By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
As Georgia Tech’s transition began, there were bumps for the women’s tennis team last week when the Yellow Jackets opened in the Duke Invitational, yet nothing happened to take shine off of what will likely be a top-10 squad once rankings begin.
The winds and rain of Tropical Storm Irma canceled the team’s first practice on 9-11, so when newcomers Ida Jarlskog and Vicky Flores joined sophomores Nadia Gizdova, Nami Otsuka and Kenya Jones in Durham, there were questions.
Answers began rolling in while Jarlskog and Flores each won two of their three matches, and the Jackets won nine of 15 overall.
More important were the signs of chemistry.
“It was great to see Nami, Nadia and Kenya step up as leaders and show the freshmen how we do it,” said assistant coach Christy Lynch, who made the trip. “They were rooting each other on, saying, ‘Here we go Jackets,’ and ‘Let’s go Tech!’
“It was good just to get some matches under the belt . . . We practiced Tuesday and Wednesday, left Thursday and practiced there. We really only had two practices.”
There’s enough information in to feel good about Tech.
When the Jackets last played for real, they fell to Oklahoma State in the NCAA’s Sweet 16 in May to finish with a No. 9 national ranking.
Five players return from that squad, including seniors Johnnise Renaud and Paige Hourigan, ranked as the Nos. 23 and 49 players in the nation, respectively, by the ITA.
The elders and head coach Rodney Harmon did not travel to Duke, where No. 103 Jones and the No. 111 Otsuka each won two of three matches in their respective flights. Gizdova won her final contest in straight sets.
Coming from Fort Dodge, Iowa, Flores is the ITA’s No. 7-ranked freshman/newcomer in the nation, and from Lund, Sweden, Jarlskog is No. 8.
The Jackets, who reached the ACC championship match before falling 4-3 to North Carolina, have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
No wonder Jones was smiling so broadly before practice the other day.
“We have some great incoming freshmen,” she said. “I’m really excited to see what we’re going to do. I feel like we’re going to be really good.”
Doubles were a bit sticky at times at Duke, but Harmon and Lynch have plenty of time to explore combinations before the Jackets will begin playing dual matches and take on the ACC next spring.
The fall is about seasoning, sorting, conditioning and fine-tuning.
“I think going into the fall you have more to work on just because you have more time before going into conference because that’s when it really matters,” Jones explained. “It’s also when you’re getting in shape, building yourself up for conference.”
For freshmen, it’s a learning experience to be sure.
Where Jones spent the bulk of her summer in school at Tech while working on her game, Flores traveled extensively and played in a slew of tournaments, including the Wimbledon and U.S. Open juniors.
The team structure is new to her, and she’s already a fan.
“Everything is different. The scheduling is a lot different. The practices are different, but they’re fun and I like it a lot better,” Flores said. “Usually, you have to focus on yourself, other than doubles.
“Out here, you focus on everyone and you have more support other than just coaches and my friends. I have a bunch of other people helping me out . . . It was fun to go to my first competition as a team, not just by myself.”
The seven Yellow Jackets are working as a group again with the goal of surpassing last season’s squad, from which Rasheeda
McAdoo and Alexa Anton-Ohlmeyer graduated and Luca Fabian transferred to Alabama.
They certainly have inventory.
Last season, including the fall and spring campaigns, Renaud was 24-8 and 12-1 in the ACC at No. 1 singles. Add Hourigan (22-11, 10-3), Jones (32-12, 11-2), Otsuka (30-8, 12-1), Gizdova (17-9, 3-2) and the blue-chip freshmen, and Tech has all kinds of incentive.
“It went great. It was fun to see the girls in action,” Lynch said. “The tournament went better as it went along. Some nerves the first day, especially the freshmen. I see some huge potential . . . The biggest trouble was in doubles just because they haven’t learned the specifics of playing with each other.”
The Jackets have nearly three weeks to continue grooming their games before at least three of them – Hourigan, Flores and Jarlskog -- will play in the Sumter (S.C.) 25K, a United States Tennis Association professional tournament.
While there will be a total prize purse of $25,000 there, Tech players will not by NCAA rules be allowed to take prize monies if they win them other than to cover travel expenses.
“It’s nice because a lot of our girls want to play professional tennis, and some of them do in the summer,” Lynch said. “Some have aspirations to play after college, and it’s important to expose them to the pro environment.”