By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Nami Otsuka tends to giggle, and although it took her a while to figure things out upon arriving on The Flats, now that she and Georgia Tech’s other three freshmen women’s tennis players are on beam with upper classmen acing, the No. 6-ranked Yellow Jackets are rolling like once before. They’re no joke.
Next month, Tech will celebrate the women’s team winning the NCAA title 10 years earlier, the only one in school athletic history (the NCAA does not award football championships).
Isn’t it funny that Otsuka, who was closest to the Jackets geographically than anybody on this team as she grew up mostly in Duluth, is helping pace them now with a 14-match winning streak?
When the Jackets won it all in 2007, freshman Amanda McDowell – who had attended Marist, about 10 miles from campus — led the team with 39 wins, third in program history at the time. McDowell won the NCAA singles title a year later, winning a school-record 45 matches on the way.
Having grown up it what for most intents and purposes is an individual sport with a father, Nobuhiro — who coaches tennis for a living, and a mother, Fumiko, who met her father upon seeking tennis lessons in Japan — Otsuka is loving this team thing, and she sure likes being close to home.
“We definitely have potential to do really well,” she said ahead of the Jackets’ final two home matches, Friday against Boston College and Saturday against No. 28 Notre Dame.
“If we play well during NCAAs, we have a shot at winning it because we beat [No. 2] Georgia, who beat Florida, who’s currently No. 1. Also, we beat [No. 3] North Carolina, which is a big deal, so the opportunities are there.”
That win at UNC April 1 was special, as it snapped the defending ACC champions’ 36-match ACC winning streak and a 50-match home winning run.
Trying to rank it, though, among all-time big wins is tough because the Jackets won at Georgia on Feb. 24. Tech (20-2, 10-0 ACC) had only won in Athens once before — excepting the 2007 NCAA title run, when they didn’t play the Bulldogs.
Tech doesn’t have one or two overpowering players, as senior Rasheeda McAdoo is ranked No. 42, junior Paige Hourigan No. 81 and junior Johnnise Renaud No. 93. Senior Alexa Anton-Ohlymayer helps out as well.
They’re rock-solid through the lineup, though, and freshmen rarely get much respect when it comes to those rankings. Here, we present Otsuka. The Jackets are 44-8 (.846) at spots 4-6, where the freshman almost always play.
Otsuka clinched the match in Athens at No. 5 singles, where she rallied to top Mariana Gould, 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 6-4 to put the Jackets over the top at 4-2 in the team score.
Tech bussed to Athens that day 4-24 against the Bulldogs, having won there only once, in 2005, when they edged No. 2 Georgia before launching a conference campaign that resulted in the first of three straight ACC titles.
“I was really nervous. It was three sets, and Rasheeda was still playing so I didn’t feel extreme pressure,” she said. “I was up in the set. It was nerve-wracking when I had match point and I did hit the ball a lot slower than usual.”
Otsuka’s been hitting the ball quite nicely since, perhaps because her nerves have calmed.
Tennis has been in her blood for a long time. She started hitting with her father at about age 3, and competing at age 7. The only child never played another competitive sport.
She hardly considered another college, as Tech coach Rodney Harmon began recruiting her first, the first day he could. The biology major is a Jacket because . . .
“Rodney was one of the first coaches to reach out to me, and I really wanted to stay local,” she said. “Also, the academics and tennis are both amazing. I feel like most schools either have more of one than both. Also . . . I’m better at math and science. [Harmon] e-mailed me on the first day he could.”
Otsuka earned honor roll accolades at Norcross High School, yet Tech was another story last fall, when she went 5-6 in scattered tournaments.
She’s 18-1 since the semester break. Fifteen wins have come in straight sets, including a 6-1, 6-2 win over No. 77 Chloe Ouetllet-Pizer at North Carolina.
All it took was adjustment to Tech’s rigorous academic ways.
“For sure. First semester, I was always on edge, always feeling like I have to do something,” she said. “This semester, I feel like I’m more relaxed and doing a better job managing my time. I get things done more efficiently.
“Last semester I felt like I was more unstable mentally on the court because I was unstable in my regular life. I feel more relaxed, and I guess I got more adjusted to college life.”
Otsuka has had no problems adjusting to team tennis after years playing as an individual on the junior circuit.
She’s been helped by all of her teammates, including fellow freshmen Kenya Jones (25-9), Nadia Gizdova (16-9) and Luca Fabian (7-5). The Jackets are 93-25 (78.8 winning percentage) in duals matches since the semester break, having gone 36-33 (.522) last fall while they – and Harmon and assistant Christy Lynch – sorted out their games in scattershot tournaments.
Tech is 44-10 (.815) in ACC play.
The entire team, driven by McAdoo, Hourigan and Renaud, has made significant improvements.
“I feel like it’s a lot more fun to play, and you always have someone next to you and they’re supporting you and you’re cheering other people on all the time,” she said. “And when I’m playing, I’m playing for more than myself.”