lead with a pair of 6-1 blowout wins at No. 2 doubles by No. 48 freshmen Ida Jarlskog and Victoria Flores and at No. 3 by senior Johnnise Renaud and sophomore Nami Otsuka.
Then, they won the first set on all six courts in singles. That seemed to create a heightened sense of security and drop the Jackets into a bit of a lull.
Here are three examples:
Senior Paige Hourigan, ranked No. 14, won her first set 6-2 against No. 37 Lauren Proctor of Winthrop, and then fell behind 4-0 in the second set at No. 1 singles;
Renaud strafed Winthrop’s Megan Kauffman 6-1 in their first set at No. 3 singles, and then found herself looking at deficits of 4-1 and 5-2 in the second;
Otsuka won her first set 6-4 over Aida Kelic and led 5-2 in the second at No. 5 singles only to find herself serving at 5-4.
“The reason I wish we didn’t have a big scoreboard is because everyone is scoreboard watching,” Harmon said.
“They’re trying to figure, ‘Can I finish [and score]? Can I finish?’ You’ve got to be very much in the present and play one point at a time.”
Harmon went into last weekend looking for the Jackets to play more disciplined tennis. To a greater degree, they did in dispatching Eastern Kentucky on Friday.
Saturday, not as much.
At least they confessed to their distractions.
“We just drifted mentally because we saw how easily the first set went by and that can sometimes hurt us because when you see, ‘Oh, you can beat this player,’ sometimes you just drift away and shots just start flying off the racquet,” Renaud said with a somewhat sheepish smile.
Otsuka said, “I think I was trying to rush too much . . . There was a time when I went up a lot and kind of lost focus and I let her back in the match. I had to remember what helped me get there.”
That sounded like Harmon.
Pepperdine will require serious attention.
The Waves beat the Jackets a few months ago after capturing the doubles point, when Evgeniya Levashova and Dzina Milanovic edged Renaud and Jarlsgog 7-6 (8) at No. 2 when Tech couldn’t cash in on five match points.
Had that result gone the other way and everything else same, the score would have been 3-3. Then, instead of the No. 3 singles match between Jarlskog and Laure Gulbe being suspended with Jarlskog leading 2-6, 6-4, 5-4 they would have played it out for a team berth in the ITA Indoors semifinals.
With players from Latvia, Croatia, Serbia, Russia, Egypt, Brazil and California, Pepperdine is coming off its straight West Coast Conference championship. The Waves are the only WCC team ranked in the top 50, however, while 10 of Tech’s 14 ACC opponents are ranked. The Jackets are 9-3 against them.
Both teams are 5-2 against nationally-ranked non-conference opponents, including Pepperdine’s 4-2 loss to No. 1 North Carolina in the ITA National Indoors.
Both teams have shuffled their doubles lineups since they last met, and Tech’s singles lineup has evolved significantly.
Jones (26-8) won at No. 6 singles against Pepperdine, and is now playing at No. 2, where she has won five of her last seven finished matches.
Flores lost at No. 4, and is now playing at No. 6, where she has won five of her last six matches.
Jarlskog (25-8) won at No. 3, and is now playing at No. 4, where she has won 10 straight matches.
Renaud (21-14) lost at No. 2, and is now playing at No. 3, where she has won seven of her last nine matches after rallying Saturday in her second set for a 6-1, 7-6 (4) victory over Kauffman.
“I feel like we’re good enough players where we can reel it back in and know we have to play our game and step it up, ” Renaud said. “Indoors [against Pepperdine], I actually played terrible. I played my worst tennis by far. I think we barely lost the doubles point, and I’ve told the girls if we win the doubles point we can win the match.”
Harmon is looking for focus and for the Jackets to be more like professionals so they can wrestle the Waves.
Don’t rush, and don’t overplay low-percentage balls.
“What I told the girls is if this is your best (hand held head-high), and this is your worst (hand held shoulder-high), then you become a better player than if your worst is here (hand held waist high),” the coach said.
“What really good players do is that their worst is just slightly below their best so that every day you’re battling either a big bear or a bigger bear, but the bear is big every day. But these guys, it’s like a cub and a bear. We’ve played some good tennis and we know we can play some great tennis. That’s what it’s going to take.”