Playing For More Than Lunch Money

Dec. 12, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

You or someone you know might want to be a little more like Irina Falconi — traveling the world, breaking into professional tennis at a rather fast pace.

Chances are you’ll have to settle for watching her on TV once in a while.

Or this weekend you could zip up the road to watch as she tries to qualify for the Australian Open in Norcross. If she wins an eight-woman tournament from Friday to Sunday at the Racquet Club of the South, she’ll gain a wildcard entry into the main draw of the first of the sport’s four majors 2011.

Tickets this weekend will be $10 for adults, free for those 18 and under. Go to http://www.australianwildcard.com for more information.

A fast mover in two seasons at Tech, Falconi’s working the same way as a pro.

She left school late last spring after spending most of her sophomore season ranked No. 1 in the nation, has already played in 10 pro tournaments, and has skyrocketed to a ranking of No. 187 in the world – an almost unheard of climb for a player half a year out of college.

Even if Falconi doesn’t win next weekend, she earned the right to playing in the Australian Open qualifying tournament next month based on her ranking. She played in the U.S. Open in September.

Falconi said she “absolutely love(s)” all the traveling that she’s been doing over the past six months, but she’s not complaining about the possibility of driving back and forth from home to work next week with a berth in the Australian on the line.

And Atlanta is home. Falconi’s family remains in the West Palm Beach, Fla., area, but she trains out of Atlanta for a variety of reasons: comfort, airport accessibility and coaching.

In fact, she’s living in the Alpharetta home of coach Jeff Wilson, a former Tech volunteer assistant whose wife works as Falconi’s trainer and nutritionist.

“When I made my decision [to go pro], I asked for his guidance and he (Jeff Wilson) offered to help,” she said. “They have a gym in their house, and three courts. It’s worked out great.”

Falconi has hit on a few occasions this fall with Tech players, she went to the team’s Christmas party Friday, and she maintains regular contact with coach Bryan Shelton.

Yet she’s in a different world as a professional, where the skills sets are obviously much greater than in college, and psychological warfare is much more a part of the routine.

“At the pro level you have to make [strategic] changes within each point,” Falconi said. “They’re playing for money. College girls have full rides most to the time, but . . . these girls want to take away your lunch money. It can be the difference between walking away with $130 and $1,300. The competitiveness is just very different, a completely different level.

“It’s just really helped me so much having [Shelton] teach me the ropes and how to play college tennis, and that has definitely translated into pro tennis.”

Even after having learned so much from Shelton about scouting opponents before and even during matches, Falconi could still use all the help she can get. She said scouting is critical at this level. It is also time consuming.

“It’s huge. I haven’t been able to travel much with Jeff because he has a pregnant wife. The three tournaments that he’s been to, I’ve done well because he’s been able to scout,” she said. “He looks at Youtube videos, and watches matches. He has a keen ability from watching three points to learn what it takes to beat the girl.

“Usually, he’ll do the research for me when I’m away and I’ll talk to him on the phone.”

Falconi has taken a part of her schoolwork with her. You can find the results of it on her blog at irinafalconi.tumblr.com, where you’ll find entries about her staying not in posh hotels but rather Super 8’s, while hitting Starbucks from time to time. There are Twitter and Facebook fan page links, too.

“The one thing that I really enjoyed in school was writing essays. I enjoy writing,” she said. “One of my hobbies is to keep journal entries. I’m in the process of writing a book on the insider view of the WTA.”

It’s all about one process or another.

If Falconi makes it into the Australian open, another goal will pop up within view.

“Let’s say I get to the fourth round at Australia. I don’t know how much that would be in prize money, but that would mean I wouldn’t have to play Challenger tournaments anymore, which are the $25,000 and $50,000 tournaments. Then, I can be playing $1 million tournaments and above,” she said.

“I think one of my biggest strengths is my fight, my heart on the court. Whether or not I have my skill helps tremendously, but it’s incredible to see how much difference it can make with willpower, courage and fight – a never-give-up kind of mentality.”

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